The Horns of Mitt's Dilemma

The other day I rather superficially raised the issue of whom Mitt Romney might choose for his vice-presidential nominee and said it would no doubt be some boring white guy, in keeping with Mitt's risk-aversion. But after thinking about it some more, I've decided this may turn out to be more complicated than it appears. I'm assuming, of course, that Romney will be the nominee, something that has perhaps gone from a near certainty to a high likelihood this week. In any case, since everyone will be talking about this for a brief period starting in a few months, and we here at the Prospect like to keep you not just up with today's news but at the bleeding edge of tomorrow, it's worth giving this another look.

Most presidential candidates have one problem they want to solve with their choice. Sometimes it's the relatively inexperienced outsider choosing the old Washington hand—Barack Obama with Joe Biden, George W. Bush with Dick Cheney, Michael Dukakis with Lloyd Bentsen, Jimmy Carter with Walter Mondale. Sometimes it's the need to shore up your base—Gerald Ford with Bob Dole (Dole was considered hard-right back then), Dwight Eisenhower with Richard Nixon (same), to a degree Carter with Mondale. You can bring in the youthful, good-looking running mate to give your campaign some verve—George H.W. Bush with Dan Quayle, John Kerry with John Edwards, John McCain with Sarah Palin. Or you might go for geography, picking someone to give you a boost in a swing state (though this hasn't really worked in the past).

Mitt Romney's problem is that he'll have not one but two problems forming the horns of a real dilemma, one forged by his inability to put this race away. If he had wrapped it up on Super Tuesday, conservatives would have plenty of time before the convention to start feeling good about him, and he could have made the required general-election pivot by now. But the longer this race goes on, the more he has to beg and plead with his party's base. That has two effects. First, the base itself doesn't really get convinced, as we've seen, and they get the chance to spend a lot of time thinking about how they don't really like Mitt much, and they'd be happier with someone else. The extended race doesn't make them happier about him as time goes on; it just makes them more resigned to his nomination.

Which makes it important for Mitt, in his first major decision as the party's nominee, to make a pick that gets conservatives excited about the fall campaign and assures them that they'll have a representative in his White House. But the extended primary race has had a simultaneous effect on independent voters: The more they've seen Mitt pander to the Republican base, the more they'll need reassurance that he's not some kind of contraception-banning, foreigner-bombing, rich-folks-tax-cutting extremist. It would seem impossible for Mitt to offer simultaneous reassurance to both groups.

It's important to remember, as he approaches this decision, that in his political life, Romney seems governed by fear to a degree even greater than most politicians. Some politicians are risk-takers, like John McCain (his most notable risk, of course, being a certain Alaska governor). But most are cautious, Mitt unusually so. Is there a VP candidate out there who looks to the conservatives like a hard-core, "one of us" kind of figure but also assures independents that Romney is a moderate? I doubt it. So I imagine this choice is just going to be terrifying for him.

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