08/04/2012 12:02 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Mitt Romney Peeps Some Veeps: The 2012 Speculatron Weekly Roundup For Aug. 3

For many years, Americans learned whom their presidential nominees had chosen as their running mates the same, dreary way. The nominee would approach some guy and ask, "Hey, how's about you be the guy who steps in and does political stuff if, for some reason, I keel over and die?" And then that guy would be all, "Yeah, that sounds OK," and then they'd find some reporters and tell them about it, and then there would be news stories and trenchant analysis for a couple of weeks, and then people would go on with their lives.

Obviously, this system had its hiccups. Who can forget the New York Post banner headline -- "It's Gephardt!" -- hailing the Missouri representative as John Kerry's running mate on the day Kerry picked John Edwards. Seriously, Dick Gephardt being misidentified as Kerry's choice is perhaps the most memorable part of Dick Gephardt's career.

Still, it was, by and large, a pretty good system. But in 2008, the Obama campaign managed to get thousands of people to sign up to receive a "personal" text message that revealed his vice-presidential choice in super-cool, instantaneous "real time." So, one summer morning, all those people got a cryptic text message about Joe Biden, thought to themselves, "The hell?" and then remembered, "Oh, right, that text message thingy. Well, that was anti-climactic." (And it totally was, too -- the Obama campaign still leaked the news to reporters.)

This year, the Romney campaign has decided to re-invent this particular wheel, so now you can sign up for a mobile phone app that does what Barack Obama's text-message doohickey did four years ago. Ayo, technology! I mean, sure, you could just chill out and wait to hear about Romney's pick on the news or on Twitter. But you'd be missing an exciting opportunity to have your personal data mined by the Romney campaign.

When it comes to the quadrennial Veepstakes, it's easy to quickly get to the point where all the suspense-building feels phony. After all, the greatest impact a prospective vice-presidential candidate has on the world comes before the votes get counted on Election Day. In the run-up, there's lots to speculate on -- what state does the running mate help the candidate pick up, what ethnic group does the veep prospect offer a road into, what issues does this partner-in-campaign provide some cover on. Sometimes, the vice presidents "do the dirty work"; sometimes they donate a halo. Often, they just provide some flavor -- a new taste to freshen the ticket, long after the presidential nominee's personality has been chewed by the media into a bland marm.

What legitimizes all the hype, however, is that the vice-presidential pick is, essentially, the first "command decision" that a prospective president makes, and so it lends a certain amount of insight into how the candidate will approach policy and politics. So, without belaboring the matter, let your Speculatroners set the stage for Mitt Romney's impending decision.

The odds-on favorites, at this point, are Ohio Sen. Rob Portman and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty. There are some fairly obvious reasons: Both hail from purply states; neither has to sweat not having the necessary conservative bona fides. More importantly, Portman and Pawlenty are very boring -- their beigeness confers upon Romney's ecru a certain vividness and intensity. And neither is prone to the sort of comments or behavior that turns off independent voters, like some failed 2008 vice-presidential candidates we can name.

The knock on Portman, of course, is that prior to being Ohio's junior senator, he served as director of the Office of Management and Budget in George W. Bush's presidency. How fondly are Bush's budgets remembered? Not very -- and that lack of affection occasionally creeps into Tea Party rhetoric at the grassroots level.

Pawlenty's emergence as a short-lister is, if anything, extremely puzzling. He's not just the guy who coined the term "Obamneycare" -- his dig at Romney for providing the DNA of the Affordable Care Act -- while he was running against Romney for the nomination; he's also the guy who wussed out when given the chance to throw the term in Romney's face during the primary debates. A fervent critic and a knuckling-under wimp? It's hard to see what potency he brings to Romney's ticket.

And like Portman, Pawlenty doesn't do much in terms of leading the GOP out of its demographic cul-de-sac. Which is why Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio remain high on everyone's guesswork list. Rubio, in particular, seems to be the guy everyone not directly affiliated with Romney's campaign wants Romney to pick. Jeb Bush famously coupled his tepid endorsement of Romney with effusive praise for his fellow Floridian. And the conservative pundit class can't help but enthuse over how Rubio helps Romney with Hispanic voters and Florida's electoral votes.

It's less clear what Jindal brings to the table, other than some necessary diversity. Jindal was, famously, a Rick Perry backer. He's best known for his halting performance as a rebutter to one of Obama's State of the Union addresses. And for a Romney campaign that does not need a new dose of "weird," there's this whole "Bobby Jindal performed an exorcism in a dorm room" thing. But Jindal is the guy whom Grover Norquist wants, so that's probably why his tires continue to be kicked.

Right about now, according to tradition, we are supposed to offer up a "way out of left field" pick, because it's important to establish yourself as a savvy analyst of mostly breathless nonsense. So, OK, here's ours: New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte.

Ayotte's been serving as one of Romney's more dedicated surrogates for a long while now, and more often than most, she's risen to that occasion. She carries with her the promise of enabling a win in New Hampshire (and in a close election, New Hampshire could matter a lot), as well as offering a little bit of cover for the "war on women" charges that are sure to come Romney's way.

