Rolling the Vice Dice

Illustration by Andy Friedman

“April is the cruellest month” was T. S. Eliot’s contention, and soon enough it may prove that rare assertion on which Rick Santorum and Lawrence O’Donnell would agree. This Tuesday, if the public polls hold, Mitt Romney will defeat Santorum in the Republican primaries in Wisconsin, Maryland, and D.C. Three weeks later, ­Romney is likely to do the same in Connecticut, Delaware, New York, and Rhode Island; and there is a decent and rising chance that he’ll complete a clean sweep by knocking off Santorum in his home state of Pennsylvania. Should all that occur, the GOP nomination contest will effectively be over. Santorum will be crushed, his presidential dream reduced to dust. And so will O’Donnell, who has most forthrightly (and avidly, and loudly) given voice to the collective yearning of the punditocracy to keep this truth-is-stranger-than-fiction race alive as long as possible.

But fear not, professional bloviators and amateur political obsessives. For if we will soon have ourselves a nominee, that nominee will soon need to secure himself a running mate. Yes, that’s right, glory be: The 2012 veepstakes are at hand!

The selection of a presidential nominee’s No. 2 is never unimportant. But for Romney it may be especially significant, given the severity of the damage he has suffered in the past months with key segments of the electorate. According to the latest Quinnipiac battleground polls, President Obama leads the presumptive Republican standard-bearer among women voters by fourteen points in both Florida and Ohio (fueling the incumbent’s seven- and six-point leads, respectively, in those states). And a staggering Fox News survey last month found Obama clobbering Romney 70 to 14 percent among Hispanic voters nationwide. If those margins persist into the fall, Romney will be unable to win—which is why some Republicans are already arguing that he requires a ticket mate who is a certifiable game-changer.

Not that anyone dares use that phrase, so firmly associated has it become with John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin to ride shotgun with him in 2008. The story of how McCain arrived at his pick—and in particular the slipshod, half-assed, wildly irresponsible pseudo-vetting the Alaska governor received—has achieved wide awareness thanks to HBO’s film adaptation of my and Mark Halperin’s book Game Change. And that awareness, in turn, has altered the context in which Romney will be making his selection. “In the world after Sarah Palin and Game Change, the chances of Mitt Romney or anyone else choosing a first-term governor lacking a national brand name and experience are greatly diminished,” reports the New York Times. “[And] for any Republican who makes it onto the short list … [the] vetting this year will be a body-cavity search.”

Romney and his team of course could not be more different from McCain and his. The former candidate is methodical, data-driven, and risk-averse; the latter impetuous, instinctive, an inveterate gambler (politically and in Vegas). The former campaign is a ­hospital-­corners operation; the latter the equivalent of a rebellious teenager’s unmade bed. The smart guys in Boston know that in a post-Palin world, not only will their pick receive unprecedented scrutiny, but so will the process leading up to it. What Boston also knows, however, is that Romney is emerging from the nomination tussle with a ton of bruises—and the choice of his running mate is one their best chances to spiff up his battered public image.

“Here’s his problem,” e-mails John Weaver, strategist for McCain in 2000 and 2008 and Jon Huntsman in 2012. “(1) The base doesn’t trust him or like him. (2) To fix that, he’s done everything possible on position-­altering to attract them. (3) #2 hasn’t worked. (4) While attempting #2, he has alienated key general election constituencies—Hispanics, women, working-class whites. (5) So he’s in a box. Does he try to fix #2 with his pick, or pick someone who can help with one of the constituencies in #4, or someone who won’t offend the base but might deliver or help deliver a state? I personally would bet on the base’s intense antipathy (smoldering hate, actually) toward the president and try to get someone who can help in a battleground state or fix a constituency problem.”

Romney’s people seem to agree with this conclusion, which is one reason that Rick Santorum is about as likely to be asked to join the board of Planned Parenthood as to be the bottom half of Romney’s ticket. (Another is the same reason McCain didn’t put Romney on his: intense personal distaste.) Should Team Romney decide to court the base, a likelier option would be Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, whose conservative bona fides are impeccable, wonkish outlook rhymes with Romney’s, and Indian lineage would make his selection a historic first—and thus potentially … well, you know.

