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Obama vs. Romney: The Overstated Importance of Picking the Right VP Running Mate

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With Mitt Romney having all but secured the Republican nomination for the 2012 U.S. presidential election, the mainstream media and blogosphere have turned their attention from the (too) many GOP debates to a single question: Who will Romney pick as his running mate?

If you can get past the controversial cover of the latest Time issue, you'll find an article/infographic by Mark Halperin, which lists Rob Portman, Mitch Daniels, Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal, and Paul Ryan as the frontrunners, in that order. But Halperin is less than enthusiastic about Portman, calling him "the bland Buckeye" and wondering whether his service under George W. Bush would damage the GOP's bid. There are many other commentators all across the political spectrum who believe that the Ohio senator's quiet demeanor would do little to boost Romney's chances.

So what exactly is Romney looking for in a "veep"? Someone who makes up for his perceived weaknesses, or enhances his strengths? An individual who will appeal to the conservative base, or to the Tea Party group? A seasoned politico with a distinguished record, or a fresh-faced newcomer who could capture the young voters who plumped for Obama in the last election? At least, unlike David Cameron, Romney actually has a say in the matter of who his deputy would be, if he wins.

The truth is, picking the right candidate is not as important as avoiding the wrong one. Barack Obama presumably called on Joe Biden because he added experience and credibility, even though Biden's many gaffes could be cringe-worthy. However, his slipups were nothing compared to those of Sarah Palin, whose lack of foreign policy know-how and geographic confusion were like early Christmas presents to the liberal media. In this case, John McCain picked someone who had run a state and who would presumably appeal to female voters, but grossly underestimated the negative side of the ledger.

Though Palin's calamitous comments hurt McCain's campaign, they were not the primary reason for his failure to make it to the Oval Office. Obama's anointing by the media, his online fundraising prowess, his appeal to minorities and young people, and the backlash against the two terms of George W. Bush meant that his choice of VP mattered little -- he was the very definition of a shoe-in once he'd dispatched Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries. McCain was on to a true lose-lose -- he had picked the worst possible running mate, and faced a surging opponent. As a friend told me (somewhat ruefully, as he's no fan of Obama), "It's a grandpa against a rock star."

This is a telling comment that illustrates the odd dynamics of presidential campaigns. The elections of today are all about appearance and public perception. When JFK outfoxed Richard Nixon in the first televised presidential debates, the requirements for winning an election changed. Candidates can't be perceived as "Too Ugly for TV" -- because looking "presidential" is now, it seems, more important than a candidate's ability to act as such -- and must come across well in TV and online debates. They need to craft -- or, should I say, their PR/speechwriting teams need to craft -- succinct and catchy policy statements that will stick in the minds of the Distracted Generation. A vice presidential candidate is not immune from these superficial requirements.

History shows us that, while McCain and others have made disastrous VP selections that dented their already slim hopes of winning, a less than stellar running mate rarely derails a powerful presidential run. Harry Truman's VP in the 1948 election, veteran senator Alben Barkley, who wasn't even on Truman's short list until the Democratic Convention and who the Man from Missouri called "Old Man Barkley" was in every way a surprise choice for the nomination. And Truman was battling against a split in his party that led to Henry Wallace leading the Progressive Party and Southerners who objected to Truman's civil rights legislation forming the States Rights Party. Also, the incumbent was facing the worst deficit in the history of political polls. Indeed, Elmo Roper refused to conduct any more surveys half way through the campaign because he was convinced that Truman would be routed by Thomas Dewey.

Of course, Truman thought otherwise, and his 31,000-mile Whistle Stop Tour, a crack team of researchers that supplied him with fodder for his localized speeches at each stop, and his indefatigable work ethic overhauled the "dream ticket" of Dewey and Governor of California Earl Warren. Yet another example of how overrated the role of VP is, as Barkley remained in the background, Warren's popularity couldn't help Dewey, and all eyes were on the President as he clawed his way back.

Beyond the over-weighted expectations of a VP's impact on an election, it's worth noting that the vice president of the United States typically has much less power to act than other key figures in the government, such as the Secretary of State. This is similar to how the Foreign Secretary, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Home Secretary typically have more impact on government policy in the the U.K. The main responsibility of the VP is to act as President of the Senate, which affords he or she the deciding vote in a tie-break decision. And, in the case of Lyndon B. Johnson, Theodore Roosevelt, the aforementioned Truman, and five others, the VP can take the reins if the president dies (or, in the case of Gerald Ford, when the president resigns). So, barring a nail-biting vote on a key issue or the demise of the president, the role of VP is more ceremonial than effectual in the day-to-day business of running the country.

Mitt Romney's choice of Rob Portman, Bobby Jindal, or Roger Rabbit will matter little, unless this person "does a Palin" and sinks an already-leaky ship (if it proves to be so, which is too early to tell). Of greater importance will be the state of the U.S. economy, the public's perception of Romney's ability to govern, and whether America wants four more years of President Obama. One thing's for certain though with the American two-party system: there's no chance of a muddled and mediocre coalition.