Political Animal


March 21, 2012 4:27 PM Risky Business

By Ed Kilgore

In the course of his post-Illinois ruminations about Mitt Romney the putative GOP nominee, my TNR colleague Noam Scheiber discusses Romney’s management-consultant tendency to play the safe strategic percentages, and then sets out an interesting hypothetical:

Will Romney have the guts to take a massive gamble—to make a move that offers him a higher probability of success than his current strategy but also a greater chance of spectacular failure? I have in mind here something like a long-ball vice presidential pick (maybe a sitting Democratic governor?) or a balanced-budget plan that increases taxes on the wealthy. He’s ambitious and clear-eyed enough to see the benefit of such a move against a heavily-favored incumbent—and, at least in the latter case, he may even believe in it—but also so lacking in nerve that it’s hard to imagine him pulling the trigger.

I think the problem with the entire premise here is the belief that it is within Romney’s power to attempt such audacious maneuvers, even if he somehow wanted to. We now have enough examples to choke a horse of the absolute unwillingness of Republicans in Congress or anywhere else to support fiscal measures that include “increases [in] taxes on the wealthy.” That’s not because Republicans are universally risk-averse; au contraire, they are currently gambling heavily on an unpopular budget proposal because it fits their ideological framework, which isn’t very popular, either.

As for picking a Democrat for his running-mate, we have another recent precedent that tells us just about everything we need to know about the plausibility of such a maneuver. In the summer of 2008, John McCain was facing an uphill climb in the general election. Unlike Romney, McCain was famously attracted to risk-taking. And according to multiple accounts, he wanted to pick as his running-mate his close friend Joe Lieberman, who had already burned bridges with his own party by running against its Senate nominee in 2006, and then endorsing McCain and campaigning actively for him.

But McCain finally gave up on that idea when his advisors convinced him the step would likely provoke an ugly floor revolt at the GOP convention that would virtually guarantee a divided party and a loss in November. And that’s what ultimately drove McCain to the “high risk, high reward” tactic of choosing a little-known Alaska governor who fit the exceedingly narrow criteria of being a “maverick” who had defied the Republican establishment of her state but was also a cult figure among right-to-lifers and Christian Right leaders generally.

In other words, the ideological prison of his party meant that any big risk-taking had to be to the Right of party orthodoxy, not to the Left.

There is nothing about Mitt Romney or his current situation that changes that fundamental rule; indeed, the GOP has become significantly more ideologically right-wing since 2008, as Romney knows well since he was the “movement conservative” primary candidate that year and now is at least as suspect to conservative activists as McCain was four years ago.

The last time any major Republican candidate took a leftward-leaning risk was probably in 1976, when Ronald Reagan, just a tantalizing handful of delegates shy of upending an incumbent president at the GOP convention, announced his running-mate would be the relatively liberal Sen. Richard Schweicker of PA. And although Reagan was the reigning, unchallenged leader of the conservative movement at the time, the gambit backfired by costing him more delegates in conservative Mississippi than he gained in PA.

Romney obviously doesn’t have Reagan’s freedom to maneuver, and certainty not in 2012, when the GOP is vastly and uniformly more conservative than it was in 1976.

If Romney does overcome his aversion to risk, and tries to execute a “Game Change,” like McCain, he’ll have to gamble on more, not less, conservatism.

And the broader lesson, as the Jan/Feb issue of the Washington Monthly explained repeatedly, is that anyone hoping Mitt Romney, as a candidate or as a president, is going to be a pleasant surprise to progressives and moderates and an unpleasant surprise to hard-core conservatives, is not paying much attention to the recent history or current dynamics of the GOP.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • T2 on March 21, 2012 5:04 PM:

    from all the recent GOP polling I've seen, Romney's best bet for the VP nod would be.......Sarah Palin. Seriously.

  • thebewilderness on March 21, 2012 5:18 PM:

    I could be wrong but it seems a little early to be floating bait to get buzz started on the veep. I think he is going to choose Jeb, but I can't figure out if Jeb is willing. The speculation being floated at the same time as the endorsement being made gives reason to suspect that a deal has been done.

    Captcha stinks.

  • iyoumeweus on March 21, 2012 5:20 PM:

    If he does get the nomination, the etch-a-sketch kid will choose the Jeb as his running mate.

  • T2 on March 21, 2012 5:25 PM:

    Jeb is much more moderate than is currently tolerated in today's GOP, so in that way it would be a risky choice for Etch A Mitt. And for what?? gain some Indy votes or cross-over Dems wanting to vote for yet another Bush at the risk of alienating Anti-Immigration TeaBaggers? Doesn't seem a smart move, not that matters to Etch.

