Under Siege

Take It From Dan Quayle: Running Mates Run the Media Gantlet

Being a VP candidate means walking around with a bull’s eye on your forehead. As Mitt Romney makes his decision, let target practice begin, writes Quayle’s former press secretary.

08.11.12 8:45 AM ET

National political reporters, in August, are like 5-year-olds playing soccer: no matter how much you try to coach them to play their positions, they insist on swarming to the ball. So far this month, the ball to which the press corps has been swarming has been the question of Mitt Romney’s choice for his running mate.

Someone thinks they overhear Barack Obama saying something about Romney wanting CIA Director David Petraeus and suddenly the entire press corps swarms. The Twitterverse was running hot on Petraeus until Matt Drudge did a headline on the possibility and the Twitter tachometer got pinned in the red.

Is he a Republican? Do we know anything about him? Are we sure this is the correct spelling of his name? When was the last time a military person was successful as a major political candidate? 

The last general to pretend to make a serious run at national office was Wesley Clark, whose 2004 campaign was rattled from the beginning on the grounds that until shortly before announcing for the Democratic nomination he had been a Republican. The New York Times’s Kit Seeley famously wrote that Clark was running as a Democrat because it was “the only party that did not have a nominee.”

As Petraeus is the head of the CIA, it was not terribly easy to stick a microphone in his face at his office, so he was never heard from on the issue. 

That didn’t matter, because the next day the swarm moved off to Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan.

Ryan is a darling of the Tea Party because of his budget proposal, which, like the Affordable Care Act, has been talked about far more often than it has been actually read by the people who are doing the talking.

Rep. Ryan, like Gen. Petraeus, has never been tested or vetted at the national level, so there is no way to tell how he would perform in the glare of the national spotlight. If you don’t think running for national office is different than anything else, review the career of Newt Gingrich, who had never run for anything other than a congressional seat in Georgia and quickly learned the scale and pressure of a national campaign is a far, far different thing.

I know something about this.

I was Dan Quayle’s first press secretary after he beat 18-year incumbent Birch Bayh for the U.S. Senate seat from Indiana. His race was the first one called on the night that Ronald Reagan was elected. 

Quayle was no newcomer to politics. He had been a member of Congress for six years (having beaten another 18-year incumbent in his first race) and, when he ran for reelection for U.S. Senate in 1986, cruised to one of the largest victories in Hoosier history.

Unlike a certain president of the United States, Quayle had about 14 years of Capitol Hill experience when he was tapped by Vice President George H.W. Bush to be his running mate at the convention in New Orleans.

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Alas, Quayle was no one’s choice for the job except for H.W. When questions began to emerge about Quayle’s experience in the Indiana National Guard, his Hill credentials, and whether he was qualified to be president, the silence from the GOP graybeards in New Orleans was deafening and what we now call “the narrative” was allowed to take root and bloom with little pruning from Republican political and communications operatives.

Quayle was actually pretty well-liked and respected by his colleagues on both sides of the aisle, but when the bad times befell him, he was left to his own devices.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty is among those mentioned as a short-lister. Having been a governor, he understands managing complex systems (unlike senators or congressmen). But he also lost to Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul in the Iowa Straw Poll last summer and dropped out of the nomination contest within hours of the results being announced (and Texas Governor Rick Perry getting into the race).

Senator Marco Rubio was speaker of the Florida House, but has only a few years under his belt in the U.S. Senate. Even the insiders’ first choice, Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, has never been tested on the national stage.

The only real news about all this is Romney will announce his choice sometime in the next week or so and in the meantime, there are a bunch of twenty-somethings in a basement bullpen at the DNC headquarters who are combing through every digital scrap they can find on five or six people—so the attacks can begin before the announcement even ends.