Would it be strange to see a GOP ticket emerge straight out of New England? Sure. But as the GOP's been more or less run out of the Northeast, a Romney/Ayotte ticket could be a morale-boosting statement. Let's also remember that Romney has run alongside a New England woman before -- during his gubernatorial race, he adopted prospective Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey as his de facto running mate.

That decision was one of Romney's earliest flip-flops. He initially promised to not play favorites between Healey and her GOP competitor, Jim Rappaport, and then went back on his word in record time. But that decision was one of the famously risk-averse Romney's few bona-fide gambles as well -- and one that paid off. So if Romney has a mind to take a risk with his running mate, there's a good chance he'll cast his lot with Ayotte, who'll remind him of his first electoral success. (Worth remembering: Romney and Healey ran the same sort of "outsider" campaign that Romney wants to run now.)

So that's where we see the vice-presidential possibilities lining up. As always, we are prepared to be very wrong. Speaking of being very wrong ... is there a name we're forgetting to mention?


OK, so let's talk about Paul Ryan. Longtime readers know we have very strenuously pooh-poohed the notion that Ryan is going to end up on the ticket with Mitt. To us, it's simple: Ryan already wields enormous power and influence over the GOP caucus on both sides of Congress, and he's clearly the person who is dictating the Republicans' vision in terms of policy, which basically involves eradicating all of the New Deal and Great Society entitlement programs.

Moreover, he projects all that power from an easily defended seat in the House of Representatives, so it doesn't make sense that he'd undertake a lateral move to the vice presidency. Let's keep in mind that Mitt Romney might lose the election, and if he does, one thing Paul Ryan does not need is to get caught in the middle of the inevitable circular firing squad that would ensue. From a pure branding angle, standing pat in the House ensures that Ryan will not be tainted by a possible Romney loss.

Nonetheless, Ryan is persistently thought of as a prospective running mate, so lately we've been putting aside our assumptions and asking around about the possibility of Romney/Ryan 2012. Our conclusion? There's between a 1 and 10 percent chance we have this wrong.

Of course, the interesting thing about Ryan is that, sooner or later, he's bound to come up in the 2012 campaign. Jonathan Chait has written, compellingly, about the way he sees the latter stages of 2012, and in his estimation, we're all on a collision course with Ryan's budget road map, which the Republicans want to pass and on which they fear the window is closing. And Democrats would very earnestly like to tie Mitt Romney to Paul Ryan -- after all, Ryan's budget prescriptions are not popular at the polls. They do not believe Romney would benefit from being associated with Ryan.

But here's where things get interesting. Right now, the Romney campaign is at sixes and sevens with the media, who they feel are over-reporting various gaffes and missteps, while not engaging substantively with the key issues of the campaign. Of course, Romney's not setting a particularly great example, either. His campaign has decided that it's going to dine out on an inauthentic critique of President Obama as a stealth enemy of free enterprise.

Team Obama Re-Elect, of course, has been presented with the enviable gift of an opponent who refuses to define himself. So they pound away at Romney's core. And this week, they took advantage of the fact that the Tax Policy Center stepped up and filled Romney's vacuum with a whole lot of bad news about Romney's tax proposals, which Romney had steadfastly kept under wraps.

Altogether, this has made for an "all heat, no light" campaign. What can Romney do to alter that dynamic? Well, if he names Ryan as his running mate, he gets to put down a marker and let everyone know that he's prepared to have a specific debate on the long-term policy trajectory of the country. The press would be forced to cover the matter in a substantive way. And no one would be able to criticize Romney for not laying down priorities.

And the truth is, behind all the election year gloss, this really is the fight we're having. It's unfortunate that we're having this fight, because we'd all be better off if we could swiftly deal with the immediate, short-term crises (like unemployment) and then move to arguing about the future of America in an America where the present isn't a constant, dire emergency. But since everyone's averse to doing that, the next best thing is to actually put something real at stake and battle it out in public, as opposed to just keeping it all sub rosa.

The knock on Romney, from the perspective of conservatives, is that he's a mere tinkerer. He's going to find efficiencies, sand off rough edges, fiddle at the policy margins, and fine-tune everything with strategic audits and corporate management techniques. But conservatives want big, bold, permanent policy changes. Their hope for Romney has been best expressed by Grover Norquist, who wants Romney to check his brain at the door and keep his bill-signing hand healthy, so that he can sign Paul Ryan's plan into law. If Romney wants to send a message, putting Ryan in his hip pocket would send one, and it would read, "From now on, we're calling it the Romney plan."

Again, the Democrats show every indication of savoring such a fight. But it's easier to savor a fight you don't think you'll end up having. Romney embracing Ryan would be a critical test for the Democrats, to see if they're truly ready to contend with what the GOP really wants to do. If they prove themselves, then sure, Romney might lose the election. But if Romney picks Ryan, there's not going to be any more magazine covers calling him a "wimp" anymore.

