Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) at the 2011 CPAC in Washington, DC. Photo by Gage Skidmore.
Since Senator John McCain picked Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin as his choice for Vice President in the 2008 presidential election, the dynamics of the Republican Party have become more difficult to predict than ever. The decisive 2010 midterm congressional elections brought new faces and a youthful current of ideas to the party that not a decade ago would have made for a political minefield during an already high-stakes campaign season.
How these forces will coalesce on a presidential ticket between now and November hasn’t yet shown itself clearly, even through this long and deeply analyzed primary. For instance, conventional wisdom would dictate that an election following the ferocious rise of a fiscally conservative movement like the Tea Party should sideline any outspoken social conservative from relevance. Then there’s Rick Santorum, whose success thus far shatters that theory and many others of practical origin.
Operating along the same logic, chances remain that Mitt Romney will be the nominee even if that likelihood is equally flawed. For instance, Newt Gingrich could throw his delegates to Santorum and create one hell of a ruckus at the convention (otherwise known as a “brokered convention”). But for the ends of projecting a potential Republican ticket for August, it’s best to keep things simple.
As a flip-flopping, establishment Republican governor from the heart of the liberal northeast, Romney will need a VP who goes against the grain, possibly younger with a harder edge, and has a longer list of ideals than a voting record. To counter his PR-crippling gaffes of aristocratic disconnect, it’ll help to have someone cut from the blue-collar cloth, preferably from the heartland. For the governor’s scatterbrained record and unsavory religious background, his vice president will need to be an ardent fiscal hawk who also knows how to massage the anger of the Christian right whenever the moment calls for it.
With that brief criteria, the media has touted a large variety of choices for vice president this week since the Trayvon Martin controversy has gotten old and there’s very little else to talk about. In all likelihood, none of them may be chosen if only to capture an element of surprise for a campaign floundering on energy – like McCain’s choosing of Palin in 2008. Since not every prediction has quantified senseless noise, let’s start with the one that makes the most sense: Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan.
In a recent interview with Fox News, the GOP’s leading voice on economic policy left the door open to accepting a vice presidential nomination, separating himself distinctly from a large pack of hopefuls. Aside from New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Ryan’s the only Republican with any name recognition who hasn’t publicly rejected the idea of running on the GOP ticket. (Saying you won’t be the Vice President is complicated, mostly meaningless, but saying you’d have to consider the offer with about five months before your party’s convention is something else entirely.)
Though he may lack the Joe Six-pack appeal of a Palin or George W. Bush, Ryan’s an intelligent voice whose lack of flair comes off as cool and collected, given the scope of his ambitions. His recent budget proposal asked Congress for drastic cuts to virtually every government function besides defense that, if passed, would have debilitating effects on entitlement programs (read: Medicare and Social Security) near and dear to the elderly — an invaluable GOP voting bloc. Somehow that didn’t mean the end of his career and in surviving, Ryan proved he can grab the “third rail of American politics” with both hands and no blinking as easily as he can play rhetorical jiujitsu with the best of the left.
As with any worthwhile pick for VP by the mainstream media, the focus on Ryan signifies the kind of conservative who would give liberals the greatest reason for concern. In the eyes of the intellectual left, there may be no politician more intimidating than Ryan — there’s no doubt he could tell Katie Couric what newspaper he reads or what Supreme Court case he dislikes most. In a debate against Biden, Ryan would be the undeniable favorite unlike his would-be predecessor and most of his ilk.
If there is a weakness to be had, one significant skeleton hides in Ryan’s otherwise pristine closet. Should he be nominated, expect a brief firestorm over how Ryan collected Social Security payments – one of the programs his budget targets so severely – after the passing of his father and grandfather until the age of 18, using the government sustenance to save for college.
For a congressman who forces his entire staff to read Atlas Shrugged, the episode might signify a damning character flaw in the general election. Paired with a presidential nominee who raised taxes numerous times (or he “closed corporate loopholes” depending on whom you ask) on his state as governor going up against an incumbent “socialist” president who couldn’t even dream of doing so, the ticket might wreak of hypocrisy to independent voters.
So who doesn’t make sense for a VP choice? Just about anyone else by comparison.
Aside from Congressman Ryan, there’s a lot of talk of Romney picking Florida Senator Marco Rubio as his running mate, but the logic of the decision is too of-the-moment. Picking Rubio gives Romney numerous and instantaneous perks (i.e. earning cred from the coveted Latino voting block and the Tea Party), but thinking in the long term, it only gives him better chances at taking Florida. Certainly, Florida is priceless real estate in a presidential race, but it’s not the only swing state you need to win. The potency of tokenism involved already might be what’s already turned off Rubio.
Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) at the 2012 CPAC in Washington, DC. Photo by Gage Skidmore.
Similarly, Rubio’s lack of experience carries with it natural advantages and disadvantages, but even for a first-term Senator, we have yet to really get to know the kind of politician he is. Apparently, accounts of his voting record as a Floridian state legislator have been categorized as ripe for press scrutiny, but even on the surface, his appeal as a VP isn’t especially long-sighted.
His 2010 election to the Senate against Florida Governor Charlie Christ and subsequent leadership status within the Tea Party contradicts how naturally appealing he is to the establishment, both as a minority candidate and for the power he courts between the two caucuses. He may be the “anti-establishment” candidate in election mode, but in Washington, Rubio hasn’t been too “radical” to enjoy a comfortable rapport with the old guard of his party – people whose jobs he hasn’t exactly made easier in the last two years.
Already there is a palpable divide between what Rubio represented to the 2010 conservative revolution and who he has become during his brief tenure in Washington. A Rubio who accepts the offer from Romney for VP (which, by the way, he says he won’t) would appear too contrary to the Rubio who rose through the ranks of a fiscal coup d’état with such stark shades of absolutism.
Underneath those top two choices lies much speculation, a fair amount being pure noise. For instance, does anyone really think Chris Christie really wants to be Vice President given how many times he had to tell everyone he didn’t want the top job? Plus, didn’t Bobby Jindal blow his chances of being a VP after his “miserable” screen test response to the State of the Union a few years back? If Marco Rubio is “untested” to Ann Coulter, what does that make New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez?
Mitt Romney’s reputation as a commanding and capable executive is hard to pull apart, leaving little sense in assuming he’ll need another alpha-personality to help run his administration. Thus, his choice for VP is wholly cosmetic and political. Between Rubio and Ryan, there lies a symbolic difference not only in personality but also in ideological direction among the next generation of GOP hopefuls: between the career-oriented politics of daily polling numbers and intellect that can last in the long term, with focus and poise that actually pave a future for a party that’s certainly in the market for one.