As Mitt Romney ponders the most fateful decision of his presidential campaign, he must move decisively to break a dysfunctional habit that’s afflicted his party for a half century. Since the end of the Eisenhower era, Republican presidential candidates have compiled a far more troubled record than their Democratic counterparts when it comes to selecting effective running mates. To overcome that pattern, the Romney team should review the most successful and most embarrassing vice-presidential nominees in recent political history.
Any list of clumsy, ill-advised GOP selections would have to include the following: William E. Miller, a deservedly obscure congressman from upstate New York who became Barry Goldwater’s much-derided surprise choice in 1964, making his own contribution to a 44-state Democratic sweep. If he’s remembered at all today, it’s only as father of standup comedienne and left-wing media star Stephanie Miller.
Four years later, Richard Nixon won the nomination and made another shocking choice: Spiro T. Agnew, a political rookie who had served less than two years as governor of Maryland. Even some delegates at the GOP convention protested the decision with mocking chants of “Spiro Who?” and expressed their preference for Michigan Gov. George Romney. In the fall campaign, a Democratic ad featured a soundtrack of uproarious laughter with a still photo of a TV screen bearing the simple legend “Agnew for Vice President,” concluding with the tagline: “This would be funny if it weren’t so serious.” Five years later the laughter stopped, when Agnew resigned the vice presidency, pleading no contest to charges of tax evasion and taking bribes.
In 1988 George H. W. Bush, himself a sitting vice president, tried to make history by placing the first-ever baby boomer on a national ticket: a boyish, 41-year-old senator from Indiana named Dan Quayle who, under relentless media attack, became more of a punchline than an asset.
Similarly, John McCain shocked the world (and initially thrilled conservatives) by anointing a strikingly attractive mother of five from Wasilla, Alaska’s frozen wastes. But Sarah Palin endured the sort of questioning (“What newspapers do you read?”) never faced by more familiar candidates, while controversies about her qualifications and competence upstaged the campaign’s substantive messages and its attempted challenges to Barack Obama’s own limited experience.