Winning the Veepstakes

‘Nothing could underline Romney’s message on the centrality of the economy to this election better than the appointment of Rob Portman to his ticket’

Dispatches
Susana Martinez (Steve Terrell)

America is extremely well served by conservative-minded magazines, which are as eclectic as they are widely read. There’s the waspish and irreverent Weekly Standard, the delightfully counter-counter-cultural New Criterion, the engaging and elegant Claremont Review of Books, the witty but hard-hitting Commentary, and there’s the National Review, founded by William F. Buckley and now edited by Rich Lowry, which does excellent work serving as the conscience of the Republican Party and the unremitting scold of the Democrats. National Review recently  had a scoop far more impressive than anything the New York Times has revealed about News Corporation — and about a much more important issue — but which so far has not received a fraction of the coverage from America’s liberal news media. 

Writing in National Review Online on  June 7, Stanley Kurtz, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, revealed that he had found indisputable evidence that as late as in January 1996 Barack Obama formally joined the radical, leftist New Party, and that in the 2008 election the then Democratic candidate “deceived the American public about his potentially damaging tie to this third party”. Kurtz argues convincingly how Mitt Romney is therefore right to argue that Obama would ultimately love to ditch American capitalism   in favour of a European-style social democracy, or even something farther to the left than that.

When the accusation that Obama had been a member of the New Party — the political arm of the radical Association of Community Organisations for Reform Now (Acorn) — was made during the 2008 presidential election, the Obama campaign went on the record to denounce it as “a crackpot smear”, stating categorically: “Barack has been a member of only one political party, the Democratic Party.” Yet now Kurtz has discovered brand new evidence at the Wisconsin Historical Society that shows that the Obama campaign lied. The minutes of the Illinois branch of Acorn for its meeting on January 11, 1996 categorically state that “Barack Obama, candidate for State Senate in the 13th Legislative District, gave a statement to the membership and answered questions. He signed the New Party ‘Candidate Contract’ and requested an endorsement from the New Party. He also joined the New Party.”

This “contract” contained the promise to associate himself publicly with the New Party while in office, and from early 1997 the membership lists of the Chicago chapter of the New Party have Barack Obama down as a member, with January 11, 1996 as the date he joined. Yet in 2008, the Obama campaign stated that although the New Party did support him for state senator in the 1996 election, he never joined it “and never solicited the endorsement”. These latest revelations completely explode that on-the-record statement.

Kurtz states how the New Party — which dissolved itself in the late 1990s after much factional feuding — “disdained mainstream Democrats, considering them tools of business, and promised instead to create a partnership between elected officials and local community organisations, with the aim of socialising America to an unprecedented degree”. The party’s published statement of principles called for “a peaceful revolution” in order to redistribute wealth in America to a degree that Kurtz reports was “substantially to the left of the Democratic Party”.

This is so close to the accusation that Romney is making in the present election that it is incumbent on the mainstream media to ask whether Obama, only 12 years before being elected president, was a member of a political party that openly espoused those anti-business, redistributive, social democrat views. Yet even though there is now documentary evidence to prove that he did indeed join a leftist third party, there has been not the slightest whiff of interest so far in pursuing the story from ABC, CBS, CNN, the New York Times, the Washington Post and so on, and only one report on National Public Radio, which came to no definite conclusion. By contrast, try to imagine the furore from all those news organisations if documentary evidence had been discovered that proved that in 1996, when he was in his last year at Bain Capital, Mitt Romney had joined the Libertarian Party and signed a “candidate’s contract” to espouse its views as Governor of Massachusetts, and had then released a statement describing the accusation as a “crackpot smear”.  

When vice-presidential candidates are about to be appointed, a huge amount of vetting is undertaken. The presidential candidate’s team trawls through their pasts to a highly inquisitorial degree. Past associations, tax records, ex-girlfriends, political friends of friends, all jobs and posts held going back to high school — everything is fair game as the candidate tries to find skeletons in his potential running-mate’s closet before the media does. Yet the parties impose no such fine-tooth-combing through the presidential candidate’s past, meaning that revelations such as Kurtz’s can come out even four years into a presidency.

