Saturday, Aug. 11, 2012 | 2 a.m.
So much for Mitt Romney’s discreet, low-drama vice presidential selection process.
In the run-up to his choice of a general-election running mate, the former Massachusetts governor has nearly lost control of public perception surrounding his decision and is now at the center of an unwanted expectations game. A once-quiet hunt for a No. 2 has been transformed in recent weeks into an exceedingly open debate within the GOP and the media over Romney’s potential VP options.
Now, Romney’s eventual decision is all but certain to be framed in terms of a single question: Did he go big or was he cautious and conventional?
The turn of events is not entirely — or even mostly — the fault of Romney and his aides. But as the summer has dragged on without an addition to the 2012 ticket, a stampede of activists, pundits and operatives have rushed into the vacuum with unsolicited advice and advocacy.
Conservative organizers and opinion leaders have been lobbying Romney aggressively to make a “bold” choice such as Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan. The Drudge Report, the powerful conservative Web aggregator with known ties to Romneyworld, has promoted Condoleezza Rice and David Petraeus as VP options. Even otherwise low-key officials, such as House Speaker John Boehner and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, have weighed in on behalf of their favored candidates.
The Romney VP spectacle is not unprecedented: Unlike Walter Mondale in 1984, Romney isn’t parading his possible choices up and down his driveway. In fact, the Romney team itself has mostly kept a tight lid on its internal proceedings.
But that hasn’t deterred the rest of the political and media universe from stampeding its way into the process.
“Go for the Gold, Mitt!” Stephen Hayes and William Kristol wrote in the Weekly Standard, urging Romney to pick Ryan or Florida Sen. Marco Rubio for the ticket. The Wall Street Journal editorial page argued: “Why not Paul Ryan? Romney can win a big election over big issues. He’ll lose a small one.”
Drudge offered the most flamboyant provocation of the week with a breathless and anonymously sourced report that President Barack Obama “believes GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney wants to name Gen. David Petraeus to the VP slot!”
The Romney campaign declined to comment on the increasingly public nature of the VP process, or whether the various pressure campaigns were welcomed.
Yet, the mounting buzz around the VP pick introduces an element of uncertainty into Romney’s announcement, whenever it happens. With conservatives pushing the idea of a running mate who would shake up the campaign — Ryan, Rubio or New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — there could be a sense of letdown among GOP voters if their candidate ends up selecting someone more conventional.
At least two of the names high on Romney’s list, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, could very well be too vanilla to satisfy voters yearning for a reason to get excited about Romney’s bid.
Kristol, who has led the Weekly Standard’s campaign for a daring choice, said the advocacy efforts were entirely appropriate — and even helpful.
“We’re a democracy. It’s generally healthy when people make the case publicly for candidates, issues, etc.,” he said. “And Romney isn’t picking a personal staff aide. He’s picking the Republican nominee for vice president, and perhaps the next vice president of the United States. Republicans and citizens get to weigh in on the choice, a choice that will affect the future of the party and the country.”
One prominent conservative opinion-maker said there would be a “serious deflation on the right” if Romney disregards the demand for one of the higher-risk, higher-reward choices, putting Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal on that list along with Christie, Rubio and Ryan. The clamoring from conservatives for one of their own underscores a persistent lack of enthusiasm for Romney.
“You do worry about people getting painted into a corner where you’re so publicly committed to one guy, you have to dump on the guy selected,” the person said. “The fact is, there’s nothing terribly wrong with Portman or Pawlenty. It’s just that they’re not that exciting.”
Former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, who was George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign spokesman during his hunt for a running mate, said the eruption of vice presidential advocacy was inevitable in the 2012 media environment.
“It’s unavoidable in the modern Twitter era,” he said. “I hope and I suspect that every one of the pros and cons we’re reading about now has been discovered and thought through by the Romney people. The public endgame here can hopefully bring a sharpness and a focus to the reams of data they’ve turned up.”
Fleischer, who has been polling his Twitter followers this week on their VP preferences, shrugged that the suggestion of Petraeus was “a sideshow. I think the Romney people happily and successfully enjoy making the press chase its tail, and they don’t mind throwing a little chum out there.”
While it’s unknown whether the Romney campaign was directly responsible for Drudge putting forward two implausible-seeming names, both reports distracted the national media from stories about Romney’s personal tax returns and his tenure at Bain Capital. In that sense, they served a purpose that helped the Romney campaign.
Part of the public nature of the vice presidential season is by the Romney campaign’s design. Unlike in 2008, when Obama’s VP prospects laid low in the run-up to his announcement, Romney’s top allies have been crisscrossing the country on his behalf.
This week, Pawlenty, Portman and Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell have all been on the road for Romney. That has put them in the position of fielding questions about Romney’s decision-making process.
“I’ll probably stay in the United States Senate,” Portman said at one event in Colorado, according to CNN. In Michigan, Pawlenty told ABC News: “We’ll know soon enough.”
But Republicans outside of Romneyland, who aren’t campaigning for the VP job, are also working the media. At the end of July, Jeb Bush told news outlets that he had pressed Romney to pick Rubio for the job. More tentatively, Boehner told Fox News in an interview around the same time that he was “partial to Rob Portman.”
Whatever the outcome of Romney’s process, presidential campaign veterans agree that the advent of Twitter and wall-to-wall cable punditry puts real limitations on the ability of any candidate to keep the choice of a running mate entirely under wraps.
There are limitations specific to Romney, too, given the simmering distrust of him that lingers in the Republican base.
“I frankly haven’t seen anything like it on the Democratic side in the past, because this is ideologically fueled,” said Bob Shrum, the longtime Democratic strategist and presidential campaign adviser. “I think they let the process go on too long ... so it was inevitable that you were going to get lobbying.”