Vice Presidents Collage

In Politico on Romney’s Possible Running Mates

The Politico Arena today asked: Who should Romney tap for understudy?

Although I had many other things to do today, I couldn’t resist responding. However, I suggest a few names, but only as meeting certain general qualifications – not as an endorsement or bet on the VP sweepstakes. Frankly, I don’t know what choice would maximize Romney’s electoral chances. Instead I talk about the characteristics Romney might seek in a VP as partner. Despite his background as scion of a prominent family, and his high recognition having spent the past six years campaigning nationally, Romney is a Washington DC outsider. Outsider Presidents (who have dominated since 1976) have often had trouble navigating the complex shoals of DC politics. State governorships are certainly challenging jobs – but they are not the Presidency. (Senators have their own problems in the White House.) Romney needs someone who can help him on that front. My answer follows:

There are two sides to the equation of vice presidential selection. The first of course is who can help the nominee win the election. The second question is who will be most helpful at governing I have little to add to the first point (not that this has ever stopped me before), but some knowledge of the second question (I am writing a PhD thesis on the Evolving National Security Role of the Vice Presidency.)

Years ago, at a computer science conference, I attended a lecture on entrepreneurship and one of the key points was that in choosing a partner, the entrepreneur should select someone that they won’t mind being in trouble with for the next 5-10 years. The same advice goes for selecting the vice president. Unlike cabinet officers and White House staffers, vice presidents can’t be fired. They can be ignored, but that is inefficient. The vice presidency is an excellent opportunity to bring a skilled high-level advisor into the White House.

The primary visible role of the vice president is as a messenger. This is not meant as a denigration of the vice presidency. Communicating the administration’s position in public and in private to domestic and international audiences and constituencies is very important and will be a tremendous asset to the President. During the Iran hostage crisis, Vice President Mondale took on campaign tasks. Vice President Bush delivered a crucial message on human rights to El Salvador’s leaders and on the Reagan administration’s nuclear strategy to European publics and leaders. Vice President Gore played a critical role ensuring the passage of NAFTA by destroying Perot in a public debate and helped reassure Russia’s leadership through the Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission.

But this is only the public role, and presumably any experienced politician should be able to fulfill this role capably.

Since the Carter administration, vice presidents have had an office in the West Wing, along with regular access to White House meetings, and the president. The vice president is thus well-positioned to be a leading advisor. While presidents have no shortage of advisors, these advisors are rarely experienced elected officials of national standing in their own right. Such an official is unlikely to take a White House staff position and when they take a cabinet position they become mired in the interests of their department. As Charles Dawes – a marginalized vice president – once observed, “Cabinet secretaries are vice presidents in charge of spending, and as such are the natural enemies of the president.”

As a fellow senior elected official and decision-maker the vice president is position to provide a unique perspective to the President. With that in mind, the question becomes what kinds of skills and perspectives does Romney believe will best augment his own strengths and weaknesses?

Romney, has touted the importance of executive experience. But one area where Romney’s own resume is lacking is Washington experience. Although inside-the-beltway has become a pejorative term, Washington is a unique environment that will prove challenging to a newcomer (even a president.) Jimmy Carter famously chose Walter Mondale precisely for his Washington experience. There is little to praise about the Carter presidency, but that administration’s president-vice president relationship did establish a useful model. Carter, an engineer by training, sought the ideal solutions to problems without regard to the politics of the issue. Mondale attempted to act as the President’s political radar and inject that perspective into the decision-making process.

Romney may look at the pool of individuals who have both executive, Washington, and electoral experience. This list is not meant to be comprehensive, but a few possibilities include former Senator and current Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, former OMB chief and current governor Mitch Daniels, and former OMB chief and current Sen. Rob Portman. Bobby Jindal, a governor and a former congressman also fits that description. One interesting caveat on that point is the age gap. In recent years, younger vice presidents have not been central advisors to older presidents. Nixon, while valued by Eisenhower was not a key advisor and Quayle was not a member of Bush Senior’s inner circle of advisors (although he was generally believed to be a member of the outer circle of the top eight advisors.)

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