The running-mate question

Posted: April 29, 2012

I want to show you something I wrote 12 years ago.

George W. Bush was the presumptive Republican nominee, and everyone was dying to know who his running mate would be. One hot prospect was due to give a speech in Washington, and so, on a hot July morning, I went to check him out. It was bedlam. Scores of gawkers seemed juiced by the notion that the man in their midst might wind up a heartbeat away. The winner of the veep contest, I wrote, “might well be the slim guy with the silver hair and sharp tongue who sauntered into a marble lobby and waved hello to 100 of his new best friends.”

I was referring, of course, to Frank Keating.And you’re saying, “Who the heck is Frank Keating?”

Come on, he was a finalist in 2000. But that’s my point. As we indulge — lo, these next four months — in the inevitable running-mate parlor game, let’s remember that 95 percent of the speculation is wasteful, and that the perceived strengths and weaknesses of the umpteen prospects may well be ephemeral. Still, let’s not kid ourselves. The game is fun.

Should Mitt Romney balance his ticket geographically and ideologically? That didn’t work for Michael Dukakis and Lloyd Bentsen in 1988, nor for Bob Dole and Jack Kemp in 1996.

Should Romney pick someone who can maybe deliver a key state? That didn’t work for John Kerry when he tapped North Carolinian John Edwards in 2004.

Should Romney pick someone who can maybe deliver a key constituency? Walter Mondale didn’t win women after he chose Geraldine Ferraro in 1984. Few running mates are consequential, because voters focus on the top of the ticket.

But attention must be paid, if only because 15 percent of all vice-presidential nominees since 1900 have wound up in the Oval Office. And Romney has emphasized that his search will be meticulously weighty. In his words the other day, Team Mitt will “go through the kind of vetting and review process that you have to go through to make sure whoever you select will pass the evaluation that’s required by the American people.” (Translation: We’re not going to take a flyer at the eleventh hour and serve up a Sarah Palin.)

At some point, we’ll get a short list. I already have my own, for what it’s worth. When I was a kid in 1968, I came up with a short list for Richard M. Nixon. I thought it was darn good — I foresaw a balanced ticket, with a prominent antiwar Republican like George Romney — and then he picked “Spiro Who?” Agnew. So read on with healthy skepticism, as I first sweep away some of the likely also-rans.

Chris Christie has advertised his availability, but the New Jersey governor is too charismatic; he’d remind everyone that the guy at the top is as scintillating as a plate of vanilla. Jeb Bush has the wrong last name. Bob McDonnell, the Virginia governor, wants the job so badly that he’s running TV ads touting himself, but he won’t help Romney with women, not after signing the bill that requires women to undergo ultrasounds before an abortion. Mitch Daniels, the Indiana governor, has home-state fiscal woes — and he was George W. Bush’s budget guy when the surpluses vanished and the red ink began to cascade.

Condoleezza Rice’s name has been floated, and she’d be a swell pick if Romney wants to re-litigate the Bush regime’s disaster in Iraq. Paul Ryan, the House conservative hero, would be ideal if Romney wants to devote his time to defending a budget plan that would balance the books on the backs of the elderly and basically touch every third rail in American politics. And Rick Santorum would be fabulous if Romney’s aim is to drive independent swing-voters to Barack Obama.

So here’s my short list, counting down:

4. Bobby Jindal. The governor of Louisiana has a record of reform, he’s young, and his Indian American profile would balance Mitt’s white bread. But he has scant national stump experience, and his ’09 State of the Union rebuttal is still rumored to induce sleep faster than Ambien.

3. Marco Rubio. The Cuban American Florida senator is Reaganesque on the stump, hails from a pivotal swing state (assuming geography matters), and might help Romney with Hispanics. Or he might not, because Hispanics are diverse and only the Cuban Americans tend to vote Republican. Plus, he has been a senator for only 15 months, undercutting Romney’s complaint about Obama’s alleged lack of experience. Plus, Rubio would be scrutinized anew for having long claimed that his parents fled Fidel Castro’s coup in 1959, reaching these shores in search of political freedom — whereas in reality, they came to America on immigration visas three years before Castro, in 1956.

2. Tim Pawlenty. The former Minnesota governor is safe, seasoned, experienced, and already vetted — thus fulfilling the first rule of the running mate search, “Do No Harm.” He has a bootstraps bio (grew up in a labor household in a working-class neighborhood), and, as a covert to evangelical Christianity, he has good ties to that key segment of the GOP base. But he probably wouldn’t help carry his own state, and, on the charisma front, he’d double down on Romney’s vanilla.

1. Rob Portman. Yeah, the Ohio senator is another dollop of vanilla, and he was budget director at the tail end of the Bush tenure, when the deficit doubled. But he’s a serious detailed-oriented guy — much like Romney, who was known at Bain Capital for hiring “mini-Mitts,” people who would reinforce the boss. Portman also hails from the most essential state on the electoral map; no Republican has ever won the White House without winning Ohio. Perhaps he’s too similar to Romney, but reinforcement worked for Bill Clinton, the moderate southern baby boomer, when he found the same traits in Al Gore.

Portman would be a safe choice, even dull. But, as ex-New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu, a Romney backer, wrote not long ago, “The winning choice is the dull choice.” And Portman would certainly sign on if summoned. We know this because he has demurred, saying, “I love representing Ohio.” That’s parlor-gamespeak for saying, “I am tanned, rested, and ready.”

But as I tout Portman, I keep thinking about Frank Keating, the “It” guy during that long-ago July.

Keating was governor of Oklahoma, seemingly destined for higher things. His family was feeling the buzz. He told us reporters that his son Chip had phoned him from college, “and he practically treated me reverently. That had never happened before in my life.”

Bush passed. Keating has spent the last decade working for trade associations and writing children’s books. Such is the ephemeral nature of politics.

Contact Dick Polman at dickpolman7@gmail.com or on Twitter @dickpolman1.


Chat live with Dick Polman Monday at 1 p.m. at www.philly.com.

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