By the time you read this, Romney might have already chosen his vice-presidential running-mate, although the more traditional, cautious timing is to announce it at the late-August nominating convention, and Romney is nothing if not traditional and cautious. The front-runners are Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey and Governor Susana Martinez of New Mexico, with perhaps as many as five others also in contention. Since the choice of “veep” is the first important judgment call that the candidate has to make, it is analysed in immense detail as much for what it says about the candidate as about the veep.

Although Rubio is Hispanic, handsome, charismatic, “the crown prince of the Tea Party movement” and comes from the key battleground state of Florida, he is also very young (41), his parents were economic migrants rather than Castro exiles, and he has not so far broken his close ties with his allegedly corrupt friend Representative David Rivera of Florida’s 25th Congressional District. Susana Martinez ticks very useful psephological boxes, being both Hispanic and a woman, but the choice might look opportunistic for that very reason. Americans are very harsh on candidates who choose veeps for their electoral interests rather than picking someone who would be well-qualified enough to be “a heartbeat away from the presidency”. Punishing John McCain for choosing Sarah Palin was one of the reasons the Republicans lost in 2008, although no one is suggesting that Ms Martinez is not far better qualified to be president than was Mrs Palin. John Kerry’s choice of John Edwards of North Carolina in 2004 was similarly more about shoring up the weak Democratic vote in the South than choosing the best man for the job, as the recent scandals over Edwards’s private life and unorthodox campaign financing have subsequently shown.

The whole intellectual climate is changing in what are called “the veepstakes”. No longer is it assumed that veeps can do that much to deliver even their home states for the candidate, and so the argument is made that a veep should underline and complement the candidate’s own strengths, rather than attempt to fill in whatever is missing in terms of his geographical, racial or gender appeal. Since 1920 veeps have produced on average a net gain of only 2 per cent in their home states, although the numbers have been growing slightly since 1984. Sitting governors and senators tend to deliver higher gains than congressmen or people who have retired from state office, while veeps from smaller states — especially ones that rarely produce national candidates — tend to do better than those from bigger states, as the strong turnouts for Sarah Palin in Alaska and Joe Biden in Delaware showed in 2008.This effect subsides, however, once they’ve spent four years in Washington and are on the ticket for the second time. 

Two or three percentage points in a tight contest in a key battlefield state like Ohio or Florida can make all the difference of course, which is one of the reasons why Portman and Rubio are thought to have a better chance in the veepstakes than Christie from safely Democratic New Jersey. Portman’s strengths are that he has held two cabinet-level posts, as US Trade Representative and director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), is moderate but nonetheless popular among conservatives, speaks fluent Spanish, won his Cincinnati-area House seat with shares of the vote ranging between 70 and 77 per cent, and carried 82 out of Ohio’s 88 counties when he ran for the Senate in 2010. Since no Republican has ever won the presidency without carrying Ohio, his attractions to Romney are obvious. 

Portman’s negatives are, in the words of the Republican pollster Major Garrett, that’s he’s a middle-class white male who worked for George W. Bush and is therefore considered square, right-wing and boring. Garrett adds, however, that choosing him  would “tell the country that Romney’s first big decision wasn’t a gaffe-blown gamble or one festooned with the garish and outmoded trappings of regional or ideological balance”. 

Picking Portman, another Ivy Leaguer who likes number-crunching, would expose the Republicans to the accusation of the ticket merely being “two boring white guys”, but it would also further reassure those Americans who think the US is heading in the wrong direction — that the two people on the GOP ticket really understand the big economic issues facing America, in a way that fewer and fewer think is true of Obama and Biden. Nothing could underline Romney’s message on the centrality of the economy to this election better than the    appointment of a former OMB director to his ticket. Not for nothing has the Wall Street Journal dubbed Portman “the un-Palin”.