Four years ago, when Sarah Palin was tapped for the GOP’s number-two slot, her inexperience on the national stage was seen as an advantage by many Republican consultants. She was a fresh face from Alaska and a self-styled maverick, and in a campaign where both parties ran against Washington, her selection fit the times.
The times have changed. Many senior Republican politicos, including some who were burned by the Palin backlash, are now urging Mitt Romney to consider inside-the-Beltway experience as a plus rather than a minus as he mulls his veep pick. Mild-mannered federal lawmakers with long résumés are in; fiery rising stars are out.
“Who you pick reflects on you, the nominee,” says Sara Fagen, a former White House political director for President George W. Bush. “People will often care more about the judgment of the nominee than the actual pick. The perception was that Sarah Palin wasn’t able to be president. Whether that is fair or unfair, that was the perception. Mitt Romney faces a higher level of scrutiny than previous nominees.”
Steve Schmidt, who managed the McCain-Palin campaign, agrees. “You never want to say never, but it will be a very long time before questions about capability and preparedness are not a part of the process.” Schmidt adds that a “litmus test” on social issues is also part of the equation, but the experience of a contender has gained prominence since he and Senator McCain looked at the field in 2008.
GOP strategists are quick to note that Palin’s rise and fall in public opinion was not a singularity but a clarifying moment following other problematic Republican vice-presidential picks from recent decades — from then-first-term Maryland governor Spiro Agnew in 1968 to youthful Indiana senator Dan Quayle in 1988.
Former vice president Dick Cheney, speaking in Washington on Monday, summed up the emerging consensus among the GOP’s political class. “The single most important criteria has to be the capacity to be president,” Cheney said. “That’s why you pick them. Lots of times in the past that has not been the foremost criteria.”
Cheney did not cite Palin by name, but to many Republican operatives who read or heard the remarks, the message was clear: Romney should pick an anti-Palin. Instead of focusing on geography, gender, and biography during the search, Romney should ignore the “talking heads,” Cheney said, and search for competence, not sizzle.
University of Virginia professor Larry Sabato is not surprised that many Republican grandees are pushing for a more low-key, experienced pick. He suspects, however, that this is probably not an “organized conspiracy” against a Palin-type selection but rather a “generals-fighting-the-last-war mentality.”
If Romney goes for someone he and other Republicans know and like, that would be smart politics, Sabato says. But, he adds, if Romney doesn’t seek any sort of demographic edge and simply seeks a competent, experienced pol, he may lose a chance to boost his appeal among women, independents, and Rust Belt Democrats.
For the moment, Romney and his advisers have kept their thoughts about Romney’s potential running mate closely guarded. Beth Myers, a longtime Romney aide, is leading the process. She has said little about potential contenders. At a campaign stop near Philadelphia on Monday, Romney declined to speculate.
But you can be sure, GOP insiders say, that Team Romney is listening to the chatter. Behind the scenes, Romney is said to be a careful, disciplined manager — the kind of candidate who takes care to avoid mistakes. Republicans who know Romney expect him to settle on a candidate who reinforces those personal traits.
Earlier this month, former New Hampshire governor John H. Sununu told National Review Online that “credibility” will be a critical factor. “You want somebody who adds to the ticket,” said Sununu, a Romney surrogate. “You also want somebody who has the right credentials and is credible — somebody who the public agrees could be president. That filter gives you seven to ten people to choose from, and then you choose who among them gives you the best political impact.”
Of course, the people that fit this mold vary depending on whom you ask. But in a series of background conversations with top Republicans, NRO heard a few names mentioned repeatedly. Senator Rob Portman of Ohio is one of them, as is Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana, a former cabinet official and Eli Lilly executive.
Either Portman or Daniels would give Romney a seasoned, even-tempered Midwesterner at his side. Portman was previously President George W. Bush’s budget director and a high-ranking congressman from Cincinnati. Daniels was also Bush’s budget director, and before that, director of the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank, and chief of staff to Senator Dick Lugar of Indiana. Portman, a more likely option, has stumped for Romney on the trail; Daniels has said that he is not interested in the position.
Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, a former congressional staffer, is another top-tier contender among GOP consultants who value fiscal smarts and congressional networks. Although younger than Daniels and Portman, he has served in the House since 1999, is a trusted ally of Speaker John Boehner, and is a nationally respected fiscal hawk.
What makes this trio distinct is that they are Beltway heavyweights. For Romney, who had an extensive private-sector career before running the 2002 winter Olympics and winning a gubernatorial race, having a vice president who knows how to navigate the District’s marble halls would be an asset. Romney has many skills, but having firsthand experience at managing the complex nature of Capitol Hill isn’t one of them.
Outside the capital, Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, a former United States Attorney, and Governor Bob McDonnell of Virginia, a former Army officer and state attorney general, would bring similar skills and gravitas. Both men have many supporters within the conservative movement, on Wall Street, and on Capitol Hill.
Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, who was a senior GOP leader during his two terms, may also be in the running, but the bruising fights he had with Romney during the primary could hurt his chances.
“Romney has a big pool from which he can choose, but because of the dynamics of this cycle, his list is actually much smaller,” says one top GOP strategist. “He’s probably not going to pick a first-term governor who doesn’t have any federal-level experience, or a lawmaker who just got to Congress. That would be buzzy for maybe the first 24 hours, then the questions about readiness would start.”
Romney’s desire to be seen as a competent manager who is reenforcing his leadership style with his pick could leave Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Governor Nikki Haley of South Carolina, and Governor Susana Martinez of New Mexico, among others, on the short list but out of final consideration. They are admired by conservatives, but they have not yet completed their first terms in a major office.
For his part, Palin ally Stephen K. Bannon, the chairman of Breitbart News and director of The Undefeated, a documentary on Palin, is not surprised to see the “permanent political class” coalesce around a group of insider veep choices.
“This is their default position,” he sighs. “They can’t help themselves. Guys like Portman and McDonnell are right out of central casting. Those two, and candidates like them, are company men. They come up through the ranks. They’re not dangerous and innovative. They could easily become members of a country club.”
“The question Mitt Romney has to answer is whether he can win an election against Barack Obama by listening to the people who are just like him,” Bannon says. “To win, you’re going to have to galvanize the grass roots and the Tea Party. I know the establishment doesn’t want to hear it, but it may be the political reality.”
Schmidt, who was instrumental in the Palin pick and one of the subjects of the recent HBO film Game Change, understands the push by many conservatives to focus on conservatism first and experience second. He just doesn’t expect Romney to ask someone he doesn’t know or doesn’t think is fully ready to be his vice-presidential nominee: More than most pols, Romney takes a businesslike approach.
“Everything about Mitt Romney’s background suggests that he is methodical and meticulous,” Schmidt says. “Everybody who works on his campaign is going to apply the lessons from 2008. In a post-Palin world, the only requirement that matters is whether this person is qualified to be president on day one.”
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.