The main concern in picking a running mate, I’ve argued, should be “do no harm” — or, to put it more crassly, avoid a Sarah Palin. Awful VP nominees have been shockingly common over the years. While only one veepstakes winner has been bounced from the ticket (Thomas Eagleton in 1972), and only one other, the Sage of Wasilla herself, seems to have clearly cost the ticket votes, there have been others who were engulfed in scandal or embarrassment during the campaign (Richard Nixon in 1952, Geraldine Ferraro in 1984, Dan Quayle in 1992), one who was lucky enough to make it through two campaigns before resigning from a scandal that presumably could have been exposed during the initial run (Spiro Agnew), and another who wound up engulfed in scandal soon after losing (John Edwards in 2004). And that’s not even mentioning Joe Lieberman.
I’ve argued before that the main procedural lesson here is to go with experience and pre-vetted candidates. Out of the eight disasters in that list, only Lieberman and Quayle had been either senators or governors for long enough to get reelected. Even better is to go with someone who has survived a modestly successful presidential campaign; all of the picks with that particular experience have done just fine as running mates except in the more complicated case of John Edwards. Put the two together, and the names that Mitt Romney would be left with would be Mike Huckabee or, perhaps, Tim Pawlenty; the Huck had a successful run last time around, while Pawlenty’s short effort is at least somewhat similar to Walter Mondale’s even shorter run before Jimmy Carter selected him.
The other lesson, I think, is to ignore the “message” that a pick will send to anyone. I don’t really know what the campaigns think, but pundits speculate endlessly about this sort of thing; the Wall Street Journal editorial today touting Paul Ryan talked about “the message that Mr. Romney's choice of a running mate should reinforce.” And indeed, the initial roll-out of the vice presidential candidate usually comes with a prepackaged theme of some sort. But you know what? After a day or two, a week at most, not only does that “message” fade out of memory but so does almost everything else about the running mate, at least unless there’s some sort of disaster.
Now, in my view, the message of “dismantle Medicare” is a foolish one for Republicans to be sending, notwithstanding the Wall Street Journal’s preferences, but the truth is, it probably doesn’t matter much. If Mitt Romney wants to run on the House Republican budget, he’s going to do that regardless of who his running mate might be — and as the Journal correctly points out, if Barack Obama wants to hit him on that budget, it’s not going to matter whether the running mate is Ryan, Pawlenty or the 11th lucky delegate to shake Romney’s hand at the convention. I agree with Jamelle Bouie that the Ryan plan is quite unpopular, but I don’t think there’s anything special about Ryan himself that would make voters who refuse to believe the implications of that plan suddenly turn against Romney; we’re not talking here about a Newt Gingrich, someone whose personal unpopularity could be used against the nominee’s ideas.
So I don’t think Ryan is a good choice, but that’s more on the grounds that he hasn’t been tested properly than the unpopularity of what he symbolizes. There’s a reason that members of the House don’t win at veepstakes very often. If Romney is smart, he’ll stick to a safer choice.