WASHINGTON, July 12, 2012 — The suspense is so thick you can hardly cut it with a machete. Mitt Romney is about to announce his running mate. America, or at least the small slice of it that cares, is at the edge of its seat.
Governor Romney neither needs nor wants my advice, and my license as a prophet was revoked after the last NCAA tournament. Neither advice nor a prediction is on offer here, but only some general principles by which to judge the eventual winner of the vice-presidential-running-mate sweepstakes.
Pundits often claim that tickets must be balanced for geography. An easterner like Romney should choose a southerner or someone from the Midwest. In the same vein, they claim that running mates should be chosen to shift a crucial swing state to the candidate’s column.
Michael Dukakis chose Senator Lloyd Bentsen of Texas as his running mate. Did it win him Texas? Did it help him in the south? Hardly. You might counter that after the picture of Dukakis in the tank, LBJ himself couldn’t have won Texas for the Democrats. Then what did George Bush bring to the Reagan ticket? Maine?
Geographical balance is over-rated as a reason to choose a running mate. There’s little evidence that they make that kind of difference. Kennedy’s choice of LBJ was a notable modern exception, but Palin (Alaska), Agnew (Maryland), Bentsen (Texas), Humphrey (Minnesota), Cheney (Wyoming), and Lieberman (Connecticut) are all examples of running mates who either couldn’t deliver their own state, or whose states were solid. In the case of Al Gore (Tennessee) we have a man who couldn’t deliver his state to himself at the top of the ticket.
On the margin, geography matters, but it matters very little. Marco Rubio might help Romney in Florida, but unless the whole election is going to come down to Florida, it would be foolish to let his home state be an important factor.
Ideological balance is another criterion the pundits love. Conservatives should choose liberal running mates, and liberals should choose conservatives. But why? Do we honestly believe that Romney’s running mate will change the ideological direction of a Romney administration? Most vice-presidents end up on state funeral detail if they don’t have the trust of the president, and no president will give much trust to a VP who is his ideological opposite. Kennedy needed LBJ to win the White House, but after that he kept him as far away as possible. Anyone who voted for Kennedy because he thought LBJ would make a difference was deeply disappointed. Until November, 1963. And that’s another reason not to choose someone at the other end of the political spectrum as a running mate.
The real reason that the choice of running mate matters is that it says something about the judgment and instincts of the man at the top of the ticket. Many thought that Bush’s choice of Dick Cheney was a sign that his administration would be run by men of experience and gravitas. It wasn’t Cheney’s ideology or home state that mattered, but the sense of maturity. Cheney turned out to be an unusually powerful vice-president, and not to the liking of some who applauded Bush’s choice, but he sent an important message to the voters in 2000.
Walter Mondale electrified women’s groups with Geraldine Ferraro, and John McCain electrified conservative voters with his choice of Sarah Palin. After getting a good look at them, many in the center concluded that the choices reflected bad judgment. Only feminists and conservatives remained electrified. That’s a danger in choosing a running mate to electrify the base. Romney might choose a woman or a black running mate (or in the case of Condi Rice, both), but if that running mate doesn’t have sterling qualifications, it will be seen as a gimmick. The electorate generally doesn’t want to be electrified, especially by the bottom of the ticket.
Whomever Romney chooses, the value of his choice will be in the competence and qualifications of his running mate. Geography, ideological balance, and ethnic/racial/gender identity are much less important than experience and maturity. It’s been said that the vice-presidency is worth a warm bucket of spit, but the choice is crucial: The vice-president might become president. As fictional president Jeb Bartlett put it to his vice-president, he wanted him on his ticket because “I could die.”
It’s not Romney’s political instincts we want to see on display with his choice of running mate, but his judgment, his seriousness, and his love for his country. If he chooses someone whom we can imagine as president, it won’t matter whether it’s a white man from Ohio, a Hispanic from Florida, an Indian from Louisiana, or a black woman from Alabama and California. If he chooses someone we deem unqualified, gender, race and geography won’t help; it will be a losing choice.
It currently seems that Rice is in the lead. Jindal and Christie are in the running, Ryan and Scott are long-shots. If you’re a political junkie, this is exciting, but if you take it seriously, the choice is only incidentally political. If Romney’s choice shows better judgment than President Obama’s choice of Joe Biden, it will be good for Romney and good for America.
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