When the time comes to choose a running mate, Dick Cheney wrote in his book, “It’s harder to find a good vice presidential candidate than you might think.” And he ought to know. As the head of the VP search committee, Cheney famously had such a hard time finding just the right man to be George W. Bush’s No. 2 that he ended up in the job himself.
Beth Myers, the woman running Mitt Romney’s veep vet, is likely finding that Cheney was right about the tough task of selecting a person who not only can help the ticket in November but, more important, can perform and succeed as vice president long after the inaugural balls are over.
Barrels of ink have been spilled over which candidate on Romney’s rumored short list could help him take Ohio, woo Latinos, or win over soccer moms. But who could succeed in the difficult job itself, a position without portfolio that Vice President John Nance Garner, FDR’s VP, once derided as “not worth a bucket of warm piss”?
Scholars, former vice presidential staffers, and current Washington insiders say the best potential veep will have a combination of the right temperament, a deep skill set, value-added experience, and a fat Rolodex to excel in the job. Specifically, they say Romney should be looking for:
Chemistry. It may sound like an eHarmony ad, but those in the know say it is essential that Romney and his vice president like each other for their relationship to work. “The most important job of the modern vice president is to have a sense of trust with the president, where you can help them be better at their job,” says David Thomas, a former aide to Vice President Al Gore. “It will be someone whose counsel the president can rely on, who the president can delegate responsibilities to, and who the president can talk off the record with, because there are very few people who they can confide in.”
Joel Goldstein, a vice presidential scholar and professor at St. Louis University School of Law, says the potential veep also must be willing to act as a reality check in a sea of yes men. “You need somebody who will be loyal, but also strong enough to be able to walk into the Oval Office and say, ‘I think you’re wrong,’” Goldstein says. “If they’re not doing that, they’re not doing their job.”
Ability. Romney has said it himself—he wants his second in command to be able to step into the job as president on Day 1. That means he or she not only will need to be capable of performing as the nation’s chief executive but also must come with enough foreign policy expertise to take over as commander in chief in a worst-case scenario. In light of Romney’s lack of overseas experience, insiders say his second in command will likely need to have foreign policy chops to spare.
People person*. The vice president often stands in for the president at political functions, but the veep also will need to be able to handle the unparalleled office politics inside the West Wing and the Beltway. Between Romney loyalists, GOP party leaders, and diplomatic demands, the vice president will have to help Romney navigate Washington’s legendary turf wars, ideally with relationships they’ve developed over their own careers. *But aides warn of an overly ambitious pick who may have his or her own post-Romney agenda. “Gore had his own ambitions, but he also relished the role of being a trusted No. 2,” says Thomas.
Wise to Washington. As Romney is not a creature of Washington, insiders say he’ll need a fixer for the Capitol Hill crowd. Coincidentally, the only constitutional role of a vice president is as the president of the Senate, so a successful Romney veep choice will be able to act as an emissary to Capitol Hill, wrangling votes, keeping tabs on rebellions, and generally attending to the care and feeding of members of Congress, a needy bunch if ever there was one.
A Leader and a Follower. Perhaps the most important but least discussed requirement for a vice president is the dual ability to lead a nation and to be willing to act as subordinate for eight years, if necessary. “You’ve got to find somebody who is presidential, but who is also vice presidential,” Goldstein says. “If somebody isn’t able to play a supporting role, they may have trouble as vice president.” Goldstein pointed to LBJ as a No. 2 who struggled in the role and to Walter Mondale and George H.W. Bush as those who found a way to lead and follow at the same time. Goldstein adds, “For somebody operating at that level, it’s not a normal function.”
With these criteria as a guide, let’s see how the names on the short list stack up.
Rob Portman, senator from Ohio: Likely performance: A
Putting aside Portman’s no-sizzle factor for a moment, those who know Portman say his boring-white-guy persona belies an affable, trustworthy, and wildly competent potential vice president for Romney. As a senator and former House member, Portman knows both sides of Capitol Hill and also worked in the White House under both Bushes. Portman burnished his foreign policy credentials as the U.S. trade representative for George W. Bush and now sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee overseeing the U.S. military. If Romney were to win, he would need a veep trained in the ways of Washington, and Portman could be the best in the bunch for those purposes.
