Michael Tomasky on Romney’s Veep and Convention-Speaker Trap

A presidential candidate usually puts his mark on his party by choosing a running mate and shaping the convention. But this time the party is putting its stamp on the candidate. Plus, Mark McKinnon on why Mitt should keep quiet.

Gerald Herbert

Not that Mitt Romney doesn’t have other problems right now, but think about this one. He’s on the verge, they say, of picking a running mate. He needs a person who will reassure the right wing in a big way, arguably even more so now that he’s having to apologize for capitalism. And yet at the same he needs to orchestrate a convention that will send the signal to middle America that they shouldn’t worry, the right wing hasn’t taken this party over just yet. It’s a pickle, and it’s one he put himself in. Why? Most nominees put their stamp on their party, but this time around, the party has indelibly put its stamp on the nominee.

Let’s talk about the veepstakes. First of all, I wonder how Condi Rice is feeling about Romney these days. She said a hundred times if she said once that she had no interest in the job. The Romney people knew it was impossible, not only for that reason but mainly because of her “mild pro-choice” stance. Yet this didn’t stop them from trotting her name out there in a dark moment trying to change the subject from Bain. Various conservatives criticized her, declared her unacceptable. And not a word from Romney or any Romney staffer I’ve seen defending her. She was just a handy prop, useful for one quick, shotgun purpose. Character!

No intelligent person took that seriously because with his veep pick Romney has to do what he’s done with his disavowal of his signature accomplishment as governor, and what he’s done on so many other issues over the course of this campaign: pander to his party’s most extreme elements. At the very least, the person has to be sturdily anti-abortion. But ideally, he (and all the big names are he's) might be more: an evangelical or at least a fellow traveler, one who doesn’t live in fear of the secularists and blasphemers and refuses to hide his New Testament lamp under a bushel.

The problem seems to be that the list of people who meet those criteria and actually could plausibly pass the "heartbeat-away" test is mercifully brief. This is why we hear Bobby Jindal’s name so frequently, but for the life of me, I don’t see how that guy passes the heartbeat test. Governor of Louisiana to the White House? They’ve more typically headed to the penitentiary, or the asylum. Then there’s Marco Rubio, the winner of Matt Drudge’s online, unscientific poll yesterday. I can see that. But a couple of years in the spotlight, and his star has dimmed a little. The polls show him making little or no difference, even in Florida. And he has issued several explicit disavowals about the job. I mean explicit (“off the table”).

For my money, all this points to Mike Huckabee as the logical choice. He’s Southern and a Baptist and he’s been down this road (thus, an automatic qualifier on the heartbeat question) and the media like him. He plays the guitar. Bass, which is always the instrument of choice for loners and kids trying desperately to fit in, but still. I’m flummoxed as to why he’s not on these lists. He ranks behind both Pauls, Ron and Rand, on Intrade. The rest of them—except for Paul Ryan, who is the liberals’ dream candidate—no one knows or cares about.

The simultaneous problem is managing the convention, which becomes even more severe if Romney chooses as his veep some vanilla like Rob Portman or Tim Pawlenty. The base won’t care about them at all (or it might care about Pawlenty, but not in a good way, once people learn about his kind words for the individual mandate). So Romney will need to devote some considerable portion of the convention—the event you’re supposed to use to reach into the homes and hearts of uncommitted voters—to stroking the right.

And here my Beast colleague Peter Boyer was on the mark with his Sarah Palin piece on Monday. Should she have a speaking role at the convention? Her phone hasn’t rung yet. I don’t understand it. She’s Numero Uno with the very voters who distrust Romney. If they can trot her out there for 10 minutes, and write remarks (and make her stick to them) that say in essence, “You don’t have to love Mitt Romney, but you do have to vote for him,” I’d think that Romney would want that very much, especially if the religious conservatives are belly-aching about a veep choice who isn’t “one of us.”

Who’s going to fill that slot otherwise? The buffoon Herman Cain? Rick Santorum, who became popular for about six weeks only because he wasn’t Mitt Romney and whom few people give much thought to otherwise? Rick Perry, who vaporized under the slightest scrutiny and left his mark on the race by not being able to remember a list three items long? There’s no one of stature except for Palin. And if I’m using “Palin” and “stature” in the same sentence without irony, that gives you an idea of how bad things are.

The bottom line in all these questions is this: These are the decisions—the vice president, the choreography of the convention—with which a nominee makes the party his own, erases that which preceded him. Bill Clinton did that dramatically for the Democrats in 1992 by being a New Democrat. George W. Bush did it, with compassionate conservatism, crock though it was. Barack Obama did it pretty much just by being who he was, supplying the Democrats with such a strongly felt sense that his election wasn’t just an election but a chapter in a long story of historical redemption. And all of them announced and elaborated their major themes long before the convention.

Who, in this context, is Mitt Romney? An ex-governor who can’t discuss his record, and an ex-capitalist who ... is getting close to the point where he can’t discuss his record. And who has been afraid for two years, or more, lest he offend Rush Limbaugh and Fox. This is not his Republican Party. It’s theirs. And Romney has given us no reason to think that will change.