The VP Guessing Game: Too Much Is Never Enough

by Bob Schwartz

Come on, political junkies, admit it: You say you’ve had enough of the Republican VP speculation, but like that bag of barbecue potato chips, you kind of hope it never ends.

Character is destiny, and the character of this Republican nominating process has been so wacky that you would expect nothing less from the Vice Presidential selection.

We are beyond “you can’t tell the players without a program,” so if you haven’t kept up, here’s where we stand, as best as anyone can tell.

The supposed short list of possibilities includes Tim Pawlenty, Rob Portman and, lately talked about, Paul Ryan.

The list of those speculated about but almost certainly not to be picked is long, and even longer if you include never-going-to-happen-in-a-million-years names such as Newt Gingrich. This season, it’s not so much an insult not to be picked as it is not to be included in the longshot list. Herman Cain deserved to have somebody floating his name.

In between are those who have or had a colorable chance of being picked, though they aren’t on the short list. Chris Christie appears to be out, since he will be giving the keynote address at the convention. From a spectator’s perspective this is too bad: with Biden and Christie as the designated loyal-to-the-death hitmen, this could have been a battle for the ages.

Marco Rubio is a strange case. Some polls show him as the preference of Republican and Republican-leaning voters, though this probably has more to do with name-recognition than anything else. Rubio is viewed as flawed in terms of experience, maturity, baggage and positions, which overweigh any Latino advantage.

Back to the top three, every day brings a different leader—kind of like the much-missed days of the Republican primaries. Just within the past few days, Ryan is being pushed as the true conservative with some real public appeal. Portman is viewed as boring, but solid and from Ohio, two real pluses. Pawlenty has governing experience, but proved in his brief Presidential run that he may lack the right stuff, or even the just okay stuff.

Strategically, it is thought that the selection will come this week. The Romney campaign doesn’t so much need a game changer as a topic changer. It needs a second candidate who can start fighting right now. And it needs to end the polarizing that is now developing around the selection among Republicans, and particularly conservatives.

Everybody is never happy with the selection of a VP candidate. In close nominating contests, the second place finisher is a politically logical choice, so complaints are muted. That’s how we get Kennedy-Johnson and Reagan-Bush. (And when dynamics trump political logic, how we don’t get Obama-Clinton.)

But there is no mandated logic to this VP pick. The longer this goes on, the more the factions will feel free to push their own ideas about what’s best for the ticket and the party. And the more that goes on, the deeper will be the disappointment when the choice is actually, finally made.

Of the top three, any prediction is subject to change in fifteen minutes.

Portman is undynamic, and there is no proof that his selection will “deliver” Ohio. He is haunted by the ghost of an Administration and budgets past. It is an invitation to bring George W. Bush to the convention he is not attending. If Portman is asked whether prosecuting two wars while offering tax breaks is sound budgeting, and whether that contributed to economic instability, he is stuck. If he says yes, he puts into question his role as Bush’s budget chief; if no, his credibility is at stake, since even some Republicans have concluded that the Bush budget was a bad idea that made things worse.

Ryan is instead haunted by the ghost of budgets future, specifically the proposed budget that bears his name. Some Republican pundits have openly said this is a good thing, since the budget should be a central issue, and Ryan will do a better job than Mitt Romney explaining, defending and promoting that budget. That may be the case, given Romney’s unwillingness to be specific about budget issues, other than his general support for…the Ryan budget. Ryan, despite being the most dynamic and appealing of the three, also shares Portman’s lack of elected executive experience.

Pawlenty is more dynamic than Portman, less than Ryan. He has executive experience as governor of Minnesota. His brief run for the Republican nomination was far from stellar, especially given the strange lineup of competitors. Set aside the clichéd test of whether you can see the VP taking over if needed. Set aside all the political calculations, including those above. Just picture the team taking that stagecoach down the home stretch, Romney driving, someone else riding shotgun. For the moment, that someone else looks like Tim Pawlenty.

At least for the next fifteen minutes.

Note: The illustration above is a photo of Vice President Thomas Riley Marshall, who served President Woodrow Wilson from 1913-1921. As a matter of political and historical trivia (for junkies who use both), Marshall was the last President or Vice President with facial hair; the last such President was William Howard Taft, who preceded Wilson in office. Almost a hundred years without a mustache or beard in an Administration explains the real reason that Herman Cain did not go further in the process: it wasn’t Pokemon, it was his mustache.