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Monday, June 4, 2012

NOW FOR VICE PRESIDENT. . . . ?

The 2012 presidential campaign is following a predictable path.  Republican candidate Mitt  Romney is conducting a relentless attack on President Obama’s handling, and non-handling of the economy, which is slowly sliding back into pre-double dip recession stagnation characterized by low job growth and increasing unemployment numbers.   Since the Obama campaign can't run on his record, it is trying to find a workable attack message.  It has tried the “dog on the roof of the SUV” strategy; the “Ann Romney has never worked“, tactic; the Romney acted like a teenager when he was a teenager character assassination ploy, and now the class warfare approach i.e. Romney is rich, made his fortune in private capitalism based investment banking and has foreign bank accounts so he must be evil, approach.

The hoped for image of the Romney’s Irish Setter desperately hanging on by his claws to a luggage rack failed to resonate with voters, probably because the happy hound was in a pet carrier in a similar circumstance to those commonly carried in the backs of pick-up trucks.  The hoped for PETA vote was further diminished by Obama’s admission that he had enjoyed a pup kabob in his past, presumably in Asia and not in Chicago or at Harvard.  Campaign operatives who tried to make an issue of Mrs. Romney’s choice to stay at home and raise her five sons, drew the ire of other millions of other women who made similar choices and was quickly abandoned.  Attempts to make a 1960s high school prank into a 2012 bullying crime also just drew contrived outrage from predictable media commentators.  Recently the attacks on Romney’s business background have run aground on the shoals of criticism by the Democrat mayor of Newark, New Jersey, Cory Booker and by former Democrat President Bill Clinton.  Both made it clear that private investment capital companies such as Romney’s Bain Capital are legitimate and productive parts of a free market economy. Clinton went further, describing Romney's business background a "sterling" and when combined with his governorship of Massachusetts, a valid qualification for the presidency.


Thus while the Obama campaign tries to find a focus, and voters grow weary of the angry and predictable rhetoric of the formal campaign public, media attention is shifting to the question of running mates.  The “dump Biden, nominate Hillary” scenario has been “run up the flag pole” by several Democrat bloggers and sooth sayers, but nobody saluted so Romney’s choice is becoming more of an item.  It is conventional wisdom among political scientists that vice presidential nominees do little to help a presidential candidate, since voters tend to focus on the “top of the ticket”. We are reminded that the “first female vice presidential candidate”, Geraldine Ferraro could not help 1984 Democrat candidate Walter Mondale avoid a 49 state loss vs. Ronald Reagan. Ferraro, a member of the House of Representatives, even failed to carry her own House district in New York. 


This is not to say that a bad choice cannot hurt an already struggling campaign.
Vice President Dan Quayle, whose intellect was constantly questioned , even after serving four years with George H.W. Bush, was considered by many to have contributed to Bush’s unsuccessful reelection campaign in 1988.  John McCain’s attempt to excite his base with his woefully unfortunate pick of the clueless Sarah Palin had the opposite effect with moderates and independent voters.

 
In spite of the entertainment value of the American Idol style Republican primary campaign, the entrants kept being voted out for reasons that make them all unattractive candidates for the vice presidential nomination. Herman Cain went down for singing the old Beatles tune "I want to hold your hand" (and other things); Michelle Bachmann failed after multiple scenes from "Lost in Space"; Rick Perry lasted what seemed like about two weeks with his excerpts from "Dumb and Dumber"; anti-birth control advocate Rick Perry, who has seven children finally went down after six months of singing "I Could Have ('should have') Danced All Night", and Newt Gingrich was in confusing and  angry Don Quixote mode until he ran out of windmills and money.   


Thus Romney, whose candidacy has so far created all the excitement of a six month long PTA meeting, might be tempted to select a more exciting or “surprise” candidate for the vice presidential nominee.  However he will probably be reminded by more traditional campaign advisers to simply adopt the physician’s credo of  “do no harm”.  The current crop of most speculated candidates contains several who would seem to fit this requirement but also a few others who might at least create more interest.
 
In general terms, the speculative list, which hasn't been revealed, can be broken down into two groups, most qualified, and most interesting. Mitch Daniels, the governor of Indiana clearly falls into the most qualified category. He served as Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) (2001-2003) in the Bush Administration and has experience in the private corporate world.  He has been an effective and popular governor of his state with a good record of financial management.  The first problem with a Daniels nomination is the fact that he has said he isn't interested in being Vice President.  While such an admonition isn't rare among potential nominees who seek to protect themselves from the appearance of rejection should they not be offered the candidacy, Daniels seems emphatic. This is made more believable by the fact that he was touted as a presidential candidate but declined to enter the race.  Also, while competence should be the primary qualification for the office, elections are mostly about marketing.  Thus appearance, personality, ability to articulate ideas and think on one's feet often over shadow the more important perception of one's ability.  In this area, Daniels comes across to some as a short balding guy with a policy wonk like persona.

 
On the personality spectrum, New Jersey Governor Chris Christy is Daniel's polar opposite.  Christy is outspoken, and although a "moderate" by social conservative standards, is unafraid to take on political opponents and entrenched interest groups like unions and is willing to take political risks in pursuit of his core beliefs, which include financial discipline.  These characteristics have made him popular among Tea Party conservatives and he would no doubt raise the excitement level among much of the Republican base.  However, there are those, probably including some Romney advisers, who think that such a dynamic and outspoken running mate might cast a shadow over Romney and tend to emphasize his own lack of charisma.

