5/22/2008

McCain's Veepstakes: Reassessing Romney

Ever since John McCain effectively clinched the Republican nomination back in February, he has had trouble staying in the headlines and getting media attention. After all, the chess match between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton has become quite a political spectacle. However, McCain recently grabbed headlines by revealing that he was meeting with Mitt Romney, Bobby Jindal, and Charlie Crist at his home in Arizona. These three names are significant because they are all plausible vice presidential nominees. Thus, this meeting is seen by pundits as the first major step of the vetting process to determine McCain's vice president.

I wrote earlier that Florida Governor Charlie Crist was well positioned to be McCain's running mate. He's a good-looking popular governor of a critical state that could offset McCain's age. He also has little baggage and has no ties to the unpopular Bush administration. This would make charges of "George Bush's third term" a bit harder to make. However, George Bush carried Florida in both 2000 and 2004 and is trending Republican, so a Crist selection would be more of a defensive pick. It wouldn't add much to the electoral map, but it would take the state out of play for the Democrats.

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal's inclusion as a possible running mate is a bit of a surprise because he has the same weaknesses that Republicans have criticized Barack Obama for. He served as a congressman for three years before being elected governor in 2007. He assumed office this January, thus giving him about five months of executive experience. Obama has served as a state senator for eight years and a senator in Washington since January 2005. Obama, who has been mocked as "Obambi" because of his age and relative inexperience, is 46. Jindal, however, is only 36. So this would take Obama's youth off the table as a political weapon. One advantage of a Jindal selection, however, is that it could help inoculate Republicans from charges that they are insensitive to people of color, especially if Obama is their opponent, because Jindal is of Indian ancestry.

Meanwhile, Mitt Romney is slowly rehabilitating his standing among Republicans. He had a tough time in the race for the Republican nomination and didn't really begin to catch fire among conservatives until it was too late. Given the Republicans' winner-take-all primary system, narrowly losing Florida was the straw that broke his campaign.

Despite his obvious political ambitions, I originally argued that Mitt Romney had nowhere to go because there were other more credible conservative alternatives out there and Romney's conservatism only looked appealing in comparison to his Republican opponents, all of whom had a serious flaw.

But three issues are working in Romney's favor:

1. Voters are increasingly pessimistic about the economy. McCain himself volunteered that he doesn't know much about economics. That remark is coming back to haunt McCain, so he desperately needs to burnish his economic credentials to regain his credibility. Mitt Romney has a good track record of turning businesses around and is well regarded by the business wing of the Republican Party. Democrats will have a difficult time attacking Romney over his economic competence because he obviously understands Wall Street. Railing against "tax cuts for the rich" probably won't get them very far.

2. The chaos engulfing the Democratic Party over Michigan and Florida is threatening to put both states out of reach by tamping down enthusiasm among the Democratic voters there. John McCain was already strong in Michigan (he won its primary in 2000 and narrowly placed second this year), but adding favorite son Mitt Romney (the winner of this year's primary) to the ticket could turn it into a prime pick-up opportunity for the Republicans. And because the Michigan economy is tanking right now under Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm, voters there might respond favorably to Romney's economic message. The word "change" may also backfire on Democrats there for this very reason. Any message of "change" could be viewed as a "change" from Granholm's stewardship. If a McCain-Romney ticket can peel away Michigan, it would force the Democrats to defend Pennsylvania and pick off Ohio.

3. McCain is still regarded as the underdog against both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. If McCain loses the election, Romney would be poised to assume the mantle of party leader and Republican frontrunner in 2012. And by being loyal to this year's standard bearer, he is burnishing his credentials as a reliable Republican who will do whatever it takes to see that Republicans get elected. Campaigning as McCain's veep would also give Romney the opportunity to show voters his softer side, thus helping him overcome the perception of him as emotionless and sterile. So really, even by losing the nomination, Romney can still win. It's as if Mitt Romney is to John McCain in 2008 as Ronald Reagan was to Gerald Ford in 1976.

Obviously, it is still early. It is not urgent that McCain choose his running mate right away, especially since Obama and Clinton are still fighting and the summer lull is coming. And the controversies surrounding Jeremiah Wright and John Hagee may reignite suspicions about Romney's faith, especially in light of the raid on the polygamous FLDS sect in Texas. All in all, however, Romney's stock value appears to be rising. Romney is not the consummate Republican, but McCain could certainly do worse.

13 comment(s):

Jennifer Read said...

Romney's economic background and strong ties to Michigan could certainly help McCain. But I wonder if his reputation as a panderer would be too incongruous with McCain's message of being "the straight talker." I also think that his faith may continue to bother many Southern evangelicals in the GOP base.

