The Romney Veepstakes: Let The Wild, Speculative Rumpus Begin!

Yesterday, as Rick Santorum was bowing out of the race, the University of Virginia's celebrated political prognostication guru Larry Sabato sent out a tweet, announcing that we had reached a new stage in the 2012 election cycle.

Yes indeed! Now that Romney has all but sewn up the nomination, the political press can now turn its attention to Romney's policy positions choice for the person who will be "one heartbeat away from the presidency" and cutting ribbons at the dedication of historic monuments and shopping malls. It's "Veepstakes" time -- that time in the campaign where journalists fill the hole left in their hearts by the conclusion of the competitive primary season with a metric ton of panicky speculation about who might be the nominee's running mate. (It is also the time in the campaign season where we all use words like "Veepstakes," while somehow managing to avoid being embarrassed about it.)

In truth, Sabato may have missed the bell ringing on this stage of the race by about a week or so, because in some circles, the "Veepstakes" have already been in full swing. As Andrew Kaczynski reported, over at "Mitt Romney Central," an NCAA tournament-style bracket has been launched to allow Romney fans to weigh in on who they would like to see paired up with Mitt in the fall.

And at 32 names, it includes basically everyone: all of Romney's primary competitors, all of those guys that Bill Kristol would have preferred to see in the race instead of Romney, many of his key endorsers ... really, just about every single GOP figure who has generated a national headline in the past year. Condi Rice, David Petraeus, Sarah Palin ... Donald Trump. They are all on there.

George Pataki, however, is not. Sorry, George Pataki! (Good luck in the NIT!)

And while Santorum's decision to drop out of the running probably gives speculation about Romney's V.P. pick a shot in the arm, the truth is that your political pundits were already hot to trot. As Walter Shapiro notes over at the Columbia Journalism Review's Campaign Desk, "In truth, the press pack jumped the gun in the Heartbeat-Away Derby by anointing Romney as soon as he won the Wisconsin primary." He goes on to note that at that point in time, everybody suddenly got way into Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), and that fever only broke when a just-as-powerful boomlet of interest swelled over Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).

Here's how this sort of thing works. The media noticed that Romney was in Wisconsin, and they thought, "What pops into my head when I think about Wisconsin? Oh, hey! Paul Ryan! And look, Paul Ryan is endorsing Romney. Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney and Wisconsin. I now associate these things in my head with one another, because I remember that I saw all of these things in the same place a few minutes ago. And Paul Ryan seems to like Mitt Romney. If he likes Mitt Romney, he probably wants to continue being near Mitt Romney. And now, wow! Paul Ryan is on the teevee, talking about his budget plan. That's so super-serious. And Romney likes the budget plan, so he must like Ryan on, like, some totally deep level." And then there's a pop and they think, "OMG, MAYBE THEY WILL BE BFFs and VEEPS and JUNK?"

And so, you get stories that include lines like the ones cited by Shapiro:

These reporters may as well just write, "Wheee! There are a bunch of shiny golden balls dancing in my eyes and they must be trying to tell me something!" Meanwhile, I would wonder why anyone would think Paul Ryan would give up an easy-to-hold seat in the House of Representatives that he's managed to parlay into enormous influence, but that's just terrible old me, fixating on some obvious political fundamentals again!

Shapiro's entire piece on the matter of the V.P. froth-frenzy is recommended reading. Here's a taste of his free-range common sense:

It's going to be an exhausting four months until Romney takes us out of our collective misery by actually picking his own version of Mini-Me. Probing analysis and deft biographical portraits of vice presidential possibilities are valuable at any stage since nothing in a campaign for the White House is more important in future governing terms than the selection of a running mate. The problem comes when the press corps gets too far ahead of reality with the frenzied speculation about the results of an election with only one voter (Romney) who is keeping his thoughts to himself. Recent history suggests that treating the veepstakes like another political horse race invariably produces lame conclusions.

That's exactly what the recent history of Veep-watching has produced. And here's something else I learned during the 2008 cycle about the vice-presidential speculation game and why it's like catnip. For pundits, the V.P. discussion is a low-stakes subject that allows them to indulge all of their furthest-flung thoughts about any random name you can float -- the demographic need that gets filled, the electoral college math that gets affected, the liability on the top of the ticket that gets papered over -- while allowing one's co-panelist to genially disagree with thought-goo of his or her own.

Meanwhile, every name that gets broadcast, in turn, excites the emotions of party activists and bloggers -- who tend to treat the matter as an absurdly high-stakes affair, who can never really agree if any one person is a savior or an albatross, and who are willing to speak about their enthusiasm or their despair at great length. This feeds the pundits ("The grassroots are talking about So-And-So's strengths/liabilities!") who in turn spur on the activist set ("The media is really taking What's-Her-Name's prospects very seriously!").

It's a pretty good feedback-loop mechanism, and since there's no cost to being wrong about who will ultimately be chosen, it's a safe space to have wild and woolly thoughts. Like Physics Club at Shermer High, it's demented and sad, but social. As long as you go into it with no expectation that there will be sense being made, or agreement being had, it will mainly be fun, or at least survivable.

At any rate, the one thing that everyone agrees on is that if history is any guide, Mitt Romney's vice-presidential pick will not be Tim Pawlenty. (Or will he?) (No.)

The Heartbeat-Away Derby is Under Way [CJR]

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