Additionally on the down side, is the fact that Christy's background as U.S. Attorney for the state of New Jersey was not without controversy which would sure to be dredged up and used against he and Romney.  Also, he has been governor of New Jersey only since 2010 thus making him vulnerable to charges of lack of experience.

Unfortunately, from the marketing angle, Christy's significant bulk has generated some negativity.  He indeed wears suits that fall somewhere in between "super sized" and "Sumo" sized, and has the type of physique with lots of curves and no angles.  However, the relevance of this characteristic has yet to be identified and his personality for the most part dominates his public image.  Still, if nominated he, and Romney would have to expect a run of derision from late night television comedians as well as Democrat hate mongers.

Certain to be on the short list for potential vice presidential candidates is the much talked about Senator from Florida, Marco Rubio.  Although, research has shown that geographic balance or the ability to attract home state voters is weak at best, these ideas persist and are probably still a consideration in the vice president nominee selection process.  This would add to the appeal of Rubio since Florida is a key swing state with a lot of electoral votes (29). Then there is the appeal to identity politics and the Hispanic vote.  Rubio is a second generation Cuban.  However, the large number of Cuban immigrants and their U.S. born children living mostly in Florida already identify strongly with the Republican party.  The idea that large numbers of Mexican and Latin American immigrants living in the swing states of New Mexico, Nevada and Colorado, would vote for Romney simply because his running mate was a second generation Cuban is a leap of faith but it still is a factor in the minds of some people.

In terms of marketing, Rubio is young and articulate.  However, his youth and recent entry into national politics as a U.S. senator in 2010, like Christy, would be a point of criticism of his candidacy.

A third candidate who could be identified as one of the three top tier choices is Ohio Senator,  Rob Portman.  Portman, based on experience, is undoubtedly the most qualified of the potential candidates.  He was a seven term Congressman from Ohio, has served at both the Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) (2006-2007) and the Special Trade Representative in the George W. Bush Administration, and since January, 2011 has served in the U.S. Senate.  He is also very popular in Ohio, an important swing state.

The major problem with Portman in simple political terms is that few Americans have ever heard of him.  Also, from a marketing/personality point of view a Romney/Portman ticket would be a case of double vanilla.  Portman is quiet and competent but voters tend to vote for candidates that they like and can connect with.  So Portman's candidacy would likely confirm the conventional academic wisdom that vice presidential candidates don't materially affect presidential election outcomes unless they are significantly flawed.

There are several other names in the speculative mix but each has some aspect that put them more in the possible but long shot category.  These include former Arkansas Governor and 2008 presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, House of Representative's Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, Governor of Louisiana Bobby Jindal and Governor Susanna Martinez of New Mexico.  Huckabee has a following among religious conservatives and is a semi-popular guitar strumming Fox News television host.  However, as a Baptist minister he has taken far right positions on social issues which would not play well with moderates and independents and is probably having too much fun and making too much money to want to get into the slash and burn political world again.

Ryan has introduced his own Republican budget which makes significant changes to Social Security and Medicare programs and thus is highly controversial.  Romney has said he supports the budget but would probably not want to have to debate its specific provisions as part of the presidential campaign. 

Both governors are "firsts" and might have some appeal to their respective background groups but not so much in the wider voting population.  Jindal is the "first" Indian-American governor.  He is young (41), is demonstrably brilliant and has had a remarkable career, serving as both a member of he House of Representatives and as governor.  His focus in politics since he was a Rhodes Scholar has been on public health issues which would serve him well in national office. However, his remarkable educational and professional background for someone so young might make him the focus of the media rather than Romney and thus make him a campaign liability.

Martinez is the "first"  female Hispanic governor.  However, she is newly elected and her resume' is thin.  In addition, she has repeatedly stated that she doesn't want the job of Vice President, so continued speculation by political pundits seems to be based simply on her ethnic and gender characteristics.

Thus, if Mitch Daniels is to be taken at his word and does not want the nomination, it seems that the logical choice will come down to Chris Christy, Marco Rubio and Robb Portman.  Portman clearly has the edge with respect to political experience.  Christy is a Republican governor in a traditionally Democratic state which might have some appeal to Romney.  Rubio is relatively popular in a vital, big electoral vote swing state.  Portman is probably the least risky choice but also the least appealing at this early stage.  Given his blunt and colorful speaking style and approach to politics, Christy would give the Romney campaign some much needed life.  Rubio probably is less risky than Christy but more of a gamble than Portman. 

Of course, besides political considerations, there are issues of compatibility with the presidential nominee on both ideological and personal levels, so personal chemistry will come into play at some point..

Still, the vetting process has become an extended microscopic tour through each potential candidate's entire life.  A disqualifying item need not be an entire skeleton hiding out in the closet, a simple shin bone can be enough so Romney's campaign advisers will no doubt have one or more fall back candidates which could defy conventional wisdom.

Right now, the best guess is Portman, Rubio and Christy in that order.  Maybe, possibly, sort of.

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