SCENES FROM THE INAUTHENTIC ECONOMIC ARGUMENT THAT WE'RE STILL HAVING: The Romney camp has one trick that it seems content to keep on using: "You didn't build that." And as we noted last week, this fake economic argument is still spawning fake stories of John Galt-ian bootstrappery, with protagonists who fall down and bleed everywhere the minute you poke at them.

This week's highlight failures include Melissa Ball, who gets picked apart by Business Insider:

Melissa Ball, the owner of Ball Office Products, appears in the Romney campaign's web ad. Her Virginia company, though, has been the recipient of a $52,000 contract with the General Services Administration. And it has an exclusive contract with Virginia Commonwealth University, a public university.

And here's Tanya Burns, getting the same treatment from ThinkProgress:

But like so many of the small businesses that the Romney campaign has trotted out in recent weeks, Tanya L. Burns & Associates, an insurance brokerage firm in Florida, is yet another beneficiary of federal spending. And not just any spending: Burns' firm has helped clients reduce their health insurance premiums thanks to the Affordable Care Act, which Mitt Romney has pledged to repeal.

In a 2011 article in the Orlando Business Journal, Burns appears dumbfounded -- and pleasantly surprised -- at the lower premiums some of her clients received when they renewed their insurance contracts.

Only time will tell if You Didn't Build That Summer 2012 will end up being penny-wise or pound-foolish for Romney, but more and more we're seeing a consistent tradeoff: Sign up to play-act as one of Obama's victims, and you end up looking like one of Romney's knaves.

TRUMPING ROMNEY: Donald Trump, for whatever reason, has been allowed to be one of Mitt Romney's unfiltered surrogates. Naturally, the Obama campaign has taken advantage of this: its latest attack ad on Romney includes the famous photograph of Romney being dwarfed by Trump's ostentatious private jet.

But Trump's association with Romney really gets fun for everyone when and if Romney swings full-square behind Paul Ryan's budget plan (or if he names Ryan as his running mate). The Donald has been pretty keen on everything Romney's been doing, but he's an outspoken critic of Ryan. Way outspoken -- he's called Ryan's budget "catastrophic" and a "death wish" for the GOP. (We'll readily admit that we doubt he came to these conclusions through some sort of rigorous analysis.)

THE SECOND SPOILER: Time magazine's Elizabeth Dias wonders if Constitution Party presidential candidate and former Virginia Rep. Virgil Goode could "cost Mitt Romney the presidency." There's only one factor that allows for that possibility -- the Commonwealth of Virginia's new status as a state that swings elections. Dias reports that a mid-July Public Policy Polling survey found Goode pulling "fully 9% of Virginia's vote." That's a danger for Romney, especially if he doesn't take the time to campaign in the state's rural communities, where familiarity with Goode is high and affection runs strong.

Of course, Goode cannot do anything unless he gets on the ballot in Virginia, and his campaign will likely be skint from pillar to post: Goode "forgoes fundraisers and declines PAC donations, caps individual contributions at $200," and "says he’s lucky to raise $1,000/week."

TED CRUZ'S RISING STAR: Former Texas state solicitor general Ted Cruz prevailed in his run-off election against the Rick Perry-endorsed David Dewhurst, and a million story lines have thus bloomed -- he's another Palin fave, another Tea Party insurgent striking against the establishment, and (most importantly) he's going to be Texas' next senator. But as Dave Weigel notes, the most important way of thinking about Ted Cruz is recognizing how well-suited he already is to play a role in the GOP's long game:

Cruz could theoretically serve in the Senate for six or seven terms, chairing the [Judiciary] Committee when President George P. Bush needs some lawyers put into robes. Or he could be picked, in his 40s, as the first conservative Hispanic on the Supreme Court. There is an inescapable logic to nominating Cruz, just as there was logic for the 2004 Illinois Democratic primary voter to pick charismatic, black Barack Obama over drab, white machine candidate Dan Hynes.

So Cruz is no mere Dick Mourdock. This is a future GOP franchise player being called up from the minors.


OK, time once again for your Speculatroners to make their trademarked Electoral College projection, which is -- as always -- a mix of careful poll study, analysis of prevailing economic trends, fortune cookies and whatever intel we can uncover whilst wandering around Washington, D.C., carrying Stonehenge-era divining rods.

This week, President Obama lucked into a sustained period of favorable news from the various polls -- he scored 50 percent or better in three swing states in the Quinnipiac surveys, took a gaudy double-digit lead in a Pew poll, and gets the apparent benefit of both an uptick in personal income growth and a decent August jobs report.

Of course, the peril of reading too much into these results (which are also totally the result of that time Mitt Romney criticized the London Olympics, right?) is that this good jobs report may be the last good jobs report between now and November. Even if that's not the case, there's no getting around the fact that it would have been better to have the August jobs report's numbers every month this year. Plus, as Steve Kornacki points out, "Pew's numbers have, for whatever reason, tended to be more favorable to Obama than those of other polling outlets."

Worth thinking about: If Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is bluffing Romney with his tax returns charge and Romney actually nuts up, shows his returns and claims Reid's scalp, can Obama win Nevada?

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