In 1980, Ronald Reagan selected George H.W. Bush as his running mate. The electorate yawned. In 1988, George H.W. Bush selected Dan Quayle as his running mate. Again, the electorate was unmoved. In 2000, when George W. Bush selected Dick Cheney as his running mate, there was some discussion about the importance of Cheney, but most shrugged and went on. In 1996, and again in 2008, but also now in 2012, everybody was really excited about the running mate selections. In 1996, Bob Dole’s pick of Jack Kemp was going to rescue the Kansas Senator’s campaign. In 2008, John McCain wisely chose a woman who had the ability to move the base, though his own staff seemed to sabotage him. This bit of historical truth should be considered carefully as the Republican party faithful prepare to descend on Tampa for their Presidential nominating convention. In 2012, Mitt Romney has chosen Paul Ryan in an attempt to ignite the base, but I’d like you to consider the nature of the picks and their relative importance to their respective campaigns, and what they confess to the electorate about their candidates: Only when the party’s nominee is a weak candidate does the Vice Presidential pick matter much at all.
The elder Bush could have won having picked Mickey Mouse when running against Michael Dukakis in 1988, and Ronald Reagan could have picked Caspar Milquetoast in 1980(and in fact, some say he did.) The salient point to take away from the excitement about the Vice Presidential pick by Mitt Romney isn’t that he chose Paul Ryan, so much as it is the fact that it matters who he picked. Think about it: Vice Presidential picks only matter when the Presidential candidate is desperately weak. It’s why Biden doesn’t matter. What this entire episode should tell you is what most conservatives will have known already: Just as in 2008, we have a weak presidential candidate, and the importance of the Vice Presidential pick has grown only by way of compensation.
Consider the pressure brought to bear on Sarah Palin in 2008. She had the unenviable chore of trying to excite a base that was mostly disgusted with John McCain. The truth of the matter is that without Gov. Palin on the ticket, McCain would have lost by larger margins. His own campaign’s staff, primarily Steve Schmidt, concocted a notion to suspend the campaign to deal with the financial crisis. This action sank McCain, but Palin, being the fighter and champion of all things America refused to yield and almost rescued McCain from his own staff. Almost. The problem is that Sarah Palin shouldn’t have mattered so much. The only reason she did is because McCain himself was such a terrible candidate. There will be those who become angered with me for stating it this bluntly, but if Sarah Palin mattered so much, it meant also that McCain himself mattered too little.
Observe the hysteria of Saturday morning after it went out via the Romney-app that Paul Ryan would be the pick. Consider that there had been such an application for smart-phones at all. What does this tell you about the relative importance of the Romney VP pick? It was crucial. It’s Romney’s last big push to bring resistant conservatives along, and this matters. It doesn’t matter, however, because it’s a good choice or bad choice, but only because the fact that it matters at all reflects the weakness of the top of the ticket. I would ask my conservative and Republican friends, preparing to head to Tampa, Florida in body or spirit for the RNC convention: If the VP pick matters this much, isn’t there still time to pick a new ticket? The truth is that there is time, but the problem is that few will think outside of the box Romney has constructed for them. Most will accept this Vice Presidential pick with unthinking adulation, but we conservatives really must elevate our game if we are going to rescue the country.
The importance of the VP selection in some elections signifies a sort of confession, not only by the campaign, but also by the electorate, about their general assessment of the candidate in question. Mitt Romney’s VP pick matters only because there are so many lingering, long-held doubts about Romney himself. The same was true of McCain in 2008, and we shouldn’t expect a different result. When you consider the Republican presidential nominees of the last thirty-two years, the only time a Vice Presidential pick mattered to any great degree had been instances when the party’s nominee was desperately weak vis-à-vis the competition. In each of those cases, Republicans lost the election. In 2000, when Cheney had mattered more than a little, and Lieberman had mattered also, it was predictable that we would see a campaign fought out between two inferior candidates, with the victor being the candidate whose VP pick mattered least. Advantage Bush.
This should give conservatives and Republicans a moment of pause. History’s formula is clear: If the VP pick matters, it is only because the Presidential nominee is weak, and weak nominees generally beget defeat. Jack Kemp was a great guy, and Sarah Palin really is a phenomenon, and Paul Ryan seems to be a decent politician, so this isn’t really about them, as the bottom of their respective tickets. It’s about the top of the ticket, and the problem is the same in all three cases. When there comes to be this much focus on who the Vice Presidential candidate will be, it is as good as a confession by the campaign and also by the electorate on the weakness of the top of the ticket. Republicans may go to Tampa with their heads in the clouds if they like, buoyed by the selection of Paul Ryan, but if you’re serious about winning, you’ll take the time to confess at least to yourself what all of this chatter of the importance of the VP pick really means. It isn’t good.