Ross Douthat has concluded that Romney is most likely to pick the safest and most boring available candidate for his running mate, and that guy is Rob Portman. Maybe. I’ve read some articles about Portman and I’ve seen him give some speeches on television. I can’t get much of a read on the guy. I forget what he says the moment he is done talking, but the same is true of President Obama’s speeches. They are both boring in different ways, but it seems to have worked out okay for Obama, so why not Portman? Portman surely has the breadth of experience to be a credible Vice President and his blowout win in his 2010 Ohio Senate race indicates some skills as a candidate. The big downside to Portman is his service in the Bush administration.
I think Douthat is a little hard on Tim Pawlenty when Douthat writes:
The best case for Pawlenty is that he would bring a common touch and a populist style to a candidacy that currently lacks both. But that case was fatally undermined by the Minnesota governor’s performance on the campaign trail last fall. A populist who inspires so little enthusiasm from actual voters that he drops out before the first ballot gets cast probably isn’t the man to improve Mitt Romney’s numbers with blue-collar voters in Ohio and Michigan – and absent that qualification, the argument for picking Pawlenty mostly evaporates.
Pawlenty made several major mistakes in his presidential race. The first was trying to run as a candidate of angry ideological purity, when he should have been running as the more conservative version of Mitt Romney. He lost the authenticity contest to Michelle Bachmann and he dropped out when he finished behind her in the Ames Republican straw poll. Pawlenty’s second mistake was dropping out when he did (or rather building a campaign structure that required so much fundraising that he had to drop out when his campaign didn’t catch on early.) The Republican race saw one surge each by Bachmann, Perry, and Cain and two surges each by Gingrich and Santorum. If Pawlenty had stayed in and decided to be himself, there is a good chance he would have caught a wave.
Douthat’s point that you don’t need a populist that can’t get people to vote for him is well taken, but Pawlenty did get people to vote for him for governor in the purple state of Minnesota. I think the main political argument for Pawlenty is that he will dutifully and enthusiastically read from whatever script the Romney campaign gives him and won’t come across too mean when he does it. From what I’ve seen, he is pretty good at it. Pawlenty might be the guy to carry Romney’s message if Romney decides not to have much of a message. Pawlenty also presents a fairly small target for Democrats. They’ll make fun of Pawlenty’s “Obamaneycare” line but it will be tough to paint Pawlenty as nuts, or extreme or corrupt or incompetent or tie him to Bush. Pawlenty might also be able to help Romney a little with working-class white voters. Pawlenty’s troubles in the presidential nomination race might not be a good indicator of his general election appeal. The people who vote in the Ames Iowa Republican straw poll and working-class white swing voters are very different populations.
But I think Douthat might be overlooking Virginia governor Bob McDonnell. McDonnell has a good record as a spending cutter who has maintained government services. He is pretty popular in a crucial swing state. Obama would throw a party if his job approval rating was 56%. McDonnell has only been governor since 2010 but he has turned around state finances and has a state government surplus. McDonnell has experience as a state attorney general and a military officer. Democrats would try to campaign against McDonnell’s pro-life principles and the Virginia ultrasound bill. Bring it on. If Obama wants to spend the election talking to an economy-minded electorate about abortion from his own exposed position as a supporter of partial birth abortion and sex selective abortions, then Republicans should welcome such a Democrat strategy. The thing with McDonnell is that he gets the tone just right. He can criticize Obama’s economic record without seeming at all strident. He is better at it than Bobby Jindal who comes across a bit uncomfortable in the attack dog role. McDonnell is also a master at parrying culture war attacks and going back to the economy. The Democrats spent the 2009 Virginia gubernatorial election trying to run a culture war campaign against McDonnell largely on the abortion issue. McDonnell eloquently defended his social conservative beliefs and kept his focus on the economy. McDonnell won with almost 59% of the vote. Having the Obama campaign attack McDonnell’s abortion views opens Obama up to a devastating counterattack on abortion and lets McDonnell plausibly argue that Obama is just trying to distract the country from his own economic failures. It makes Obama look extreme, shifty, and incompetent all at the same time. The 2009 McDonnell campaign should be the template for how Romney should try to win over swing-voters. McDonnell has just the right the temperament and experience to help Romney run that kind of campaign.
It looks like Romney is starting his big pre-convention bus trip in Virginia. That is probably a little early to announce a VP pick. Douthat is right that Romney will probably go cautious. I’d prefer Romney go with Jindal, but the risks with Jindal are real and Jindal isn’t the guy to pick if you are just going to play the prevent defense until November. So Romney will probably play it safe. I actually think that Pawlenty would probably end up being a politically safer pick than Portman, but McDonnell offers more political upside than either.