The ebullient Alaskan Sarah Palin has something the Republican campaign clearly lacks.
Maybe you’ve read the book (Going Rogue), or perhaps you’ve seen the film (Game Change). In any case, you must know the story of how John McCain thought he’d picked a winner – a talented, unknown female running mate who would bring a touch of youth and charisma to his stodgy campaign – when he chose Sarah Palin to be his vice-presidential candidate in 2008.
Annoyed by the array of undistinguished (and indistinguishable) white, male Republican governors whom his aides were pushing on him, McCain went for a wild card: the moose-hunting, snowmobiling, evangelical governor of Alaska, a mother of five with a part-Eskimo husband and a personable wink.
The choice seemed a brilliant one, until Palin started to answer hard questions. Then it turned out that her knowledge of foreign policy was limited to Alaska’s proximity to Russia, that her grasp of the constitution was shaky and that her five children included an unmarried pregnant daughter, a fact she hadn’t bothered to tell McCain.
Now she lives on as a celebrity television personality – and as a spectre haunting Mitt Romney’s campaign. Earlier this week, Romney, who has now clinched the Republican nomination, declared that his search for a running mate had begun. As a general rule, presidential candidates try hardest to avoid the mistakes of their immediate predecessors, and the Palin disaster looms large in his campaign’s collective memory. Because of Sarah Palin, in fact, most now expect Romney’s shortlist to include politicians who are familiar, experienced and male.
This matters, though not because the vice-presidency matters. Although the job itself is hardly worth having (“not worth a pitcher of warm piss”, in one famously dismissive description), the selection process is very important indeed. It’s the first major decision a presidential candidate makes under full media scrutiny, the same kind of scrutiny all of his decisions will receive if he wins.
The vice-presidential choice is also the candidate’s only chance to make up for what he lacks, whether it is youth, experience or a wider geographical appeal. George W Bush chose Dick Cheney in 2000 because he seemed older and wiser, and because he knew about foreign policy. Barack Obama chose Joe Biden in 2008 for precisely the same reasons. John Kerry, a northerner, chose John Edwards, a southerner, in 2004 in order to shake off some of the New England stereotypes that haunted him, just as John F Kennedy of Massachusetts chose Lyndon B Johnson of Texas in 1960.
Republican candidates in particular make their vice-presidential choices with an eye to ideological balance as well. Moderate Republicans often choose vice-presidents to their Right, in order to keep that wing of their party happy. Thus the moderate Bob Dole named fiscal conservative Jack Kemp in 1996, and the moderate George Bush chose the more conservative Dan Quayle in 1988. By contrast, the conservative Ronald Reagan picked the moderate George Bush in 1980, in the hope of attracting more centrist votes. John McCain’s gamble in 2008 was partly an attempt to do both: he hoped Palin would attract the Christian conservatives to his Right, while also appealing to moderate women to his Left.
Some refuse to play by these rules. Bill Clinton picked Al Gore in 1992, despite the fact that they were the same age, had the same politics, and came from more or less the same part of the country. But that decision sent a message about Clinton, too: he was so self-confident and so sure of victory that he didn’t feel the need to make up for any deficits.
Romney’s campaign knows all of these precedents, and his advisers will be debating them in the coming weeks. But what is it, exactly, that his candidacy needs? Certainly it isn’t a wider geographical appeal. As a former governor of Massachusetts, he has strong ties to the East Coast; as a Mormon, he has strong ties to Utah and the West, which is where most Mormons live; as the son of a former Michigan governor who grew up in Detroit, he has equally strong ties to the Midwest, too.
Nor does Romney need executive experience. As an ex-governor and multi-millionaire ex-CEO of Bain and Co, he’s got it, at least on paper. For that matter, the Republican ticket doesn’t even need ideological balance, because Romney has taken every conceivable position on every issue – for and against abortion, for and against universal health care – so much so that it’s impossible to know whether to characterise him as a conservative or a liberal.
What Romney really lacks is charisma, and what he really needs is someone to help him win back the votes of women who were scared away by a Republican primary campaign that debated, among other things, the merits of contraception. What Romney really needs, in other words, is a talented, unknown female running mate who will bring a touch of youth and charisma to his stodgy campaign. Thanks to Sarah Palin, that is exactly the kind of politician he will go out of his way to avoid.