Commentary Magazine


Topic: vice presidential selection

Can Pawlenty Broaden His Appeal?

Both the Wall Street Journal and Politico have stories today on the rising stock of Tim Pawlenty as a surrogate for Mitt Romney, and whether that increases his odds of being asked to join the GOP ticket. Though the Romney campaign claimed at first it was casting a very wide net for the VP slot, that doesn’t appear to (still) be the case. If, as recent reports indicate, Marco Rubio is out of the running, Pawlenty’s buzz seems to have survived a process that has narrowed the field quite a bit; that alone is reason to think he’s being considered seriously.

And the Journal and Politico stories note the obvious Pawlenty appeal: modest roots; easygoing and personable; executive experience; blue-collar bona fides; and his friendship with Romney. Pawlenty has always been a charmer–in person. But one of the main reasons his candidacy’s value didn’t translate from the paper to the stage was his seeming inability to project his charisma to a national audience. In Mike Allen and Evan Thomas’s e-book about the GOP presidential primaries, the authors write that Pawlenty didn’t seem to be enjoying the national circus at all:

One of Pawlenty’s top advisers questioned whether the candidate’s heart was really in the race. Pawlenty always seemed to want to get back to the hotel to see if there was a good hockey game he could watch in the sports bar with this body man, this adviser said. On the day before the Ames, Iowa, straw poll on August 13, 2011, which the Pawlenty team had targeted as make-or-break, with thousands of hands still to shake, Pawlenty wanted to quit early, said this adviser. His spokesman, Alex Conant, did not dispute this, though he offered a more benign explanation. “Unlike every candidate I’ve ever worked for, he wanted to make sure that there was ample downtime and that the days were not so long that by the end of them he was not making sense anymore,” said Conant.

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Both the Wall Street Journal and Politico have stories today on the rising stock of Tim Pawlenty as a surrogate for Mitt Romney, and whether that increases his odds of being asked to join the GOP ticket. Though the Romney campaign claimed at first it was casting a very wide net for the VP slot, that doesn’t appear to (still) be the case. If, as recent reports indicate, Marco Rubio is out of the running, Pawlenty’s buzz seems to have survived a process that has narrowed the field quite a bit; that alone is reason to think he’s being considered seriously.

And the Journal and Politico stories note the obvious Pawlenty appeal: modest roots; easygoing and personable; executive experience; blue-collar bona fides; and his friendship with Romney. Pawlenty has always been a charmer–in person. But one of the main reasons his candidacy’s value didn’t translate from the paper to the stage was his seeming inability to project his charisma to a national audience. In Mike Allen and Evan Thomas’s e-book about the GOP presidential primaries, the authors write that Pawlenty didn’t seem to be enjoying the national circus at all:

One of Pawlenty’s top advisers questioned whether the candidate’s heart was really in the race. Pawlenty always seemed to want to get back to the hotel to see if there was a good hockey game he could watch in the sports bar with this body man, this adviser said. On the day before the Ames, Iowa, straw poll on August 13, 2011, which the Pawlenty team had targeted as make-or-break, with thousands of hands still to shake, Pawlenty wanted to quit early, said this adviser. His spokesman, Alex Conant, did not dispute this, though he offered a more benign explanation. “Unlike every candidate I’ve ever worked for, he wanted to make sure that there was ample downtime and that the days were not so long that by the end of them he was not making sense anymore,” said Conant.

When I wrote about this in November, I suggested Pawlenty may have been a bit too “normal” for a presidential campaign. Politico’s story paints Pawlenty as having much more fun as a Romney surrogate than as a candidate, which is a good sign he is more relaxed. But if he is chosen for the vice presidential nomination, he’ll have to go back to campaigning rigorously on his own–as well as Romney’s–behalf, if only because of the increased level of scrutiny to which Republican vice presidential picks are subjected.

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Romney Laughs Off Reports on Rubio

Mitt Romney is laughing off the reports that Marco Rubio isn’t being vetted for a VP spot. But also isn’t denying it (and neither are any anonymous campaign sources), which is telling:

Mitt Romney responds to an ABC News report that said his campaign was not vetting Sen. Marco Rubio as a possible running mate.

“I get a kick out of some of the speculation that goes on,” Romney said. “I’m not going to comment on the process, of course, but I can tell you this: Only Beth Myers and I know who’s being vetted.”

The speculation is tripping up the Romney campaign’s messaging on the last leg of its economic bus tour, which obviously isn’t ideal for them. One minor consolation is that it also seems to have squashed a lot of the media interest in his immigration plan.

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Mitt Romney is laughing off the reports that Marco Rubio isn’t being vetted for a VP spot. But also isn’t denying it (and neither are any anonymous campaign sources), which is telling:

Mitt Romney responds to an ABC News report that said his campaign was not vetting Sen. Marco Rubio as a possible running mate.

“I get a kick out of some of the speculation that goes on,” Romney said. “I’m not going to comment on the process, of course, but I can tell you this: Only Beth Myers and I know who’s being vetted.”

The speculation is tripping up the Romney campaign’s messaging on the last leg of its economic bus tour, which obviously isn’t ideal for them. One minor consolation is that it also seems to have squashed a lot of the media interest in his immigration plan.

Still, it’s an inconvenience — and one that, oddly enough, was leaked directly from Romney campaign sources, according to WaPo’s report. Why would Romney’s own aides do this? There are a few possibilities, but it could be they were unhappy that the campaign wasn’t vetting Rubio, and wanted to generate some outside pressure from conservatives. If so, it worked. Not only is Romney getting slammed for this by conservative pundits, his campaign is probably fielding calls from fuming supporters and donors. And with this list of less-than-tantalizing possibilities, who can blame them:

Other vice presidential candidates, including Sen. Rob Portman (Ohio) and former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, are undergoing a more intensive review, according to two Republicans close to the campaign.

