Post-Palin Veep Vetting

As the presidential contest moves towards the general election phase, interest will continuously increase in Mitt Romney’s choice of a running-mate. The scrutiny will be especially intense for two obvious reasons: first, Romney has serious intra-party problems that the Veep selection could exacerbate or heal, and second, the GOP’s 2008 process left a lot to be desired, at least according to the CW.

This second reason–the Palin Precedent–is the subject of an extensive discussion by Richard W. Stevenson at the New York Times’ Caucus blog today:

In any other year, your musings might lead you to, say, Gov. Susana Martinez of New Mexico, a former prosecutor who checks all of those boxes, has bipartisan support in her home state and enjoys shooting handguns to boot.

But in the world after Sarah Palin and “Game Change,” the chances of Mitt Romney or anyone else choosing a first-term governor lacking a national brand name and experience are greatly diminished. However good a fit she might be on paper, Ms. Martinez probably bears too many surface similarities to Ms. Palin to get a serious look.

The rule GOPers supposedly learned is that some experience in public life is a must:

“One of the mistakes we made in the Palin process was one of assumptions,” said Steve Schmidt, one of the McCain aides who guided the process. “We immediately made the assumption that anyone with ‘Governor’ next to her name has a base level of knowledge of history and policy that in a post-Palin world it isn’t necessarily safe to assume.”

I hate to tell Schmidt, but there are more than a few people with “Governor” and “Senator” next to their names who are, to use a technical term, dumb as a sack of hammers. They are not, moreover, all first-termers. And there are plenty of people with short resumes who are not only smart but knowledgeable. Making the level of office someone reaches or their years there the sole determinant would be like a major-league baseball team planning its future around players who had spent a lot of time in AAA ball, which might be a sign of seasoning, but also of mediocrity (or worse).

The conventional retroactive case on Palin also errs, I think, in figuring that the only problem with her was her lack of experience and knowledge. She was also, you might have noticed, a rather polarizing figure, and that was something about her that should have been obvious to anyone familiar with her behavior in Alaska, or her rock-star status in many precincts of the Christian Right, especially the anti-choicers, who idolized her long before the rest of the country had any idea who she was. Yet these characteristics–her “mavericky” rep back home, and her particular appeal to the very conservatives who mistrusted the guy at the top of the ticket–were precisely what attracted McCain to her in the first place. Today’s McCainiacs are, I suspect, being a bit disingenuous in suggesting Palin’s qualities completely blindsided them.

Since Romney has a lot of the same challenges in keeping “the base” happy as McCain did, he’ll be tempted to make the same sort of calculations that were made in 2008.

But it’s a mistake to think of Palin’s vetting as some sort of low-point in modern history and that structuring the process to avoid everything that happened in her selection will eliminate all risk. As people of my sub-generation remember, until relatively recently the Veep choice was made at the convention itself, often haphazardly. By most accounts, the fateful selection of LBJ in 1960 was an accident, a courtesy offer by the Kennedys they were sure would be rejected. In 1968, Spiro T. Agnew went on the GOP ticket as the guy on the list whom nobody vetoed; only later would it be discovered that he was regularly receiving brown paper bags of cash from Maryland road-builders, and would continue to do so in the White House. And in 1972, the disastrous choice of Tom Eagleton was made by a desperate George McGovern only after the prize had been turned down by a long list of preferable running-mates (you had to pick somebody, after all).

Meanwhile, a bullet dodged by Barack Obama in 2008–an Obama/Edwards ticket–involved a possible running-mate who met the highest possible “modern” criteria: previous vetting as a two-time presidential candidate and as a vice-presidential nominee.

As the truck driver’s troubadour Dave Dudley used to sing: “There ain’t no easy run.” And there’s no perfect vetting process this side of divine omniscience.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.