For several weeks now, Washington insiders have been furiously engaged in the quadrennial ritual known as “veepstakes speculation” — trading theories about the identity of, in this case, Mitt Romney’s future running mate. Journalists and pundits love this ritual because it’s impossible to tell in advance who the person will be, so everyone feels free to speculate wildly, which is easier, and a lot more fun, than actually reporting.
But it isn’t very edifying. And to the average person seeking to understand the significance of the choice, it’s often misleading because the qualities prized by the activists and media handicappers are rarely the same ones found in a good vice president. With signs suggesting that Romney is about to announce his decision, perhaps as soon as this weekend, it’s worth cutting through the hype to explain what this choice will reveal about the state of the race.
Especially in a contest as dull and static as this year’s, everyone is rooting for an exciting decision. Sarah Palin was the platonic ideal of what pundits long for; the choice was daring, controversial, and wholly unexpected. Palin also demonstrated why it’s a terrible idea to hew to the criteria that matter to pundits. That hasn’t quieted the clamor for a “bold” choice this time around. Rank-and-file Republicans worried that Romney is bland and uninspiring want him to invigorate his campaign with an energetic young running mate like Florida Senator Marco Rubio or South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley; others favor the aggressive and outspoken New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Movement conservatives at The Wall Street Journal and the Weekly Standard are lobbying for House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, whose detailed plan to cut social programs like Medicare and Medicaid would become the de facto Republican platform if Romney were to select him. The conservative website The Drudge Report has floated such exotic and unlikely contenders as Condoleezza Rice and General David Petraeus.
My favorite pick, certain to shake up the race, comes courtesy of the online supermarket tabloid Weekly World News, which revealed Monday that Romney has already chosen his running mate: It’s Bat Boy, a creature who is “half human and half bat.” (“He’s certainly a much better choice than Sarah Palin,” a Romney insider told Weekly World News.)
All this leaves the impression that a dull choice would be a costly mistake and a missed opportunity. But dull is what Romney has been angling for all along.
From the outset, his whole strategy has been a kind of pathological risk-avoidance premised on the belief that the economy is in such dire shape that he’ll win so long as he doesn’t screw anything up. Romney waited as long as he could before entering the Republican primaries, to minimize the damage he would absorb. When he got in, he didn’t say much of anything, until challenges from Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich forced him to. Once they were dispatched, he happily went back to platitudes and patriotic verse.
Romney won’t reveal the details of his tax plan. He won’t take a clear position on immigration reform. He has vowed to repeal Obamacare, but won’t say anything specific about what he’d replace it with. He almost invited the damage he has suffered by refusing to release his tax returns.
His preferred strategy for selecting a running mate is in keeping with this tendency. In May, one of his advisers told Politico that Romney’s ideal running mate would be “an incredibly boring white guy.” The leading contenders in this category are Ohio Senator Rob Portman and former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty — both of them experienced, capable, and instantly forgettable.
The Romney strategy, then, is to deflect, rather than attract, attention to the ticket itself, the better to keep dissatisfied voters focused on the dismal state of the economy.
One reason conservatives are so desperate for an exciting vice presidential choice is that Romney’s play-it-safe strategy looks awfully dangerous in a race as close as this one appears to be. His team has steadfastly ignored these worries.
Considered in this light, an exciting pick would, far from displaying confidence, signal that the Romney campaign, too, is doubting its own strategy and is suddenly worried about losing the race.
Joshua Green is national correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek. Follow him on Twitter @JoshuaGreen.