The case for Mitt Romney as John McCain’s running mate is strong and very easy to make.
He’s well known, popular with the party base, a strong performer on television, and would bring big bucks, vigor and youth (or at least the appearance of it – he is 61, after all) to a Republican ticket that desperately needs all three. Plus, Romney’s corporate background would offer badly needed cover to McCain on the economy, while his family name could boost the ticket in Michigan and his Mormon faith could help in Colorado and Nevada. Factor in the apparent lack of all-star VP options for McCain, and the former Massachusetts governor’s prospects only seem to brighten.
But while there are about 646 small- and medium-size reasons why Romney would be a natural fit for the G.O.P. ticket, there’s one big reason not to bet on it happening: McCain doesn’t like him.
Sure, they’ve publicly kissed and made up since their acrimonious primary battle, and the surface-level tension between the two is long gone. But that is a function of each man’s own political imperatives, not a sign of any meaningful personal rapprochement.
Romney, after doing everything he could to tear down McCain and secure the nomination for himself, quickly decided that the VP slot would measurably enhance his prospects of snaring the presidential nomination in 2012 or 2016. To that end, he set about ingratiating himself with McCain with the very intensity and discipline he brought to his 18-month effort to destroy him.
McCain, obviously, has had every reason to play along. Romney’s campaign was championed by some of the loudest voices on the right, the same crowd that views McCain with suspicion and hostility. Creating party unity is important for any presidential nominee, but it’s a particularly challenging task for McCain, and one in which Romney can help him considerably.
Plus, Romney’s willingness to raise serious money is more than just a courtesy. McCain has struggled financially and faces against Barack Obama what will be the largest financial disparity ever between two major party nominees. McCain’s willingness to embrace Romney and to shrug off their venomous history – “You really are the candidate of change,” a seething McCain sneered at Romney in one nationally televised debate – makes perfect political sense.
But elevating him to the No. 2 spot on the ticket is an entirely different matter. Beneath the surface, McCain surely recognizes that Romney’s thirst for the VP slot is fueled by the same bald opportunism that so infuriated McCain during the primaries. Romney is running for president now just as intently as he was running for president during the primaries. All that has changed are his tactics and his timetable.
Back in the primaries, Romney calculated – quite correctly – that McCain was the most formidable obstacle blocking him from the Republican nomination. In the very earliest days of the ’08 cycle, back in the summer of 2006, you may recall that McCain seemed like the next in a long line of once-defeated G.O.P. candidates whose “turn” to claim the nomination had finally arrived. He had wide leads in polls, made peace with old religious right foes like Jerry Falwell, and set up a slick and professional campaign apparatus that promised to raise $100 million.
Romney, a defender of abortion and gay rights and gun control in his Massachusetts days, radically overhauled his image and ideology in an effort to rally the same conservative coalition that had thwarted McCain’s first bid in 2000. A pattern was set in motion that prevailed for a year and a half: Romney would attack McCain from the right, accusing him of abandoning the conservative cause on Issue A. Then, it would be revealed that Romney, back in Massachusetts, had essentially shared McCain’s views on Issue A.
And yet, because of his stellar communication skills and their hunger for an anti-McCain, Romney succeeded in winning over much of the right. By the summer of ’07, McCain’s campaign lay in ruins. Only a miraculous comeback, aided in part by Mike Huckabee’s sudden rise, brought McCain back to life and secured him the nomination.
Through it all, McCain grew more and more contemptuous of Romney. As his own poll numbers slid, and Romney’s rose, the outrage of losing a man he saw as a slick and disingenuous opportunist plainly enraged McCain, the war hero and self-styled king of “straight talk.” And Romney kept it up until the bitter end, blasting McCain as apostate all the way through South Carolina and Florida and Super Tuesday.
Only when it was clear that it wouldn’t work did Romney stop and bow out. And then, almost immediately, he transformed himself – yet again – into the tireless champion of John McCain that we now see.
McCain knows that his choice of VP could go a long way toward determining who the next Republican presidential nominee is. If McCain wins this fall, then his vice president would be the clear heir apparent in 2016, or 2012 if McCain were to pass on a chance for a second term. And if the G.O.P. ticket loses this fall, then the VP nominee could have a considerable leg up for ’12, especially if he (or she) performs strongly in the VP debate. At this point, there is no obvious candidate – like Ronald Reagan in 1980, George H. W. Bush in 1988 or Bob Dole in 1996 – to inherit the next open G.O.P. nomination.
So why would McCain give such a political gift to Romney?
Some Romney partisans point to the example of 1980, when Reagan turned to Bush, who had disparaged him during their primary fight, even calling Reagan’s tax cut vision “voodoo economics.” But the examples are not really analogous. It is difficult to appreciate how deeply the Republican Party was divided in 1980; a vibrant faction of moderates and liberals still existed (most have since left the party), and they had rallied around Bush. It is also difficult to appreciate just how extreme Reagan’s conservatism seemed to those moderate Republicans – and to independent voters. Teaming up with Bush was an essential step for Reagan.
McCain, by contrast, may be distrusted by much of his party’s base, but there are other VP prospects besides Romney who would sit well with the right, just as there are other VP prospects who would sit well with independent voters in the fall. Here’s betting that McCain opts for one of them.