As the vice presidential debates take place this week near my home in Kentucky, one thought keeps going through my head.
Mitt Romney would have a better chance of winning if he had chosen Senator Rob Portman from Ohio as his running mate.
I've been reading The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson by Robert Caro. Like Caro's other three books about Johnson, they are the definitive history of the person and the era.
Caro describes in great detail Kennedy's decision to pick Lyndon Johnson as his running mate in 1960.
Kennedy and Johnson were as different as night and day and really didn't care for each other personally. For Kennedy, it came down to one decision: He needed to carry Texas to be president and couldn't do it without Johnson.
Kennedy won in a squeaker. Without Johnson, Kennedy would have gone down in history as the second Catholic to have tried for the presidency and failed. With Johnson, Kennedy is remembered as the 35th President of the United States.
Elections aren't about promoting an ideology or making a statement. They are about winning. The winners get to set policy and wield power. The losers get to whine about it on cable television.
Thus, I thought that Mitt Romney had an easy decision to make: Pick Senator Rob Portman of Ohio as his running mate.
All paths to the White House for Romney go through Ohio. Obama can win the presidency and lose Ohio. Romney can't. Ohio is a "must win" for him.
Instead, Romney picked Paul Ryan. Outside of a fifteen second "debate" about Ryan's innovative (if you are for them) or controversial (if you are against them) ideas about Medicare and Social Security, Ryan has been a non-factor in the presidential election.
Furthermore, Ryan is useless in the quest to pick up electoral votes. According to Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight blog, President Obama has an 85.9 percent chance of winning Ryan's home state of Wisconsin.
There is the long-term factor that Ryan may make a terrific successor to Romney or be able to step in if Romney dies or become incapacitated, but Romney needs to get himself in office first. Ryan is doing little to make that happen.
When I was in graduate school at Vanderbilt, Dr. Michael Nelson, one of the world's leading authorities on the vice presidency, was my master's thesis adviser. Nelson, who is now a professor at Rhodes College, has written a series of books, entitled The Presidency and The Political System, about how the presidency works.
Picking the right vice presidential candidate is a big part of it.
I've never met Senator Portman, but I've followed his career as a Cincinnati Congressman to the Senate and know he has the "right stuff" to be president. He has wide and vast experience in government and doesn't bring a lot of negative baggage to the table.
On the topic of "right stuff," I keep thinking about John Glenn. Tom Wolfe wrote a classic book called The Right Stuff about Glenn and the brave pilots and astronauts who founded the American space program.
Glenn, the ultimate American hero, was a United States Senator from Ohio from 1974 to 1999. In 1988, Democratic party nominee Michael Dukakis was looking for a running mate and needed to win Ohio.
The betting favorite was Glenn, and Dukakis did disgusting things like tease Ohio audiences with the possibility that Glenn was the pick.
Instead, Dukakis chose Lloyd Bentsen from Texas. Bentsen is credited as a wonderful choice because he delivered the most famous line in vice presidential debate history when he told Dan Quayle, "You're no Jack Kennedy."
On the other hand, Bentsen did not help Dukakis carry Texas. Or Ohio. Or almost anywhere else. Bush received over 400 electoral votes and blew Dukakis out of the water.
He might have done better if Glenn was on the ticket. At least he would have had a chance of carrying Ohio.
This 2012 race is not going to be a blowout. Obama is leading in the polls, but it could still go either way. Ohio could still be the game-changer.
This is one where the former Massachusetts Governor Romney would have been better off following the lead of the Massachusetts presidential nominee who won (Kennedy) and not the one who lost Dukakis.
Like Kennedy, Romney is a good looking, rich guy from a large, influential and politically active family. They both had to deal with questions about their religious backgrounds and how it would shape their presidencies.
They differ in party and ideology but on picking a Vice President, this is one time where Republicans might say, "Governor Romney, we wish you were more like Jack Kennedy."