In terms of a VP candidate with a strong economic background, Rep. Rob Portman might be a good choice. Even though he doesn't have any executive experience, he could help McCain in Ohio. But like you said, it's still early and there's no rush for McCain to decide now. Nice post.

Thomas said...

I was waiting for this post, Anthony. I don't see Mitt Romney 2008 similar to Ronald Reagan 1976. People loved Ronald Reagan. His movement just hadn't peaked in 1976.

One thing that bugged me about Mitt Romney's campaign for president is that he was acting like there was a groundwell of support for him when no such thing existed. Romney seemed to have to buy whatever little support he received.

I don't see Romney playing very well in the South. He should have tried to establish a northeastern and western coalition. Followers of politics know that my fellow southerners are a fickle bunch. They like only their own.

Brett said...

How popular is Romney with Republicans right now? I know that he assumed the "more conservative" mantle in the fight with McCain, but that was more because Republicans who didn't like McCain or his history really had no one else practical to vote for (and Ron Paul doesn't count on the regard, since he is an atypical Republican).

I'd be hesitant about assuming that he'll evolve into something similar to Reagan in 1976 or 1980. Reagan, as Thomas mentioned, was at the top of massive groundswell of support driven by conservative activists that had grown out of California and dated back to his runs for governorship of the state. There was no doubting that he had conservative credentials, even if he had taken some major centrist decisions as governor.

Romney, to put it lightly, doesn't have that. He doesn't have a whole host of partisans ready and willing to fight for him, and I think it's questionable that he could win that in 4 years if McCain loses. John Edwards tried to do the same thing after Kerry's defeat in 2004, and it didn't reap him any good (although, to be fair, that was because he was overshadowed by the rise of Obama as the challenger).

Anthony Palmer said...

Jennifer,

I think Portman would be a good pick too in that he would definitely take Ohio off the table and he has lots of credibility regarding economics. That would be a very deep ticket in terms of experience. However, the problem with Portman is that he's a congressman. This means his name recognition is very poor. Duncan Hunter was probably the best GOP candidate in the field this time around, but nobody knew who he was because he was a congressman. In the case of Portman, while his name recognition may be poor nationally, it is just fine in Ohio, which may be all that matters.

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Thomas/Brett,

The reason why I mentioned Reagan was because of the timing. Ford blocked Reagan, who blocked Bush I, who blocked Dole. And Bush II blocked McCain. In all of these cases, after getting blocked, they all ascended to the nomination. So perhaps McCain is blocking Romney. But I agree--Reagan was much more popular than Romney because he had a whole movement behind him. And Romney only came to be seen as a conservative IN RELATION TO THE OTHER FLAWED CANDIDATES. Perhaps the 2012 GOP field will be much richer, so Romney might not be seen as the golden boy he's trying to portray himself as now. Remember, if George Allen hadn't opened his big mouth, Romney would probably be nothing more than an asterisk.

Torrance Stephens bka All-Mi-T said...

lord whats next?

Thomas said...

I don't think Romney would have even run if George Allen hadn't had his macaca moment.

I read an article awhile back that said the biggest moment of the 2008 Republican presidential race actually occurred in 2006 when Allen called the Jim Webb volunteer who was shadowing Allen "macaca."

Anthony, do you think George Allen would have easily have won the Republican nomination this year? Would he have had a chance against Barack Obama?

Brett said...

I can guarantee that the 2012 will be richer - and probably exclusive to Mitt Romney, although he will probably give it a go if a Democrat wins in 2008. Whoever is McCain's VP candidate would almost certainly run, although with possibly Charlie Crist, and maybe even Bobby Jindal (although if an Obama ticket lost, he might be a bit hesitant to run as inexperienced).

I doubt Allen would have easily won, but he certainly would have been a more appealling choice to Republicans than McCain. McCain, to a large extent, won because early on, up until probably the Florida Primary, there were so many conservative Republicans who split the conservative wing of the Republican Party, and by the time the candidates narrowed again, McCain had established a presence as frontrunner.

Anthony Palmer said...

Hi Thomas,

I'm back from vacation, so I can finally respond to your question. Republicans are big on hierarchy when it comes to crowning a nominee. That's why the fights for the GOP nomination are typically over quickly. George Allen was at the head of the line until he stepped in a big pile of macaca. As a result, he lost his Senate re-election bid, which made him a wounded warrior because how often do people run for higher office after losing an election for a lower one? On top of this, "macaca" would have given the Democrats the opportunity to blast Allen (and the GOP by extension) as racist. So I think Obama would have had a good chance against a wounded Allen. But against a strong Allen, it's hard to say. Virginia would probably be a no-go, and the South would probably be locked up as well because Allen could easily lock up the "Bubba" vote. The race would be won and lost in the Midwest and Southwest.

