Politics & Policy

The Great VP Fake-Out

Those who know don’t talk, and those who talk don’t know.

This week saw media scrutiny of Mitt Romney ratchet up as reporters were allowed to follow him outside his scheduled public events. Everyone wants to know who will be his pick for running mate, and he’s not saying much.

The people who are talking are consultants, handlers, press aides, and others near the Romney campaign. All are engaged in a once-every-four-years ritual: The Great VP Fake-Out. 

Most of those spinning the media, floating trial balloons, and trading favors have little idea what they’re talking about. And that’s how the process is designed to be. It helps explain why so many people are surprised by a candidate’s choice — from Dick Cheney in 2000 to John Edwards in 2004 to Sarah Palin in 2008.

The selection of a running mate is a secret process. One way to keep it that way is to frequently throw out misleading clues. Every time someone appears with Romney, it gives rise to media speculation that this could be the one. Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire is videotaped walking in a parade with Romney. Could he be going for a woman? Former governor Tim Pawlenty and Senator Rob Portman make noises that they’re unlikely to get the nod, despite their prominence as Romney surrogates. Doesn’t that mean they’re just playing coy and trying to deflect attention? Matt Drudge reports that either Condi Rice, the former Bush secretary of state, or David Petraeus, President Obama’s CIA director, is under consideration. Is that only an attention-distracting ploy? Or is it a genuine effort to test the waters with the GOP base? What to make of Romney’s comment that Florida senator Marco Rubio was being “thoroughly vetted,” after some Romney aides claimed he wasn’t?

It would be hard to overestimate how little it takes to become part of a vice-presidential feeding frenzy. In 1992, the Chicago Tribune and other newspapers reported that Bill Clinton had put Nebraska senator Bob Kerrey, one of his rivals for the Democratic nomination, on his short list. The basis for the claim? Reporters had seen Kerrey at the hotel where Clinton was conducting his final interviews with prospective running mates. In a post-election wrap-up, Newsweek reported that Kerrey had simply wandered by the Clinton venue unannounced and uninvited. That’s what got him on the supposed short list.

Mitt Romney is perfectly happy with this gamesmanship. After all, there are clear advantages to having as many candidates as possible be mentioned. It burnishes their egos. Steve Schmidt, a top aide to John McCain in 2008, tells me that “the list of possible picks needs to be long so every faction of the party and major voting bloc feels a diverse group of people was considered.” At the same time, the long list serves to distract the media. And it could draw out negative information about a contender, information that would be good for the campaign to have.

In a Fox News interview this month, Cheney, the head of George W. Bush’s vice-presidential search committee in 2000, lifted a bit of the curtain on how the list of candidates is constructed. He said every candidate has two lists of possible choices — a “big list” that includes many politicians who want to be on it for bragging rights back home, and a “small list” of serious possibilities.

“The test to get on the small list has to be, ‘Is this person capable to be president of the United States?’” Cheney said. “And that’s usually a very, very short list.”

Some campaigns boldly play the leaking game in order to preserve secrecy. In 2000, Bush suddenly decided to name Cheney as his running mate. But his aides were afraid the secret would leak. Senior strategist Karl Rove quickly had an aide “leak” the following to key reporters: “Don’t tell anybody — but it’s going to be Danforth.” Like clockwork, three major networks reported within hours that former senator John Danforth of Missouri was at or near the top of the list to be Bush’s running mate. “We’d gotten what we needed: a little breathing room for Cheney’s announcement,” Rove later wrote in his book on the campaign.

But sometimes secrecy can backfire.  In 1988, George H. W. Bush surprised everyone by naming Dan Quayle, a little-known senator from Indiana. Many reporters took offense. Caught off guard and having little to say about the announcement, they proceeded to pummel Quayle over his National Guard enlistment during Vietnam. “Within hours, it was attracting all the ink and TV time we had counted on for George’s official rollout as nominee,” James Baker, Bush’s campaign chairman, wrote in his memoir.

It’s important to let the media feel that they’re part of the process. Mark Halperin of Time magazine, a veteran observer, commented this week: “You can’t believe the number of calls and emails that will go from journalists to Romney campaign officials from now until the pick is made public, with pleas such as ‘My career will be hurt if I don’t break this,’ ‘My career will be made if I break this,’ and ‘I don’t need to break it, but please be available to confirm the story right away for me if someone else breaks it,’ and, ‘You owe me.’”

The problem is that most of the people in the campaign whom reporters talk to have little direct knowledge of the selection process. So color me skeptical about most of what we’ve heard in the past few weeks. The name of the final choice is one we have probably heard mentioned, but there are few real ways of knowing before the candidate announces it. One rumor I do believe is that Romney is likely to name his choice well before the Republican convention opens on August 27.  If he decides to bring the suspense to an early end, he deserves our thanks.

— John Fund is national-affairs columnist for NRO.


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