Commentary Magazine


Romney Can’t Afford to Play it Safe

All the articles published in the last days and weeks speculating about Mitt Romney’s vice presidential pick or the timing of his announcement have one thing in common: they are all mostly bunk. The rumors about Condoleezza Rice, Bobby Jindal, Tim Pawlenty or Rob Portman are just that. Rumors. Only Romney and his inner circle know whom he’ll tap, and until the announcement is made, the Republican presidential contender can always change his mind. That renders all the predictions an exercise in filling space and trying to appease a public hungry for news more than anything else.

But there is one element to much of the veep speculation that I think does bear refutation. It is the notion, probably encouraged by the Romney campaign, that they view their goal as primarily to do no harm rather than to help the GOP ticket. That sounds like sound advice, especially when you recall the way the Sarah Palin pick turned out (contrary to the mythology cherished by her fan club, Palin hurt John McCain more with independents and centrists than she helped with the GOP base). But though the Romney camp thinks it is in a far stronger position than McCain was when he decided he needed a game-changing pick and went for Palin, they would be foolish to assume they don’t need help. A brilliant vice presidential pick, assuming one exists, may not make or break Romney’s chances, but if he and his staff think they can cruise through the next three and a half months to an inevitable victory without trying to do something big, they have underestimated their opponent.

Romney’s position is stronger than that of McCain four years ago, but he is still likely to head into the conventions as a slight underdog. As I wrote yesterday, the polls showing a tight race haven’t budged in months. But that shouldn’t be considered great news for the GOP. President Obama has presided over a lousy economy, has few accomplishments to his name, and spends most of his time blaming his predecessors. That makes him vulnerable, but Romney’s weaknesses have allowed the president to retain a steady if tiny lead among registered voters and a virtual dead heat among likely voters.

The common assumption among political experts is that in a close race, undecided voters tend to break for the challenger. That’s a trend that puts a smile on the face of members of Romney’s camp, but that prediction is about as valuable as the latest skinny on the Internet about who the GOP veep will be.

It can’t be said often enough that political science isn’t science. There is no reason to believe that any past political trends will be repeated. More to the point, if Romney can’t break through and take a lead sometime during the summer, he may never do so.

Which leads me to the conclusion that while Romney should obviously avoid a rash, unvetted and unprepared choice like Sarah Palin, he would be foolish to assume he doesn’t need help from the bottom of the ticket. It’s true that vice presidential nominees are not the difference between victory and defeat, but if Romney decides to play it safe, he will regret it. A dull as dishwater vice presidential pick will help turn the GOP showcase in Tampa into a snoozer. It will also lead to a minimal convention bump that will be widely interpreted as a portent of doom and deprive him of the momentum he needs heading into the home stretch.

The assumption on the part of some Republicans that Obama is so weak that Romney doesn’t need to do something to galvanize his party and seize the attention of the public is based on a misreading of the president’s position. President Obama has no case for re-election, but he remains a historic figure with lots of goodwill and the loyalty of his party and its base. He can be defeated but not if Romney thinks he’s already got the election in his pocket. Rather than worrying about reliving the Palin debacle, Romney needs to understand that at the moment he has no better than an even chance of winning in November. If that doesn’t factor into his choice, then he’s making a big mistake.