I have no idea whom Mitt Romney will choose as his running mate. But I’m fairly certain about who he ought to choose: Rob Portman. Here’s why.
Every successful presidential campaign has a theory of the case—a clear conception of the path to victory—which it works in every way to reinforce. This theory must begin with the character, experience, and priorities of the candidate and with the context in which the candidate is operating. A candidate who is challenging an incumbent must focus on the politically salient weaknesses of the incumbent and argue that he has what it takes to do better.
For Romney, there’s only one theory that makes sense, and he seems to understand that. He can’t credibly mount a populist case against an elitist president. He cannot credibly present himself as a root-and-branch reformer. And after his primary campaign, he cannot run as a moderate who will smooth the rough edges of his party and unify the country across partisan lines. (He may end up governing that way—the movement conservatives’ worst nightmare—but he certainly can’t say so now.)
Instead, he has to argue that Obama has proved inept as a manager of the economy and that he (Romney) knows how to fix it: “Because I spent most of my life in the private sector, I understand the conditions that encourage businesses to create jobs. As president, creating those conditions—which Obama has failed to do—will be Job 1.” And in an argument that combines criticism and hope, he can say, “Today’s economy may be the best that Barack Obama can do, but it’s not the best that America can do. As president, I can close that gap.”
Romney will never win a likeability contest, and he’ll have a hard time persuading average Americans that he truly understands the difficulties they face. His best hope is to persuade 51 percent of them that he’s an experienced, effective manager who knows how to get things done. (“We’ve heard all the inspiring speeches. How many jobs have they created? Americans don’t want to feel good, they want to do better. I’ve spent my life turning plans into realities. Isn’t that what counts?”)
The strongest argument for Portman is that he reinforces this core thesis. Before he won elective office, he dealt at the highest level with a series of challenging economic issues, as the budget and international trade chief of the federal government under George W. Bush. He is intelligent, highly informed, and well-spoken in a plain Midwestern way. He’s solidly conservative (on social as well as economic issues) without being hard-edged. He’s the right age (with grey hair to prove it) and has enough experience. And he would allow Romney to say what he has insisted is most important: With Rob Portman, I’ve selected someone who could step into the Oval Office on a moment’s notice and serve honorably and effectively as your president.
The conventional wisdom is that vice presidential candidates don’t make an electoral difference, and that’s mostly right. But there are a couple of exceptions. First, a flawed choice can mire a presidential campaign in controversy, change the focus of attention adversely, and call the presidential nominee’s competence into question. Portman has run for office seven times, including a high-profile senate race in 2010. The odds are low that he has as-yet unrevealed skeletons lurking in his closet.
Second, if vice presidential candidates help anywhere, it’s in their home states. Here again the case for Portman is strong. He hails from Ohio—the single most important state for Republican candidates. If Romney loses Ohio, he loses the election. Period. Portman could bring to Romney a peer’s knowledge of Ohio politics as well as a network of friends and supporters who would go all-out on behalf of the ticket. And Ohio is often close enough so that the shift of a percentage point or two makes the difference.
So what’s the case against Portman? He’s not very exciting, people say. So what? This isn’t 2008. Romney can’t prevail by exciting people, but rather by convincing enough swing voters that he can do better promoting economic growth than Obama can or would in a second term.
Second, it is said, he won’t produce a surge of enthusiasm in the Republican base. That’s probably true too, but not all that relevant. The Romney campaign has no choice but to assume that antipathy to Obama will be strong enough to bring the base out in full force. Romney cannot afford to do what McCain tried and failed to do four years ago—namely, squander his vice-presidential choice on a nominee who did at least as much to weaken his candidacy among swing voters as to overcome the reservations of hard-core Republicans.
And finally, it is said, Portman points backward to a discredited Bush administration rather than forward to a new conservative majority. There is some truth to this argument, but it is outweighed by two others. First, the new generation of Republican leaders—Ryan, Rubio, Jindal, Ayotte, and Martinez, among others—is not quite ready for prime time, and each member of this generation brings along some baggage of his or her own. And second, it is Romney’s responsibility to make the case that he won’t take the country back to Bush’s second term, which nobody wants to repeat. If he can’t make that case, he won’t persuade the country that he can manage the economy better than Obama, and he’ll lose the election—with or without Portman.