When looking at how much “risk” Romney wants to take on in picking a running mate, it helps to look at what kind of positive message Romney wants the public to hear in the fall campaign (that is distinct from the obvious negative message that Romney will run regarding economic conditions.) If Romney wants to run a positive message that the average viewer will mostly hear as “Free enterprise! Yeah! Am I right!?”, then he should pick Pawlenty or Portman. They will repeat Romney’s talking points and it will minimize the freakout among the left-of-center. Pawlenty or Portman will get the Romney nonmessage out with minimum static and probably minimal public interest (both because of the messenger and the message.)
The left-of-center response to a Bobby Jindal or Bob McDonnell would be more intense. The left-of-center media and political allies of the White House would try to run a culture war campaign against McDonnell or Jindal as religious fanatic extremist freaks. The reaction would be especially intense if Jindal is picked. Here is where it gets tricky. The hysterical left-of-center reaction to such a pick would be a Romney asset if McDonnell or Jindal are given something to say. If the Romney campaign has pithy and clear responses to the hysterical attacks on McDonnell or Jindal, and the VP has a real message about issues people care about (health care security, Medicare), then the liberal attacks will seem small and mean. The attacks will draw attention to the things that McDonnell and Jindal have to say, and it could help Romney quite a bit if they said something people didn’t know. The model should be Ronald Reagan explaining policies to people who didn’t already agree with him. It didn’t matter how many times liberals called Reagan an extremist, because when persuadables saw Reagan themselves, they saw a reasonable guy who spoke in terms of common sense. His critics ended up looking ideological and unhinged. A hysterical attack on Jindal from a position of social liberalism not only opens up the incumbent President to attacks for his support of partial birth abortion, it also means people will listen harder if Jindal has something clear to say about Obama’s proposed cuts to Medicare through a centralized board and it gives Jindal a chance to explain Romney’s premium support Medicare proposal. People are going to hear about Romney’s premium support plan from somebody. Would Republicans prefer that people first heard about it from Jindal or from an Obama attack ad?
The worst thing that Romney could do would be to pick McDonnell or Jindal and send them out with the same “I love America of entrepreneur free markets against the European Obama of socialism” pablum that Romney has been spewing since the night of the Iowa Caucuses. That kind of “message” in the mouths of Jindal or McDonnell would be ignored. Everybody would tune it out. Who would buy the idea that the culture war attacks are a distraction from the more important issues of how much Romney loves free markets and hates insurance mandates? Culture war (with Romney on the defensive and Obama off to the side as the Romney campaign sparred with the media) would dominate the coverage and reduce the effectiveness of whatever Romney actually wanted to say.
So it comes down to what risks Romney wants to run. He can try to keep his head down other than to criticize Obama’s economic record, make no special attempt to refute Obama’s attacks on Romney’s policy proposals, and keep his positive message and bland as possible. In this scenario, Romney’s hope would be that economic conditions are so bad that people won’t care about Obama’s unrefuted (or feebly refuted) attacks on Romney’s policy proposals as long as they hear some vague soothing sounds from Romney. If that is the campaign Romney wants to run, then he should pick Pawlenty of Portman. The risk is that Romney’s actual proposals (as distinct from his message) involve some huge and scary-sounding changes. If Romney runs a vague campaign, it is more likely that the Romney platform will be defined by Obama rather than Romney and that could make the difference.
Romney could work harder to sell some of his proposals, but the risk is that he would get in the policy weeds rather than focusing on his message of the lousy Obama economy. I think that risk is overblown. It isn’t like people are going to forget that the economy is lousy and that Obama is President. And it isn’t entirely a matter of either/or. Public attention is limited, but there are only so many times that Romney can mention that unemployment is over 8% before there are diminishing returns. Spending some of that time and public attention reassuring people that his proposals are reasonable and beneficial are partly an investment in making people like Romney more and partly a move to preemptively weaken Obama’s coming Mediscare attacks. If Romney wants to have a real positive message he would probably be better off picking Jindal or McDonnell. Romney and his team would also have to be ready for, and make use of, the left-wing culture war reaction that a Jindal or McDonnell pick would create.
I’ll say it again: The worst think Romney could do would be to have no real positive message and pick Jindal or McDonnell to give speeches and interviews scripted for Tim Pawlenty. You get all of the drawbacks of a cautious (cowardly?) strategy with none of the safety. You get all of the drawbacks of controversy with none of the benefits of people hearing a winning message.