Between a Veep and a hard place
Mitt Romney’s job this race is to not find himself in an HBO post-season special.
It’s becoming something of a tradition for the premium cable company. Starting with “Recount” in 2008 and rising to prominence with “Game Change” this past March, the well-cast TV movies portray the most exciting moments in the previous two presidential campaigns — “Recount” recounts the (in)famous Supreme Court case Bush v. Gore, which ultimately decided the 2000 presidential election, while “Game Change” explores the legendary highs and lows that befell John McCain’s campaign after Sarah Palin’s addition to the ticket. The two films are highly detailed, studio-crafted dramatizations of a candidate’s defeat, and Romney is going to do everything he can to keep himself out of the threequel.
He’s doing well so far. The former Massachusetts governor has been honing his campaign pitch since 2005, and he has remained rock steady from Rick Perry’s challenge in August to Rick Santorum’s concession in April. Gaffe-proof he is decidedly not, yet has stayed clear of cataclysmic mistakes, especially compared to his competitors. But as Republicans are painfully aware, Romney is not the Ronald Reagan incarnation they had been hoping for.
Romney, too, is aware of this as he goes into his first general election hurdle: picking a vice president. And it is here that the slow-but-steady presumptive nominee has really painted himself into a corner.
The list of likelies tells a story — Romney is choosing a uniform for the coming spin war. On the sensible end of the spectrum sits Rob Portman, the Ohio conservative whose name is only ever used in the sentence “Who is Rob Portman?” In a sane election season, a Portman suit would make an excellent choice: He is reliable, affordable (politically), and exceedingly sensible. But he is not fashionable. Rob Portman looks like every vice presidential pick in the history of time, and members of the Obama camp wouldn’t have to step out of their tents to paint their opponents as a pair of rich, out-of-touch white men.
But a flashy choice is also easy to paint. Women are likely out of the question this time around. It’s not as if there are no sensible, viable picks for a female vice president, but the amount of political capital it would take to silence the inevitable echoes of Palin is far more than Romney would care to spend.
What about a non-Caucasian pick? There is a contingent of Republican politicians who buck the GOP stereotype, like Florida Representative Allen West, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal ’91, and, most prominently, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who would turn heads without looking too much like plays for a certain constituency. Unfortunately, these potential vice presidential candidates are as untested as they are attention-grabbing, and for each, time in the national limelight has not reflected favorably. And yet, they and other photogenic but risky choices, like Rick Santorum, are dominating the national consciousness.
If the political contortions going into this year’s choice seem ridiculous, it’s because they are. Truthfully, there is no reason why Romney should not choose Portman as his running mate. In a campaign, a vice presidential pick is an envoy of the nominee’s agenda and a patch over his perceived weaknesses. Portman is just that. He is a senator from Ohio (a crucial swing state), serves on both the budget and the armed services committees, and is a member of the Sportsmen’s Caucus. What he lacks in glitz he makes up for in demonstrably caring about the issues Romney purports to care about, and that is an element of legitimacy the Romneyites should be loath to go without.
In this media environment, it’s easy to forget that Sarah Palin didn’t work out. The candidate who actually won the election made the sensible VP choice and ran on strength and unity of spirit. The Romney campaign recognizes that its candidate is not a rock star, but they must now realize that no amount of injected star power will fix that or strengthen a weak message. If Mitt Romney wants to keep from seeing himself as a TV-movie character, he needs to stop acting like one.
photo of Mitt Romney by Gage Skidmore