Romney himself has mentioned Jindal when asked whom he might consider. But he has also mentioned lots of other governors: Chris Christie of New Jersey, Mitch Daniels of Indiana, Nikki Haley of South Carolina, Susana Martinez of New Mexico, Bob McDonnell of Virginia, Brian Sandoval of Nevada. Of these, Daniels and Haley seem least likely to get the nod, since their states are sure to wind up in the GOP’s column regardless in November. Christie has appeal as one the party’s media superstars, but would be unlikely to deliver New Jersey and is glaringly unsuited temperamentally to being anyone’s No. 2. And while McDonnell once seemed a strong possibility, his recent foray into the reproductive wars has markedly dimmed his prospects. “Two weeks of stories about his position on transvaginal probes would be absolutely poisonous,” observes a senior Republican strategist.

Two governors certain to get closer looks are Martinez and Sandoval, both of whom hail from swing states Romney must carry and might help remedy his weakness with Latinos. Martinez is seen as an ascendant figure in the party who could also aid Romney with female voters. Yet few national Republican players could pick her out of a lineup, and the specter of Palin will hover over her vetting and would probably shadow her introduction to the country. Sandoval, as a former federal judge, is presumably squeaky clean, but is an out-front moderate who has raised taxes and is pro-choice. And his level of preparedness, like Martinez’s, is an open question. “What do they know? What have they read? Do they have passports?” asks Steve Schmidt, the McCain operative most responsible for (and most chastened by) the Palin pick. “Can you credibly make the case that either of them is ready to be commander-in-chief on day one? That’s the question.”

The same question—among others—could be asked of a third and better-known Hispanic: the freshman senator from Florida, Marco Rubio. Beloved by the base, charismatic, and a gifted communicator, Rubio is often mentioned as a future aspirant to the Oval Office himself. Popular at home, he would help in a critical swing state, and that, together with his Cuban-American heritage, makes him one of two odds-on favorites among many Beltway savants.

But picking Rubio would entail risks, the most obvious being that his youth (he is 40) and inexperience would make it hard to pass Schmidt’s readiness test. Another is that the details of his biography are in dispute and will be subject of dueling books (one by him) this summer. And then there are the questions around his finances, including a history of personal debt and a threatened home foreclosure.* “With that stuff in his background, he would have a hard time getting a top-level security clearance,” says a Republican who knows about such things. “I’m not saying it’s disqualifying, but it raises some red flags.” And, indeed, Rubio is already displaying some reluctance to be vetted.

Which brings us to the other odds-on favorite: Ohio senator Rob Portman. A former congressman, U.S. trade representative, and head of the Office of Management and Budget under George W. Bush, Portman has as firm a grasp of fiscal issues as anyone in Washington. He is solid and stolid, bland and boring, and as egregiously Caucasian as a potful of Uncle Ben’s. But he also won election to the senate in 2010—with 57 percent of the vote and carrying 82 of Ohio’s 88 counties—in what may be the most important battleground state on the map. His snoozy dependability and managerial affect would reinforce Romney’s argument that he and not Obama is capable of fixing what ails the capital and the economy. And, by comparison, Portman’s dishwatery demeanor might actually make Romney look like a bit of a spitfire. (No kidding—Portman really is that dull.)

But the paramount reason Portman would be Romney’s smartest and safest pick is this: He would both be and be immediately universally regarded as qualified for the gig. For all the gaming out of pros and cons of various possible picks, the truth is that the way the selection matters most is as a reflection of the nominee’s judgment. In this, a V.P. choice is one of those rare campaign events where the substantive and strategic imperatives are in alignment. Doing the right thing for country also happens to be the right thing politically.

If Romney has any doubts about that, he should ask Bush or Bill Clinton, whose running mates (whatever else you think of them) instantly cleared the bar of ready-on-day-one-ness and helped the men who chose them win the White House. Or, for a different perspective, Romney could ask McCain—although I’m told the old man doesn’t much enjoy talking about it.

*This article has been corrected to show that Marco Rubio has a history of personal debt and a threatened home foreclosure and has not declared personal bankruptcy or had his home foreclosed upon

E-mail: jheilemann@gmail.com.

Rolling the Vice Dice