Romney campaign spokespeople, as well as top aides to Rubio, declined to comment on the vice presidential candidate search, which has been under way for two months.

Rob Portman is as boring as a rice cake, but his lack of name recognition at least gives him some mystery with the Republican base that the Romney campaign can try to stir up into excitement. Tim Pawlenty, on the other hand, would be a bizarre choice. Is there anyone out there who would be persuaded to vote for Romney because Pawlenty was on the ticket? During the primaries, Pawlenty basically ran as Romney-without-Romneycare, and Republican voters still rejected him. He would also emphasize all of Romney’s personality flaws that the Obama campaign is trying to highlight — and that’s before you even get to the inconvenient ObamneyCare issue.

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How Boring Must the GOP Veep Be?

It is a given that the Romney campaign knows it must not repeat the mistakes made by John McCain’s staff during his failed effort to head off a Barack Obama presidency. Of course, at the top of the list of McCain’s blunders was his choice of a largely unvetted vice presidential candidate who proved to be unready for the scrutiny of the liberal mainstream press. Thus, according to Politico, Romney advisers are determined that their man will choose someone who will be the polar opposite of Sarah Palin. But if, as Politico claims, they are really convinced the ideal Romney running mate will be “an incredibly boring white guy,” they will be doing him a disservice. Like generals obsessed with winning the last war rather than the one they are currently fighting, the GOP standard bearer’s staff may be learning the wrong lessons from 2008.

For those picking a vice president, a desire to “do no harm” is probably as apt a guiding principle for politics as it is for medicine. But the idea that the Republicans are best served by a vice presidential candidate who will neither provoke controversy nor give the Democrats anything to criticize is equally as wrongheaded as McCain’s desperate attempt to catch lightening in a bottle with Palin. It’s one thing to try and avoid a flashy clunker. To deliberately seek a dud who provides no excitement or buzz is to ask for a completely different kind of trouble. Even more to the point, the Politico story makes it appear as if some people in the Romney campaign are leaking this information in an attempt to head off the possibility that one of a few brilliant but possibly controversial veep candidates is squelched before the vetting process is even completed.

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It is a given that the Romney campaign knows it must not repeat the mistakes made by John McCain’s staff during his failed effort to head off a Barack Obama presidency. Of course, at the top of the list of McCain’s blunders was his choice of a largely unvetted vice presidential candidate who proved to be unready for the scrutiny of the liberal mainstream press. Thus, according to Politico, Romney advisers are determined that their man will choose someone who will be the polar opposite of Sarah Palin. But if, as Politico claims, they are really convinced the ideal Romney running mate will be “an incredibly boring white guy,” they will be doing him a disservice. Like generals obsessed with winning the last war rather than the one they are currently fighting, the GOP standard bearer’s staff may be learning the wrong lessons from 2008.

For those picking a vice president, a desire to “do no harm” is probably as apt a guiding principle for politics as it is for medicine. But the idea that the Republicans are best served by a vice presidential candidate who will neither provoke controversy nor give the Democrats anything to criticize is equally as wrongheaded as McCain’s desperate attempt to catch lightening in a bottle with Palin. It’s one thing to try and avoid a flashy clunker. To deliberately seek a dud who provides no excitement or buzz is to ask for a completely different kind of trouble. Even more to the point, the Politico story makes it appear as if some people in the Romney campaign are leaking this information in an attempt to head off the possibility that one of a few brilliant but possibly controversial veep candidates is squelched before the vetting process is even completed.

If Romney wants boring, then some on his putative short list are definitely out. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is a lot of things but boring isn’t one of them. He would attract a lot of attention and the press would dote on his every word during the campaign. Marco Rubio is also not boring. Having him on the ticket would also be interpreted as an appeal to the Hispanic vote much in the way Palin was seen as a token woman. Also not boring is Rep. Paul Ryan, the party’s ideas maven on entitlement reform. According to the logic of the Politico piece, he’s out because he would be a lightening rod for Democratic attacks.

That leaves Romney to choose between the likes of Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, former Minnesota governor and erstwhile Romney rival turned campaign surrogate Tim Pawlenty, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels and Ohio Senator Rob Portman. All are sound individuals and none could be accused of generating much excitement. Indeed, Pawlenty, who flopped on the presidential campaign trail, and Daniels, who stayed out of the presidential race in order to avoid media attacks on his family, pretty much define the word boring.

But none, not even these men, are without drawbacks. In particular, Portman’s presence on the ticket will allow President Obama to continue running against George W. Bush because he worked in his administration. But if this story was leaked in order to boost his chances or that of any other boring contender, I doubt it will work.

Instead of worrying about avoiding another Palin, what Romney needs to do is to find someone whom he finds compatible and thinks is a plausible president who would help him govern. And if that person has some political or personal appeal that might excite the voters, that should not be considered a drawback.

The circumstances of 2008 are radically different from those of 2012. Romney is not running against a historic challenger who seeks to succeed a two-term Republican incumbent. In Palin’s defense, it should be noted that it isn’t likely any other running mate would have made any difference to McCain’s chances. Nor should her presence be considered purely negative. She did excite the GOP base, though the former Alaska governor probably chased as many independents away from the Republicans as the number of conservatives she attracted.

Romney is running even with Obama, not way behind and looking for a Hail Mary pass to even the score. That should inspire some caution on Romney’s part, but it shouldn’t mean he ought not to consider men like Christie and especially Ryan, with whom he is said to have some affinity. The plan ought to be to avoid a mistake-prone person who doesn’t have the background to be a potential president, not an exciting personality who might help Romney get elected.

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