opinion by Scott Shackelford
Shackelford is a former editorial page editor for a Northwest Arkansas newspaper. He lives in Fayetteville.
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Beyond the colorful pageantry implicit in even the most ambitious of presidential campaigns, reality says the presumptive party nominee who challenges a sitting commander-in-chief holds little control over the outcome, assuming a candidate’s chances are not terribly imperiled by a less than captivating personal narrative or disappointing campaign fundraising totals.
But this line of reasoning doesn’t hold up where running mates are concerned. Politicos like to argue that it doesn’t matter who the VP choice is, and no one casts their ballot based on a candidate’s choice of public dance partner anyway. Perhaps in most election cycles the decision doesn’t add much, and yet picking the wrong vice presidential candidate can certainly hurt, even irreparably, one’s chances of winning the election. (See Palin, S.)
Furthermore, the right choice can help exactly because it is the one clear-cut public policy decision a mere nominee can claim before the electorate decides. Who a presidential contender chooses — whether the person is the deserving, or the one best able to capture the most extra Electoral College votes — says much about them, and about how they would govern.
Historically speaking, a vice president was seen as being good for just one thing: helping elect a president. Many election results (Richard Nixon, in 1952, and Lyndon Johnson eight years later) certainly bear that out.
Beyond that, administrations had little use for a president’s presumptive replacement. Certainly times have changed. The days of a president (Franklin Roosevelt) keeping his No. 2 (Harry Truman) completely in the dark regarding the creation of the world’s first atomic bomb are ancient history. In modern times, VPs like Al Gore, Dick Cheney, and Joe Biden have added much power and responsibility to the office.
Presumptive Republican Party nominee Mitt Romney has a long list of possibilities to choose from, including Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia, and U.S. Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio. Others like to include high-wattage names like former governor Jeb Bush and retired general and former CIA director David Petreus, but whether either would even listen to such an offer is hard to say.
Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee is also an outside possibility, though it isn’t likely Romney would ask for the help of a one-time rival.
From the outside looking in the ideal choice would seem to be between the youthful and charismatic Rubio and the bold and brash Christie. Either one would inspire the party faithful, both in terms of support and donations, and would become their party’s presumptive 2016 front-runner, a nice side benefit of assisting the party this time around.
Rubio is youthful and has the added cache of being able to boost Romney’s Hispanic vote across the country. (Plus, there’s no denying that Romney-Rubio has a nice ring to it.) Should he see a Romney win as an outside possibility, Christie may prefer to wait and run in his own right in 2016.
Elsewhere, Portman is a strong choice exactly because he represents Ohio, a state essential to both party’s chances of winning.
McDonnell represents a state sure to swing Republican in 2012, which hurts his chances.
Bush might be the only pick that would actually worry the Obama administration — but (assuming he wishes to run) he might also prefer to wait until 2016, when he won’t have to face the fundraising prowess of President Obama, and would have the further advantage of eight full years standing between that moment and his brother’s crash-and-burn presidency.
Although there’s almost no chance that he’ll be asked, U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma would be a bold choice. Politicians on both sides of the aisle are great at picking and choosing the parts of the federal government they would shrink or grow to make the nation’s budget start adding up, but few bring Coburn’s big-picture passion to the table.
What makes Coburn a candidate of the moment is this: Americans of all political stripes seem supportive of government getting its fiscal house in order. Economists like the New York Times Paul Krugman argue that to defeat this recession the nation must spend its way to health, which would mean allocating billions on new projects, like repairing the country’s aging infrastructure. It’s a line of thought Coburn flatly rejects. Meanwhile, Coburn’s analysis of pairing spending in a way that reaches all classes (unlike rival ideas proposed by the likes of Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan) could be a great hit with middle of the road voters.
Tea Party-types see Coburn as one of their own, and his voting record in the Senate reflects that. But President Obama respects and values his opinion — probably because he isn’t parroting the party line. He appears to hold little interest in the Republican leadership’s bullying tactics. Instead, Coburn seems willing to compromise (enormous cuts in spending in exchange for closing most tax loopholes, and perhaps boosting revenues where it makes sense) in order to achieve his goal of balancing the federal budget and retiring more than a mere majority of the federal debt in the next decade.
Clearly the GOP doesn’t need Coburn to win Oklahoma any more than it needed Palin to win Alaska four years ago. But then that flawed campaign also featured a candidate in John McCain who, like Romney, voters were only mildly interested in. Coburn, like Palin, would give the party’s uber-conservative faithful something to believe in, and vote for, come November. A Romney-Coburn ticket would send the Republican faithful racing for the polls – and unlike Palin, would not necessarily send Democrats racing in droves to keep him out.
The likes of Christie and Rubio, or even Bush and Huckabee, are more likely choices. But should such big names say no, why not Coburn? His out-of-the-box thinking, his intellectual seriousness combined with his down-home sensibilities, and his record in both elected office and the medical field make him a respectable reflection of the modern Republican Party – and more worthy of consideration than some realize.
If Romney is serious about not just winning but also governing, he would do well to choose someone Democrats at least have the capacity to have a conversation with.