Andrew Hammond: Romney will play it safe with running mate
THE presidential hopeful is keen not to have a ‘Sarah Palin incident’.
The Republican National Convention begins on 27 August in Tampa, Florida, and Mitt Romney will announce his choice of vice-presidential running mate in the coming days. With polls indicating the race for the White House is highly competitive, wide-ranging candidates are being touted in the media to join Romney on the Republican ticket, including senators Marco Rubio, Rob Portman and Kelly Ayotte; governors Bobby Jindal, Chris Christie and Tim Pawlenty; and former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
The vice-presidential selection process is an election-year custom that attracts high prominence, partly because of several key changes in US politics in recent decades. First, the vice-presidency has become the single best transitional office to the presidency. Second, the office of vice-president has assumed more power and resourcing. And third, electoral stakes have grown over not selecting a deputy who is perceived to be capable of assuming office effectively upon the incumbent’s unanticipated death or incapacity.
This latter factor was a major feature of the previous presidential election in 2008 when Republican nominee John McCain, aged 71, made the high-risk decision to select Sarah Palin – whose only major experience of office was less than two years as governor of Alaska. Rather than boosting McCain’s campaign, Palin was, ultimately, widely viewed as too inexperienced to be president. This was also true in 1988 of Dan Quayle, then a two-term US senator, who was selected by George Bush.
In the light of the Palin episode in 2008, Romney will be keen to make a choice that will do no harm to his electoral prospects. Hence, part of the reason why Portman has received so much attention from the media is because of his extensive experience in Washington as director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, as US trade representative and in his current position: US senator for the key swing state of Ohio.
Historically, the process of selecting vice-presidential nominees tended to be fashioned around issues such as reconciling important party stakeholders after what can be bruising nomination contests; and the perceived advantage of cultivating so-called “balanced tickets”, in which the vice-presidential and presidential candidates where differentiated by factors such as their “home” region of the country or philosophical wings of the party, so as to maximise support across the nation.
One potential balanced ticket candidate for Romney is Rubio, whose life story – he was born in Florida to Cuban immigrants – potentially contrasts favourably with perceptions of Romney’s wealth and privilege. Rubio is also a Tea Party favourite, potentially neutralising conservative concerns about Romney’s more moderate Republicanism. The selection of Rubio, while containing the potential hazard of his relative national political inexperience (he only entered the US Senate in 2011), would also increase the prospects of Romney winning the key swing state of Florida.
Romney’s wife Anne has also enthusiastically highlighted that a woman may be chosen. As well as Rice and Ayotte (a first-term US senator who represents the swing state of New Hampshire), potential female candidates touted include two governors who, like Ayotte, are serving only their first term of office in their present post: South Carolina governor Nikki Haley (an American-Indian whose parents emigrated from Amritsar), and New Mexico governor Susana Martinez (who could potentially appeal to the rapidly growing US Hispanic population).
However, partly because of the changes in the presidential nomination system, and indeed the proliferation of mass media, these traditional considerations are less relevant to the modern process. Thus, Al Gore was selected in 1992 by Bill Clinton (a fellow centrist Democrat and southerner) not to balance the ticket but to reinforce a key narrative about Clinton’s “New Democrat” change candidacy.
Whether or not these developments have potentially injected greater uncertainty into the vice-presidential selection process, it is unquestionably the case that choices are routinely made that confound the pundits. For instance, few (if any) anticipated the selections in 2008 of Palin and Joe Biden, nor in 2000 of Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman.
The selections of Washington veterans Cheney and Biden, who looks likely to be Obama’s running mate again this year, were noteworthy in as much as they were chosen, in significant part, to fortify the national and international political inexperience of George W Bush and Obama. Cheney, in particular, therefore assumed a high-profile role as vice-president, and is widely viewed as the most powerful-ever holder of the office.
The selections of Cheney and Biden were also interesting in another sense: both George W Bush and Obama made the assumption that neither of their more experienced running mates represented a political threat to them, and would thus be very loyal, because they were too old (and in Cheney’s case suffered from too poor health) to run for the presidency themselves in the future. Seen from the prism of the last few decades, this is highly unusual.
It is thus in this context of short-term political calculation and historical precedent that Romney will make what could prove to be his defining decision of the campaign. Miscalculation could prove damaging, especially if the race remains tight. However, if the selection wins strong approval, his candidacy will secure invaluable new momentum.
• Andrew Hammond is an associate partner at ReputationInc
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