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.
Other GOP choices over the years seemed similarly puzzling, even if less disastrous in their electoral impact. In selecting Dick Cheney, George W. Bush picked a distinguished public servant with an impressive résumé, but he also provoked attacks by adding a second wealthy oil man to the national ticket. And he hardly needed Cheney’s help in carrying deeply Republican Wyoming. In 1960 Richard Nixon selected Henry Cabot Lodge as his running mate—the same Boston blue blood who had lost his Senate seat eight years before to Nixon’s presidential rival, John F. Kennedy.
In that desperately close race, Kennedy’s choice worked much better: Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson not only reassured his fellow Southern Democrats about the young Yankee Catholic at the top of the ticket but proved instrumental in carrying the crucial state of Texas—by less than 2 percent.
Johnson’s vice presidential nomination began a long series of astute Democratic choices, featuring well-respected, high-profile, veteran public servants who conveyed a sense of the party’s essential seriousness in its attitude toward governance. Hubert Humphrey in 1964, Al Gore in 1992, and Joe Biden in 2008 were all household names who had run serious presidential campaigns of their own. Democratic Sens. Ed Muskie (’68), Lloyd Bentsen (’88), and Joe Lieberman (2000) each added dignity, substance, and an aura of moderation to the tickets on which they appeared.
Only twice did Democratic presidential contenders make the sort of startling, high-risk moves far more typical of Republicans. In 1972 George McGovern tapped Tom Eagleton, a 42-year-old freshman senator from Missouri, who lasted as a candidate only 18 days before revelations about his history of psychiatric hospitalizations and electroconvulsive therapy forced him from the ticket. Twelve years later, Walter Mondale turned to Geraldine Ferraro, a backbencher from Queens with only three terms in the House of Representatives and a husband with embarrassing business connections. She won a flurry of favorable publicity in 1984 as the first woman nominated for national office, but the Mondale-Ferraro ticket, like the inept McGovern campaign before it, managed to lose 49 of 50 states.
The key distinction between controversial, questionable, scene-stealing nominees and candidates whose reassuring presence helped make their cause look credible generally involved the element of surprise. The less effective veep choices always counted as major, head-scratching shocks, often involving undeniable efforts to add a jolt of youthful energy to floundering campaigns; the more successful veep contenders came across as sober, deeply experienced, and, in a word, boring.
Excitement and charisma at the top of the ticket can be a great thing: think of JFK, Reagan, Clinton, or Obama. But too much excitement surrounding a vice presidential nominee is a distraction and a danger, diverting attention from the presidential choice, where it belongs.
Of course, American voters never make their ultimate decisions in a White House contest based on candidates for vice president: despite intense embarrassments during their campaigns, Agnew and Quayle both appeared on winning tickets, while superb candidates like Muskie and Bentsen did not.
Nonetheless, the media frenzy surrounding vice presidential choices makes that selection process a powerful indicator of the maturity and competence of the White House candidate himself. A choice that’s too flashy, risky, or unexpected makes the nominee look shallow and irresponsible; a running mate who’s familiar, thoroughly vetted, and a bit bland gives the impression of reliability and steadiness.
This raises an uncomfortable question for loyal supporters of the GOP: why would America’s more conservative party make less conservative choices when it comes to the vice presidency?
The historic campaign of 2008 offers a particularly illuminating example: the 72-year-old John McCain risked everything on a bold, thrilling, unconventional choice, while his youthful, hope-and-change opponent turned to lovable goofball Joe Biden, with his 36 years in the Senate and two presidential races, who came across to the public as familiar and comfortable as an old shoe.
In a sense, Republicans choose so many surprising and daring vice-presidential candidates precisely because the presidential nominees seem so utterly predictable. For 12 elections in a row since 1968, the GOP has chosen as its standard bearer some version of the heir apparent—either a sitting president, the son of a former president, or a prior presidential candidate who sought the prize and established a strong following in the past. There’s never been an out-of-nowhere, long-shot GOP nominee like Jimmy Carter or Michael Dukakis or Barack Obama. This orderly succession at the top of the ticket produces a Republican tendency to seek excitement, freshness, and the unexpected with the second spot. Democrats, on the other hand, see enough thrills and jolts in their own nomination fights so they can emphasize respectable, familiar, and often deadly-dull choices for the vice presidency.
Romney, of course, follows the familiar path to power of prior GOP nominees—he had become the heir apparent after his credible race in 2008. But facing an Obama onslaught that will try to portray the Republicans as dangerous, irresponsible, and frightening, the last thing he needs is a startling choice for his running mate. Romney must avoid any selection that looks like a desperate stunt—selecting someone without well-publicized electoral experience just because he (or, often, she) connects with specially targeted segments of the electorate.
But in 2012, the Republican standard bearer enjoys a unique opportunity to deliver reassurance and excitement simultaneously. As it happens, the most frequently discussed, widely anticipated contender for the GOP presidential nomination would also bring electricity and strategic advantage to the ticket: Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida. His background has received extensive review in response to his newly released, bestselling memoir and during his brutal, three-way Senate race in 2010. Before that Rubio endured intense scrutiny as speaker of the House in the Florida legislature, while no U.S. senator has received more media exposure in the past two years. Far more important than his youthful appeal and potential distinction as the first Latino on a national ticket, he’s already famous to the public at large and his nomination would startle no one.
In fact, rumors abound in the Romney campaign that the candidate means to cut short whatever suspense remains in the process by announcing his choice at least a month before the GOP convention. According to this logic, Methodical Mitt wants to avoid a repeat of 2008 when reports and analysis on the new vice presidential choice overshadowed every other aspect of the party’s annual gathering. If the Republicans roll out their ticket well in advance of the convention, they can use the shindig in Tampa to concentrate on Romney’s all-important acceptance speech, focusing the conversation on a fleshed-out agenda for change. With a nation of frayed nerves that’s tired of great leaps into the unknown, the Republicans would use the convention to introduce voters to a dynamic but dependable team with clear plans for bringing a battered republic back to its normal pace of progress.
Senator Rubio may not be dull enough to make an ideal vice-presidential candidate in the grand tradition of the Democrats, but he could compensate for that shortcoming with huge name identification, an early roll-out, and the mounting sense of inevitability surrounding his likely nomination.