Romney probably would have sat 2008 out if Allen had run because Allen is a far more credible conservative than Romney is. He also doesn't have the "religion problem" that Romney has, so he wouldn't have to deal with evangelicals' skepticism in the Bible Belt. And Allen would do a better job of keeping Virginia off the table than Romney would.

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Brett,

Yes, McCain won because the conservative vote was split. Each candidate had a fatal flaw, so McCain was able to emerge as the last man standing. He didn't really win the nomination. Given the way the GOP race went, a more accurate statement would be that he did the best job of not losing it. Losing Florida is what did Romney in, and he can thank Huckabee and Giuliani for that. Romney clearly wants to be President, so I'd expect him to try again in 2012. But I agree that the GOP field next time around (if McCain loses) will be far stronger than this year's. I'd look at people like Congressmen Mike Pence (IN) and John Shadegg (AZ); and Governors Tim Pawlenty (MN), Haley Barbour (MS), Mark Sanford (SC), and Sarah Palin (AK). They are all very attractive candidates with no obvious flaws like Huckabee, Thompson, and Giuliani. Romney had better bring his A-game because these candidates are quite disciplined and have cross-electoral appeal to match their records of results.

Anthony Palmer said...

Brett,

By the way, about age/term limits, I'm conflicted. Politicians won't be able to build up seniority and become more adept at dealing with the government if they don't have the chance to become veterans. But at the same time, you have a lot of politicians in Washington who represent old ways of thinking. For people in our generation, we look at 70- and 80-year old politicians and can't relate to them at all. Ted Stevens of Alaska once referred to the internet as "a series of tubes." That stuff totally alarms us.

Also, if politicians could only serve one term, they wouldn't have to worry about reelection, but then a new risk would be introduced. Corporations or special interests could essentially buy off candidates to do their bidding for their one term before buying off the next candidate.

I think a three-term limit for House members and a two-term limit for senators sounds good. BTW, have you read Larry Sabato's book "A More Perfect Constitution?" Very interesting ideas there, such as changing the election cycle and revamping the Electoral College. Highly recommended.

Deacon Tim said...

But Anthony, do we ever really vote for a President based on who the Veep nominee is? A Veep can certainly hurt, (Quayle comes to mind), but does it really help?

And as for Veep corporate experience helping the POTUS, I wonder if it will only remind people that the current Veep had a long and successful career in corporate America. Fat lot of good that did us.

Anthony Palmer said...

Deacon Tim,

The first rule of a VP is to do the President no harm. Quale harmed Bush I. Lieberman hurt Gore during the recount. Edwards hurt Kerry by not delivering his home state.

I think Obama's VP may be a bit more important than other VP's from previous tickets because it seems there are a lot of barriers that he must overcome in the mind of voters. Think about the exit polls from recent states saying that "the race of the candidate was a big factor in my vote." This is obviously not to say that people who don't vote for Obama are automatically racist, but I do think Obama could gain new voters by reducing the strength of this "barrier" with his VP pick. This is one reason why I would argue that a Bill Richardson selection might not be wise this time around.

The same could be said for McCain. Should he select a fairly sedate politician, especially an older one, that might not allay any fears voters have about his age. Sure, McCain will be at the top of the ticket, but the VP wouldn't give voters any additional impetus to soften our views on him.

So what I'm trying to say is that VP's help by not hurting the President. I don't think they really get people to vote for the President so much as they make voters feel more comfortable with the top of the ticket. Does that make any sense?

I guess party bases care more about veeps than anyone else. But Dick Cheney has redefined the vice presidency, so perhaps it matters more to more people now than it did earlier.

Brett said...

Anthony, I'm going to grab that book by Sabato and give it a read. Thanks for the suggestion!

An interesting way of getting around the "term limit" issue might be high re-election criteria after a certain amount of terms. Perhaps a senator should be required to gather 75% or more of the vote in his third re-election in order to be eligible to run for a fourth. This would obviously create a strong incentive for gerrymandering, but perhaps if you combined it with Iowa-style nonpartisan reapportionment committees, then it would work.

I think there should be some re-election, because of the seniority issue and because of what I've seen in Mexico, where there is no re-election for any federal office. But do we really benefit from having a senator in office for more than 18 years? How much time does a good senator need to be effective? Perhaps it would have an unexpected book of encouraging more politicians to run for president, or for state offices without term limits.

Thomas said...

I am a proponent of term limits. I look at the Supreme Court and just think of the selfishness of the justices serving for 20 or 30 years. There are so many great legal minds in this country who will never get to serve on that court because somebody was going for a longevity record.

I am also not a big fan of the "family" Senate seat. For example, when someone dies while in office, a wife or husband assumes the seat. Why? What are the spouses' qualifications? Now I hear Ted Kennedy wants his wife to assume his seat if he can't continue. Why? To serve as a placeholder until one of their kids is ready?

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