Sitting in his rather unassuming state office in Richmond, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) doesn’t give off the air of a man in the political spotlight and one of a handful of Republicans who has a good shot at being tapped for Mitt Romney’s running mate. He’s not flamboyant and doesn’t have that puffed-up chest, the air of slight arrogance, that many pols project. He, instead, is precise and focused — no wrinkles on his blue shirt and no verbal gaffes.
As a former Army officer with more than 20 years of service, he projects a no-nonsense authority. He is not a glad-hander nor a rhetorical bomb-thrower. But that doesn’t mean he lacks ambition or conviction. (His red tie is from the Heritage Foundation; its pattern of liberty bells, the symbol of the conservative think tank, is discernible if you look closely.)
He is well aware that his name is in contention for the VP pick. He jokes that it is Romney’s “fault” for creating the buzz that started when Romney, at a Virginia Beach fundraiser, threw out some names of possible running mates. McDonnell says Romney may have been giving him “home field advantage” by including his name. McDonnell reminds me that in 2008 he backed Fred Thompson. He laughs and rolls his eyes. “That didn’t last very long!” He recalls that Romney would call looking for support, remaining unflaggingly upbeat and friendly. He got to know Romney only a bit before the start of the 2012 run when he began spending “time on the bus” and introducing the presidential candidate at events and fundraisers.
There certainly is some similarity between the two. Both have five children, both are religious men and both have outgoing and warm wives who have helped their political careers. When I ask McDonnell for his impressions of Romney in person, he first mentions personal attributes. “The man who gives so much to charity is the same person I see in person.” He adds, “He’s a great family man.” Only then does he point to professional attributes (“confident,” “decisive,” “a guy with big ideas”). Showing his chops as a surrogate, he reels off Romney’s accomplishments ( “125,00 jobs created at Bain,” the Olympics, balanced the budget in Massachusetts without raising taxes). “These are success stories. When you are around him, he is a guy who exudes confidence.” He concedes, however, “He did some things in a blue state different than I’d do in Virginia,” but he sticks to his message that Romney is a fiscal conservative and “problem-solver.”
I ask him, as everyone does who interviews him these days, if he’d agree to be VP. In measured tones that suggest he’s given the answer many times, he tells me: “I’m thrilled being in the job that Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson had. It’s the highest honor of my professional life.” As for the VP job, he says, “We’re not looking for it. We’re not running for it.” But . . . and that is what everyone waits for, he also says that you have to consider it when “a nominee calls . . . and says you can help the ticket.” More directly he says, “If I can help [Romney] win in one way or another, I’m glad to help.” He hastens to add, “It’s solely up to Mitt Romney.” And that is how one makes it clear, without being excessively pushy, that he’d be thrilled to be picked.
McDonnell won the governorship in 2009, a year after Virginia voted for a Democrat for president for the first time since choosing LBJ). He won by 18 points and scored victories in Fairfax County and the other suburbs of Northern Virginia that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) had lost the year before. What’s the key to winning a swing state like Virginia and the Fairfax counties around the country? His answer: “You talk about the issues people are talking about at the dinner table.” He reels off a list: Traffic, more accountable schools and jobs. He recalls his that entire campaign boiled own to a three-word slogan: “Bob’s for jobs.”
He also mastered a tone that was effective with non-ideological voters. To be blunt, he was a conservative who didn't scare moderate voters, moms in the suburbs and conservative Democrats. He describes the best way of communicating with voters as having a “conversation” with them.
He makes the case that with or without him on the ticket, Romney can win the state. In 2008, “Obama won by seven points. He ran a brilliant campaign, but look what’s happened in three years. I won by 18 points. We took three House seats. We elected the largest number of Republicans to the House of Delegates in history. And we took back the [state] Senate. Now, that’s a course correction.”
He rattles off the reasons why President Obama is vulnerable in his state and nationally. “One is the issue of leadership. . . . This president is engaged in the atrocious policy of division.” (He supplies the list: rich vs. poor, men vs. women, etc.). “He’s constantly blaming other people for what he can’t get done.” He says that the second issue is “how do we get the greatest country on earth back to work. We have 8.2 percent unemployment.” In every month of his presidency but one, he points out, Obama has presided over an economy with unemployment of at least 8 percent. “No president has ever been elected with unemployment over 8 percent,” he says.
And third, he says, “America is fast sliding in the direction of Greece. Sixteen trillion dollars is an unsustainable and immoral about of debt.” As far as Obama goes, McDonnell say, “He has no plan to get us out of it.” Under Obama’s budget plan, we’d be at $25 trillion in debt by 2021, he says. McDonnell adds, “The president refuses to acknowledge that you can’t get the country back on track without reforming entitlements.” Finally, McDonnell chides the president for having “no plan for energy independence.”
So McDonnell has the message down-pat, showing Romney-like discipline in sticking to those bread-and-butter issues. Does he see some similarity between himself and Romney? He says they share “the intense focus ... on problem-solving.” But he quickly demurs, saying he’ll leave that assessment to Romney.
Critics would say that McDonnell is too “safe” to be a VP pick, not dynamic enough and too much like Romney himself (hyper-organized, disciplined, friendly but restrained). However, from Romney’s perspective, safe is good and “not dynamic” means McDonnell won’t steal the limelight. And who doesn’t like people just like themselves?
It is, I would argue, precisely because Romney values problem-solving, focus and smarts, and because he cherishes his wife, family and faith so much, that McDonnell may just fit the bill as his No. 2. Goodness knows McDonnell will fulfill the most important quality of a VP: Do no harm.