Mitt Romney said this week that the running mate he was looking for could have different "perspectives and skills" than his own. But given the current drift of the bruising presidential campaign, those skills had better include a sound understanding of the federal criminal and tax code and a junkyard-dog propensity to go after the opposition.
Reeling from relentless attacks from the Obama campaign that he lied about the terms and timing of his departure from Bain Capital, that his former private equity firm shipped jobs overseas, and that he’s hiding something by refusing to release more than two years of tax returns, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee may need a bodyguard as much as a vice presidential running mate.
In this increasingly hostile political climate, the former Massachusetts governor may have no choice but to choose a political heavyweight with real legal experience and well-honed debating skills. Two obvious choices would be Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio and former two-term Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, who turn up on just about everybody’s short list of GOP vice presidential prospects.
Portman, 56, is a smart, poised, unflappable lawyer and former White House budget director who comes from a key battleground state and speaks with authority on spending, tax, deficit and trade issues. In 14 years on Capitol Hill, he has co-authored over a dozen bills that became law, including legislation to reform the Internal Revenue Service. And while the affable Portman has repeatedly shown he can work closely with Democrats – as he did last year as a member of the bipartisan congressional Super Committee – he closely adheres to the GOP no-new-taxes line and readily blames President Obama for a leadership vacuum in Washington.
Portman was also among the earliest to defend Romney after the Obama campaign began airing ads that likened Romney and his former private equity company to a "vampire" and job destroyer, and called the attacks an affront to capitalism.
Pawlenty, 51, is another lawyer and veteran state politician and chief executive with strong credentials. He ran a truncated campaign for the GOP nomination and dropped out of the race after a poor showing in the Iowa straw poll last summer. But since then he’s served as a loyal soldier for the Romney campaign and a tiger of a defender of the former Massachusetts governor.
In an interview this week on MSNBC, Pawlenty said: "I’m committed to Gov. Romney not because I’m looking to be vice president. I’ve said many times I think I can best serve him in other ways, but anybody would be honored to be asked. But the real issue here is … does Barack Obama deserve reelection? We have 23 million Americans unemployed, underemployed, given up looking for work. He made all those big promises. He didn’t fulfill it. He hasn’t done a good job as president. He doesn’t deserve reelection. I think Mitt Romney’s time is now."
For sure, Portman and Pawlenty have their downsides. With Portman, there’s the blandness issue. While he’s fluent in Spanish and comes from a small-business family (his father, Bill, created and ran a highly successful business called the Portman Equipment Company), it’s doubtful most Americans would even recognize the man if they walked by him on the street. Portman is barely known outside of D.C. and his home state.
With Pawlenty, there’s the question of whether he really has the fire in the belly to wage a brass-knuckle national campaign. He failed to make a strong impression in the early GOP debates and refused to directly confront Romney over their differences on health care reform when he was given the chance in one of the nationally televised debates. He dropped out of the presidential campaign almost before it really got started, reportedly fearing that he was beginning to pile up some serious debt.
But that was then and this is now. And for now, both Pawlenty and Portman seem like strong contenders for the Number Two spot.
There are, of course, others who might fit the VP bill, including House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and possibly the brilliant but less articulate and convincing Louisiana governor, Bobby Jindal:
- Ryan is incredibly smart in navigating the complexities of government, a good speaker and likeable, even when selling something potentially politically toxic. Though not a lawyer, he may be as strong an advocate as any of the candidates: After all, he’s had to defend the draconian House Republican budget and overhaul of Medicare and Medicaid two years in a row – a document that just about everyone in his party ran from at first but has subsequently embraced.
- Jindal has been an effective governor and master of the health care issue. He won kudos for his hurricane response, and he's leading the effort among GOP governors to block implementation of the Medicaid portion of the health care reform law. But he's still taken to task for his poor delivery of the GOP response to Obama's February 2009 State of the Union message and is hardly the most articulate media presence. He may also be a lot more socially conservative than Romney is. And it's unclear whether he'd convert South Asian American voters to the GOP cause, as they generally vote Democratic.
As for Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who have also been mentioned as possible VP picks, the gritty nature of a national presidential campaign may hardly be the place for folks so new to the political game: Both women appear to lack the gravitas necessary for the role. Marco Rubio, the hard charging freshman senator from Florida, is also largely untested outside of his home state, and no one knows whether former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who served in the Bush administration and brings plenty of foreign policy credentials, would respond to a VP offer. She has said publicly she’s not interested.
Certainly, it might have been nice for Romney to have Chris Christie, the blustery and overbearing former prosecutor, at his side. But Christie carries a lot of political baggage and would likely overshadow Romney, which is not a good thing at all, and he’s more moderate in his views than Romney and the rest of the party.
For further insight and opinions, The Fiscal Times reached out to a number of experts for their thoughts on which individual Mitt Romney should pick and why:
"I wouldn't comment on whom Romney should pick, but I'm willing to venture a guess about whom he will pick. I think he’ll select Rob Portman because he has an appropriate background and he is from a key battleground state: Ohio. His experience is broad and deep enough that his association with the Bush administration is not likely to be a significant issue." --Michael Traugott, University of Michigan political science professor
"What Romney needs is a Squanto to act as a ‘go between’ with his country club, moderate tribe and the conservative-Tea Party tribe. Both Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Sen. John Thune of South Dakota would serve that purpose. Both are conservative, both are well thought of, both have conservative track records, both have excellent relations with the populist Tea Party movement – and both speak to constituencies that are deeply suspicious of Romney." --Craig Shirley, Reagan biographer
"I would recommend Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, though I doubt she’ll be picked. She would energize the ticket, have crossover appeal, and bring strong conservative credentials without appearing as in-your-face ideological. Given her gender and relative lack of experience, the choice would naturally bring comparisons to Sarah Palin – but from everything I’ve seen, she’ll be able to comport herself much more professionally and dispel those concerns quickly. New Hampshire’s electoral votes could also actually turn out to be pretty critical." --Chris Ellis, Bucknell University political scientist
"Both Portman and Pawlenty make the most sense in my book, as any unvetted candidate who has been in high office for only a short time is risky – and a risky choice isn’t in the cards for Romney. Portman is clearly qualified to succeed on Day One if needed. His big downside is his link to the two Bush presidencies — and especially the budget and therefore the debt issue. For Pawlenty, he balances Romney because of his blue-collar background and evangelical roots. He’s fully vetted and has had no D.C.-based responsibilities — a plus for a ticket running against Washington. He might be helpful in Midwest swing states, though it is very unlikely he can put Minnesota into the Romney column. The attacks on Portman suggest Democrats are concerned that he might enable Romney to win Ohio." --Larry Sabato, University of Virginia political analyst