  • AK Liberal on March 21, 2012 5:46 PM:

    Romney is an establishment candidate and Jeb is an establishment pol. What's the gain for Romney? I would think that he would more likely want a wing-nut for veep in order to shore up support with the base. Perhaps he could find an out of work, former half-term governor to fill out the ticket or someone else just as qualified.

  • eponymous_coward on March 21, 2012 5:59 PM:

    That being said, I think Scheiber's supposition of "sitting Democratic governor" fails because no such creature exists. Which sitting D governor is willing to sign the death warrant on their career for further elective office as a Democrat by opposing Obama's reelection bid? That's pretty heavy-duty apostasy and a big "**** you" to the party.

    Outside of maybe Earl Ray Tomblin in West Virginia (who would have the problem of being on the ballot for his current job in 2012, so he'd have to cough that up to be VP on a ticket that is less likely to win than running for re-election), I can't think of anyone who this might pay off for. Keep in mind Lieberman is not running for re-election in the Senate. I suspect part of why is he kissed off Obama in 2008 for McCain.

    So I think the idea's kind of loony; the only possible Democrats Romney could get to go into a possible suicide run against Obama would be the Zell Miller/Joe Lieberman/Ed Koch types who've in effect left the party already, and who aren't in office (unless you go WAY down the bench to a Blue Dog like Heath Shuler- who is also leaving office in 2012). And that's before we get to the issues you've mentioned, Ed.

    While those kinds of moves will play well on the Sunday talk show circuit and in the chattering classes, the voters won't care; none of those guys have any pull in the Democratic Party. (It's also why I think the Americans Elect impact is overrated- they'll pick some schmuck who is a DC talking head as Veeep to pair with whoever is the Presidential nominee and the rest of America will yawn.)

  • Sam Simple on March 21, 2012 6:09 PM:

    Obama is gonna lose this election. He has pissed off the most liberal voters, who are gonna stay home or vote Green and the GOP has rigged or disenfranchised the other Democratic voters, so their votes won't be counted.

  • N.Wells on March 21, 2012 6:23 PM:

    Oh please let him choose Jeb Bush: "Romney / Bush" bumper stickers would pretty much make bookends out of all that is wrong with Republican policies without anyone having to add anything else. While I'm dreaming about completely suicidal VP announcements, perhaps he could pick both Palin and Bachmann, while claiming some supposed old bit of misogynistic Mormon theology asserting that it takes more than one woman to properly support a man. :)

  • John on March 21, 2012 7:21 PM:

    I don't see that Romney has the grits to make an outside the box pick. He is too much driven by his spreadsheets and programming and too fearful of upsetting the Republican base which doesn't trust him much. When the time comes I bet he picks a fairly bland and safe person who is trusted by the base.

    I like the idea of Romney pickin Palin and Bachmann. That's funny.

  • Doug on March 21, 2012 7:45 PM:

    Romney is NOT going to nominate someone to his left - he dare not. He may very well have, or get, the required delegates, but that doesn't mean he's trusted by the Republican "base" (a more accurate description for them has never been coined!) which he absolutely HAS to have to win in November.
    But to win in November, Romney ALSO has to attract voters outside his base and add them to that base. Right now, I don't see how he can possibly manage that. Anything he does to bolster his support with the GOP base, runs the very real risk of alienating the, very, neccessary "independent" voters. Anything he does that moves him TOWARD those "independent" voters, moves him AWAY from his base. Damned if he does, damned if he doesn't.
    I LIKE it!

  • psychobroad on March 21, 2012 8:11 PM:

    I don't know why anyone who's been paying attention thinks that Jeb Bush is going to take the back seat to anyone. Not a chance in hell--he's a Bush!

  • MuddyLee on March 22, 2012 7:45 AM:

    Why isn't it Romney-Newt or Romney-Rick or Romney-Rand? Or if outside the box we go, how about Romney-Reid? Then we'll know the Mormon church is having its influence.

  • MuddyLee on March 22, 2012 7:48 AM:

    And if the repubs want to replay the 2008 campaign, how about Romney-Haley?

  • paul on March 22, 2012 8:49 AM:

    The premise is faulty. The whole trick of the private-equity game is to arrange things so that you win regardless of what happens to the company you take over. If all of your costcutting and reorganizing is successful, you take home a huge pot of money when you sell out. If it's unsuccessful, you take home a smaller pot of money because you just get the management fees you charged the company for reorganizing it and the special dividends you declared to boost stockholder confidence. The employees and the creditors are the ones taking the losses, not the private-equity kings.

    The question of how this applies to politics is harder. But for the GOP at least, regardless of how this election plays out, the move toward no taxes on the rich, no regulation on companies will have been solidified. And that's a big payoff for Romney and his friends.