With Week 2 of the Olympics underway, time is running out for the chattering class to lecture Mitt Romney about who he absolutely, positively must tap as his running mate in order to prove he’s got what it takes to be president. Right on schedule, panic has set in, and the anti-anti-Palin double backlash is in full swing.
For months (if not years) now, we’ve been hearing about how Sarah Palin changed everything for the Republican establishment—and not in a good way. The game-changing Alaskan’s supernova veep flameout scarred party leaders, provoking a fierce determination not to let that sort of thing happen again. Thus the repeated reassurances, including from Team Romney, that this year’s pick would be the anti-Palin: safe, steady, hyperqualified, and without a roguish bone in his—yes, definitely his—body.
Among veepstakes handicappers, rising stars like Nikki Haley, Marco Rubio, and Chris Christie were docked points for sins such as inexperience, controversy, obnoxiousness, and just generally having a personality. Innocuous, soporific white guys like Rob Portman and T-Paw became the horses to bet on. Never had political white bread been in such demand. And then …
After an underwhelming month in which Obama battered Romney on Bain and taxes, and won the likability battle in the swing states, Republicans began pondering what could happen if their uninspiring, buttoned-down, overly cautious nominee made an uninspiring, buttoned-down, overly cautious pick for veep. Everyone agrees that experience and gravitas are fine qualities in presidential politics, but what if you wind up with a ticket so anti-charismatic it becomes the political equivalent of a Dementor, sucking the life force from all the hapless voters who wander into its path?
Hoping to head off just such a scenario, conservative talkers are suddenly urging Romney to, if not throw caution to the wind, at least give it a good fanning. In the current Weekly Standard, Bill Kristol and Stephen Hayes issue the joint plea “Go bold, Mitt!” urging their man to pick Rep. Paul Ryan (“the Republican Party’s intellectual leader”) or Sen. Marco Rubio (its “most gifted young politician”). GOP eminence Jeb Bush is also on record for Rubio. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal is pushing for Ryan, while conservative Times-man Ross Douthat prefers Jindal. On the Sunday shows this weekend, RNC chairman Reince Preibus eschewed the name game but assured us all that Romney’s choice will be—you guessed it—“bold.”
It’s not hard to fathom all the angst. Whatever concrete gifts a running mate brings to the table, the VP pick serves more broadly as a window into the heart and judgment of the nominee. The choice of Palin in ’08 didn’t unnerve the public merely because it questioned her readiness to step up. More important, her implosion prompted voters look at John McCain and ask: What in the hell was that guy thinking?
In 2000, Al Gore suffered from many of the same image troubles as Romney. He was boring, awkward, robotic, hypercautious, and he inspired about as much enthusiasm as Bristol Palin’s reality show. No one expected Gore ever to do anything remotely surprising. So when he named Joe Lieberman as his running mate—the first Jewish nominee ever tapped—it gave the media an exciting new narrative to play with.
Kristol and Hayes may be laying it on a little thick when they argue that as Romney labors to make his case to voters, “it may be that nothing will speak louder than his selection of a running mate.” But with a nominee still struggling to define himself, every key decision (and there are precious few of them left) will be parsed for meaning.
For Romney, a dishwater-dull choice would confirm the suspicions of many anxious Republicans that the governor lacks vision, fire, and boldness. After all this time worrying about another Palin, a greater danger seems to have captured the Republican imagination: a veep nominee so dull that no one even cares what he says to Katie Couric.