Bobby Jindal, governor of Louisiana: Likely performance: A-
Jindal may have bombed his response to President Obama’s first State of the Union address, but the conservative base isn’t holding it against the two-term governor of Louisiana. The well-liked Jindal is also well-respected inside the Beltway, where he served in the George W. Bush administration and was also a two-term member of the House, all before the age of 35. The former Rhodes scholar is also a whiz in health policy thanks to his stint as Louisiana’s youngest ever director of the Department of Health and Hospitals. With entitlement reform on the agenda of any president, Jindal would be a value-add on Day 1. Jindal’s key deficits are his lack of foreign policy experience and Doogie Howser demeanor, the latter of which could make closing deals with committee chairmen even tougher than usual.
Tim Pawlenty, former Minnesota governor: Likely performance: B+
The man known as “T-Paw” has enjoyed front-runner status in the D.C. veep-stakes buzz lately, thanks in large part to the considerable chemistry he and Romney have shown together at campaign events around the country. The usually gee-whiz Midwesterner also caught political watchers’ attention last month in North Carolina, when he traded in his mom jeans for boxing gloves and delivered a barn burner of a speech that lit into Barack Obama in a way few thought possible of the original “Sam’s Club Republican.” In addition to Pawlenty’s potential as a trusted and effective sidekick, Pawlenty would give Romney a guaranteed “in” with the GOP base, which continues to give the former Massachusetts governor the hairy eyeball but has always liked the friendly and unquestionably conservative—and competent—Pawlenty.
The biggest strike against Pawlenty as a potential Romney VP may be that he is too much like the potential boss. Both are former governors of not-so-red states, and Pawlenty lacks significant foreign policy experience and long-standing relationships inside Washington, deficiencies that would do little to help Romney in the areas he needs it most.
Paul Ryan, congressman from Wisconsin: Likely performance: B
In addition to being on Romney’s rumored VP short list, Rep. Ryan was also on Time magazine’s short list for “Person of the Year” after passing a budget through the House that went where mortals dared not tread—entitlement reform. In addition to winning over magazine editors, Ryan won over conservatives nationally who have grown to view him as a modern-day, budget-busting folk hero.
The seven-term congressman would give Romney both a fresh, young presence on the political scene and a creature of Washington—someone who could work seamlessly with the House and Senate GOP leadership on Romney’s behalf to get his agenda through the Hill’s considerable hoops.
But the budget-obsessed Wisconsinite may be too one-note to fill out the demands of the vice presidency, with no military or foreign policy bona fides to bring to the table while Romney learns on the job.
Kelly Ayotte, senator from New Hampshire: Likely performance: C+
Dick Cheney said he didn’t have a long list and a short list, but a private list, for people who were being considered, and a public list, for people he wanted to the world to believe he was considering.
Ayotte, along with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, seems to be a public-list, female-friendly candidate, rather than a real possibility for the Romney team.
Although she is seen as a fast-rising star by Republicans in Washington, her biggest challenge is time—the 43-year-old Ayotte has been in the Senate for just 18 months, making her a dangerous choice for any Republican looking to erase memories of Sarah Palin’s disastrous tryout.
Republicans say with a few more years, Ayotte will be a quadruple threat for a VP pick, as a trusted conservative, member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, eventual Washington veteran, and mother with young children. Earlier, Sen. John McCain predicted to The Daily Beast that the “incredibly quick study” will end up in the Republican leadership “very soon,” adding, “I would imagine that over time she may go even further than the Senate.”
Marco Rubio, senator from Florida: Likely performance: C
Count Rubio as another rising star who could help the 2012 GOP ticket as a vice presidential candidate but who would make a lousy vice president in 2013. Beloved by the Republican base and admired by Latinos for his personal story, the junior senator from Florida clearly has a major future ahead of him. But Senate staffers also say the charming Rubio needs seasoning before he could step in as a president’s top adviser, let alone step up as president if necessary. And with just 18 months of experience in the Senate and a youthful demeanor to boot, it’s hard to imagine Rubio calling the shots in the event of a worst-case scenario.
Evidence of Rubio’s inexperience came out recently when he gave what was billed as a “major foreign policy speech” at the Brookings Institution. After delivering the lengthy speech from notes, Rubio paused toward the end, looking for something. “I left the last page of my speech. Does anyone have my last page?” he asked.
Supplied with the final bit of his address, Rubio read on but left an impression with those in the audience. “Not ready for prime time,” observed a veteran Republican.