So Real Clear Politics says that Romney’s short list for Vice President is down to Paul Ryan, Rob Portman, Tim Pawlenty, and Bobby Jindal. I’ll focus on Pawlenty and Jindal fora moment.
First, let’s remember that Romney’s real running mate is the Bureau of Labor Statistics. If the economy turns bad enough, fast enough, it hardly matters who Romney selects. The same is true if the next four jobs reports show job growth of over 200,000 per month. In a lot of ways, the things that happen can overwhelm anything the Obama and Romney campaigns choose to do. But today’s jobs report indicates a deeply ambiguous situation. I heard Larry Sabato on FOX News explaining that the polarization of the electorate and kind of economic news we have been getting in the last few months has created a situation in which we are headed for a very close election in which the quality of the campaigns and the candidates are likely to be decisive if current trends persist (which they may not - Europe’s banking system could explode on Monday or in 2014.)
Given current trends, Obama’s best chance is paint Romney as an out-of-touch greedhead who will outsource your job, take away your health insurance, and convert your momma’s Medicare into coupons so that he can give his rich friends huge tax cuts. Given that Romney has come out for premium support Medicare and Romney is just not that good at talking about right-leaning health care policy, these attacks could gain some traction. I don’t think that there is much consolation to be had from pointing out that it is tough to paint a moderate former Massachusetts governor like Romney as an ideological extremist. He doesn’t have to be painted as an ideologue exactly. It is enough to convince a crucial fraction of the public that Romney is a guy who doesn’t care about them and has some really bad ideas. So with this in mind, is Pawlenty or Jindal the better choice for Romney?
As a matter of style and first impressions, I’d say it was Pawlenty. Pawlenty was a moderately conservative governor of a Midwestern state. He cut public spending and maintained public services. He has already run for President once, so the press corp has a certain familiarity with him. He seems mentally stable, has executive experience, stays on the Romney campaign’s script, and seemingly has no skeletons in his closet. He has a history of winning over the working-class white swing-voters that Romney needs, and Pawlenty’s working-class roots won’t hurt either. It seems like it would be tough for the Obama campaign to paint a Romney-Pawlenty ticket as a couple of extremists.
That’s the positive on Pawlenty. I’m going to start with the negative on Jindal. Remember the explosion of loathing that greeted Palin? It’s what is going to happen if any non-white male is put on the Republican ticket. There will be a quick movement to turn that non-white male into the Other. Imagine if your introduction to Obama had been something along the lines of “a confessed college cocaine user, who is an ex-employees of an anti-American terrorist, who bought his house with timely help from a criminal influence peddler and who got the title of his second book from his racist and paranoid preacher.” That will be the initial reaction from the left-of-center media to a Jindal nomination. If Jindal gets picked, his college “exorcism” will, overnight, become the most famous supernatural event of the last 1950 years. You won’t have to watch the news to know all about it.
But I still think that Romney should, given a constrained choice, pick Jindal over Pawlenty. If Jindal, and the Romney campaign handle it right, the likely hysterical response to Jindal will work in the Romney campaign’s favor. When Jindal comes across as a reasonable, well informed, and competent guy, the extra attention will make Jindal more likeable and more people will listen harder to what Jindal has to say. Remember that Palin’s popularity went up after her convention speech. It was only the combination of the financial crisis, the McCain campaign’s ineptitude, several Palin interview stumbles, and (never forget) the McCain campaign’s ineptitude that made the Palin nomination problematic (and not the biggest or the second biggest of the McCain campaign’s problems.)
At the end of the day, the best way for Romney to defuse charges of extremism is to win the argument on those charges. Moving to premium support Medicare will sound scary. It will sound scary even if the Republican ticket is that “hey, didn’t he used to be a moderate” guy from Massachusetts and the nice guy from Minnesota. Most people don’t care how nice you seem if they think you are going to take away their health insurance and deny their parents health care. Pawlenty will dutifully repeat whatever semi-responsive talking points the Romney campaign dreams up to counter Obama’s forthcoming Mediscare campaign, but, from what I’ve seen, Jindal is just a lot better.
There would be other potential advantages to a Jindal pick. Jindal would probably do more to fire up Republican voters. Pawlenty is conservative, but Jindal is “a conservative.” Nobody has ever called Pawlenty the next Reagan. Now I don’t think that waiting and hoping for another Reagan is healthy, but the Reagan-Jindal comparisons give some idea of the enthusiasm with which conservatives would greet a Jindal nomination. Jindal’s record as governor of cutting spending, cutting taxes, encouraging energy exploration, maintaining public services, and having below-the-national-average unemployment serves as a good comparison with the record of the Obama administration.