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.