Who does No. 2 work for? Rating Romney's VP choices

Picking a vice presidential nominee may be the most undemocratic election in this hemisphere since the heyday of Fidel Castro. The electorate consists of exactly one man–in this case, Mitt Romney–who has total freedom to choose virtually any card-carrying Republican who opposes abortion (the one absolute litmus test in the GOP). Convention delegates, for all their theoretical veto power, exercise all the independence of Politburo members celebrating May Day.

As a result, handicapping the veepstakes is inevitably an exercise in frustration. What are you supposed to do, conduct an exit poll on the sidewalk in front of Romney headquarters in Boston? Romney himself has not offered much help other than repeating the vaporous platitude that he will select a running mate “who could be president if that were necessary.” Of course, in a technical sense, any natural-born citizen over the age of 35–even Sarah Palin–could be president if they were sworn in.

For all the media’s obsession with vice presidential vetting (a word we use only in reference to sick animals and the heartbeat-away derby), there is almost no discussion about how Romney’s choice might fit into a working White House in 2013. Virtually all the press speculation revolves around compatibility on the campaign trail, the political imagery of the choice and the ability of the VP nominee to attract undecided voters in, say, Colorado who are left-handed bowlers who own PBS tote bags. But almost none of the speculation and scorecards has anything to do with serving as vice president. Now, for the missing question: How will Romney’s pick measure up to the standards set by recent VPs?

No longer is the modern vice president a Throttlebottom who was dispatched to second-tier international funerals when the secretary of state was busy. Those days of the VP as a supernumerary whose only responsibilities were presiding over the Senate and inquiring about the president’s health are gone. The last three occupants of this ill-defined office have turned it into an independent power center–whether as national security czar (Dick Cheney), as counselor in chief (Joe Biden) or as reinventor of government (Al Gore).

“For most of American history, vice presidents were chosen for balance, either geographic or ideological,” says Elaine Kamarck, a former Gore aide who is now a professor at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. “That built a tension into the relationship–and that tension kept the vice president in a subservient and unnatural position.” But as Kamarck points out, Bill Clinton’s selection of Gore in 1992 (a similar youthful moderate Democrat from an adjoining state) permanently changed the VP equation from “a balance model to a partner model.” 

So how do the leading contenders to become Romney’s second banana measure up as potential White House partners? How do they fit the profile of someone who could actually make something of the vice presidency rather than just campaign for it?

Knowledge of Washington: The last elected vice president who was sworn in without having served in Congress or the Cabinet was Spiro Agnew in 1969. The former Maryland governor’s tenure in the Nixon White House is remembered for the ferocity of his attacks on the media (“nattering nabobs of negativism”) and his quaint habit of accepting cash in little white envelopes.

With Romney’s own Washington pedigree limited to his failed 1994 Senate race against Ted Kennedy, it would be a bold move to choose a vice president with similar gaps in his or her resume. In fact, you have to go back a century to Woodrow Wilson and his ineffectual vice president Thomas Marshall to find a team equally unacquainted with the ways of Washington. That, of course, did not prevent Wilson from dominating Congress in his first year in office (creating the modern income tax system and the Federal Reserve) or inhibit Marshall from quipping, “What this country needs is a really good five-cent cigar.”

No one on the Romney list (not that we know precisely who is on the list) can match Ohio Sen. Rob Portman in the knows-Washington category. Not only was Portman elected to seven terms in the House, but he also served in the Cabinet as George W. Bush’s trade representative and budget director. Other than Cheney and George H.W. Bush (House member, U.N. ambassador and CIA director before being tapped by Ronald Reagan), there have been no vice presidents in modern history with this wide-ranging background.

Paul Ryan–who, for what it’s worth, has been rising in the VP speculation–does offer seven terms in the House and a creative record as the fiscally conservative chairman of the Budget Committee. But for all of Ryan’s success as a GOP wunderkind (he was elected to the House from Wisconsin in 1998 as a 28-year-old), there is a narrowness to his D.C. background compared to Portman.

Executive ability: A vice president cannot run a Cabinet department or really anything beyond a presidential commission or a White House working group. But as Cheney demonstrated to perhaps a frightening degree during the run-up to the Iraq War, a vice president who understands the levers of power and the inner workings of the bureaucracy can be the most formidable figure in the federal government.

Even though he has never lived or worked outside the Minneapolis metropolitan area, former two-term Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty fits the Romney model as a competent, scandal-free conservative administrator without the sharp edges of a fiery ideologue. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal also has run something larger than a Senate office. But Jindal, barely into his second term, needs the crash course in national issues that Pawlenty absorbed during his ill-fated presidential run.

Specific expertise: Vice presidents traditionally take on specific tasks such as Biden overseeing stimulus spending during the first two years of the administration. That is why it helps to be identified with a specific issue area before being tapped for the ticket. Of course, for Agnew, it was bribes and for Dan Quayle, it was spelling.

If, say, Romney chose Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, whose parents came from Cuba, it seems axiomatic that the VP would be the White House point man on immigration. New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, who like Rubio was elected in 2010, would probably gravitate to the legal side of the White House and law enforcement based on her service as state attorney general. As vice president, Chris Christie’s portfolio would probably also run to law enforcement (he was a federal prosecutor before being elected New Jersey governor) and to Bruce Springsteen. And, of course, Portman and Ryan can probably recite line items from the federal budget in their sleep.

A sense of deference: This may be the hardest thing for a would-be vice president to learn (see Biden, Joe) since almost all the leading contenders have been captains of their own political fate up to now. A rare exception might be Portman (notice how he keeps popping up on these lists?) based on his tenure in the Bush Cabinet. Needless to say, it defies imagination to picture the exuberant and outspoken Christie as a make-no-waves vice president.

The truth remains that after the polls are digested, the political calculus weighed and all skeletons exhumed from closets, the vice presidential choice will ultimately come down to what Mitt Romney looks for in a partner. And if the modern definition of a VP holds, it will be a partner in governing–and not just someone to stand there onstage with Romney, grinning with hands aloft amid the balloons and the confetti at the Tampa convention. 

Correction, July 12, 2012: This column has been changed to indicate that Bobby Jindal is in his second term as governor of Louisiana.

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