Predicting a presidential candidate’s choice of running mate is a risky business. It is one of the few campaign decisions that is made solely by the candidate himself — often to the surprise, delight or horror of the rest of the staff and the party. But here goes.
Mitt Romney will pick Rob Portman to be his running mate.
I have absolutely no inside information on this one. In fact, I’m a Democrat and Obama supporter, so Republican operatives don’t confide in me. So why am I so sure about this? Because the vice presidency has changed in ways that point to the senator from Ohio.
For most of our history, vice presidents were chosen to “balance” the ticket. The balance could be geographic; in 1960 a New Englander, John F. Kennedy, picked a Southerner, Lyndon B. Johnson. Or it could be ideological; in 1996 Sen. Bob Dole chose Rep. Jack Kemp in order to court the newly powerful supply-siders in the Republican Party.
Not surprisingly, when these “balanced” tickets got elected, the two men did not always get along. Vice presidents were often cut out of the action, relegated to trivial chores or dispatched to unimportant foreign countries. Formerly powerful United States senators, like Lyndon Johnson, found themselves suffering one humiliation after another. Most vice presidents would have identified with the fictional president played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus on the HBO comedy “Veep.” Every time she walks into her office, she asks her secretary if the president has called. The answer is always no.
But the vice presidency changed in 1992 when Bill Clinton picked Al Gore to be his running mate. The smart money back then was on New York Gov. Mario Cuomo – the typical balancer – a New Yorker to Clinton’s Southern roots, a liberal to Clinton’s more moderate “new Democrat” image. But there wasn’t even a whiff of balance about the Clinton/Gore ticket. Like Clinton, Gore was a Southerner; like Clinton he came from the Southern, more conservative “new Democrat” wing of the Party.
Because they were so alike, Gore became the most powerful vice president in modern history — until that distinction went to the next vice president, Dick Cheney. Cheney was no balancer either. George W. Bush didn’t need Cheney to put Wyoming in the Republican column, and they did not represent divergent wings of the Republican Party.
What did Gore and Cheney represent to the candidates who chose them and the presidents they served? Help in governing. The same thing that the choice of the current vice president, Joe Biden, brought to candidate and then President Barack Obama. Obama didn’t need to put Biden on the ticket in order to win Delaware’s measly three electoral votes. But he did need the help Biden’s extensive foreign policy would bring to deal with two inherited wars.
In the past 20 years the public has come to expect competence more than balance from their vice presidential candidates. In that time we’ve seen two “balancers” besides Kemp. John Edwards, Democratic candidate John Kerry’s choice for vice president in 2004, was an inexperienced Southerner paired with a Northerner. By the fall his lack of gravitas had him relegated to lesser campaign duties, and no one thought he brought much to the ticket. And of course we all remember the damage done as the result of John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as vice president. Her stunning lack of preparation for the office quickly overwhelmed whatever excitement her standing as a conservative “balancer” brought to John McCain’s more moderate background.
So with these lessons in mind Mitt Romney has to be asking himself – “If I should win this impossible job, who can actually help me?” Answering that probably leaves out the demographic and gender “balancers” – Florida Sen. Marc Rubio, New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte and New Mexico Gov. Susan Martinez. Between the three of them, they probably know less about the federal government than Dick Cheney or Al Gore has forgotten.
Another popular choice is former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty. But his government experience is like Romney’s – state, not federal. The rumor of the week is former Secretary of State Condi Rice, but since this is not going to be a foreign policy election it’s hard to see what she would bring to the table. And if it were a foreign policy election, the bad odor that still clings to Bush’s two wars would probably hurt more than help.
So if I’m Mitt Romney, I’m looking to Ohio Sen. Rob Portman. Portman would reinforce the image Romney has to pump up in order to beat Obama – competence. The first thing the next president will have to do is deal with a fiscal mess, and Portman served in the Bush administration as budget director and special trade negotiator. For a new president, with no federal experience, Portman would be to Romney as Biden was to Obama four years ago — help.
Finally, although recent vice presidents have not been chosen for their political clout, Portman is from Ohio – the ultimate swing state. If Romney manages to survive the summer’s attacks on his business record, he will find himself in a very close race where Ohio matters. Today Obama shows a small lead in that state. If a favorite son could add even a point or two in the Republican column, it could mean the election.
In that sense Portman is a “twofer.” His background and expertise offer just the kind of substantive help a President Romney would need. And his home-state ties offer just the kind of electoral help that Candidate Romney needs.