The Dan Quayle dilemma

Mitt’s challenge as the presumptive nominee: Prove his loyalty to the base through his V.P. choice

Topics: Opening Shot,

The Dan Quayle dilemmaDan Quayle and George H.W. Bush at the 1988 Republican National Convention. (Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

The sudden burst of speculation about Paul Ryan serving as Mitt Romney’s running mate reflects both the key role that the GOP congressman played in delivering his home state to Romney this week and the reinforcing effect that Wisconsin victory has had on Romney’s primary season inevitability.

In other words: Since there’s no longer any doubt that Romney will be his party’s presidential candidate, we might as well move on to speculating on vice-presidential prospects – and who better to start with than the guy who spent the last week campaigning at Romney’s side?

But even if it never moves past the idle speculation phase, the idea of Ryan as Romney’s No. 2 is a perfect starting point for the months of vice-presidential chatter to come. The logic behind it speaks directly to the profound intraparty skepticism that Romney must address with his pick.

Conservative distrust of Romney has been the dominant theme of the GOP race. For a variety of reasons, it won’t be enough to keep him from winning the nomination. But it accounts for the agonizing, embarrassing and politically damaging road that Romney has traveled for the past year. It’s the reason a string of comically flawed fringe candidates – Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich – each managed at some point to move up in the polls against him, and why Rick Santorum, who was laughed off the political stage in his previous campaign, could end up beating Romney in more than a dozen states.

What has ultimately saved Romney, besides the amateurish quality of his opposition, is his readiness to appease the right on every key issue. Conservative suspicion of Romney is rooted in what he said and did back in his Massachusetts days, not what he’s said and done as a presidential candidate. The Romney who is poised to claim the 2012 GOP nomination is as opposed to abortion and gay rights, as committed to dismantling “Obamacare,” and as far to the right on immigration as any Republican. This has forced his primary opponents to use the past tense while attacking him: Look at what he used to say!

This is why it would be a mistake to regard Romney’s nomination as a triumph of moderate over Tea Party Republicanism. He hasn’t won over reluctant conservatives by prodding them to change their worldview. He’s won them over by demonstrating his willingness to play ball with them and by convincing them how absurd their other options are. The problem with this, as I’ve written before, is that it leaves Romney permanently at the conservative base’s mercy; as long as he’s the leader of their party – as its nominee or as president – they’ll be ready to revolt at the first hint of a sellout. Proving loyalty to the right will be a constant, never-ending challenge for Romney.

The choice of a ticket-mate, then, represents Romney’s first major post-primary loyalty test. From this standpoint, Ryan would be a home run. The budget blueprint that he’s put forward, one that envisions steep tax cuts for the affluent and deep cuts in the social safety net, has been embraced by conservatives as a desperately-needed antidote to Obama-ism. Virtually every Republican in the House has signed off on it, and Romney himself has called it “an excellent piece of work, very much needed.” What’s really made Ryan a hero to conservatives, though, is the loud, sustained and universal rejection of his plan by Democrats, especially Obama, who this week made his second major speech in a year attacking a Ryan plan.

You Might Also Like

Of course, Ryan would also be a home run V.P. choice from the perspective of Democrats. The components of his budget blueprint, including a call to alter the basic nature of Medicare, are poisonously unpopular, and Democrats want to tie every Republican on the ballot this fall to it. It would make their task much simpler if Romney were to go ahead and add Ryan to the ticket.

Maybe that will ultimately dissuade Romney from choosing Ryan. But so what? The point is that he’s going to have to choose a Ryan-like candidate for his No. 2 slot, someone who has total credibility among conservatives, and who might excite a base that is willing to put up with Romney as the presidential nominee but isn’t nuts about doing so. Names like Marco Rubio, Nikki Haley, Susana Martinez, Bob McDonnell and even Mike Huckabee are also in the air right now.

Previous GOP nominees have been in a similar position, and Romney’s predicament does call to mind the one John McCain faced four years ago, when he turned to Sarah Palin. But McCain’s pick spoke to more than just his need to please the right; he was also intent on finding a totally outside-the-box running mate who would catch the political world by surprise and give his ticket some of the barrier-breaking appeal of the Obama-led Democratic ticket.

Romney, at least for now, isn’t in quite as desperate a situation. His situation more closely resembles George H.W. Bush’s back in 1988. The parallels between the Bush ’88 and Romney ’12 stories are already striking. Like Romney, Bush came to the race with a well-documented moderate/liberal past that he tried to pretend didn’t exist. Conservatives didn’t trust him, but he took all of the positions they wanted him to take, and they ultimately consented to his nomination. Then, when Bush began looking for a running mate, they reminded him who was boss. The Bush campaign floated names like Bob and Elizabeth Dole, Alan Simpson, Pete Domenici and Nancy Kassebaum as prospective V.P.s. This is not what the right wanted to hear.

”We want a flesh and blood conservative on the ticket, and nothing less will do,” Gordon Humphrey, then a senator from New Hampshire, roared.

Humphrey talked of staging a convention walkout in New Orleans if Bush chose an unacceptable V.P. Other conservatives weren’t as blunt, but delivered the same basic message to the Bush campaign. Bush’s choice, Dan Casey of the American Conservative Union said, would be “a harbinger of the future, a signal.”

It was the pressure to appease voices like these that led Bush to choose a 41-year-old Indiana senator named Dan Quayle. The immediate reaction from conservatives was glee. Then Quayle opened his mouth, and the rest is history.

Granted, Bush’s pick didn’t have to be the disaster it was. Conservatives with more reassuring public personalities were available, and Bush could have gone with one of them. In the same way, Romney’s pick this summer doesn’t have to end up hurting his campaign. He may well choose a running mate who makes the base happy and strikes the rest of America as generally competent and mainstream. But as Bush’s example showed, when your options are limited by a skeptical base and the pressure is on to make an act of loyalty, it’s only too easy to end up with a Dan Quayle problem.

Steve Kornacki
Steve Kornacki writes about politics for Salon. Reach him by email at SKornacki@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornacki

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 13
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    DAYA  
    Young Daya has yet to become entirely jaded, but she has the character's trademark skeptical pout down pat. And with a piece-of-work mother like Aleida -- who oscillates between jealousy and scorn for her creatively gifted daughter, chucking out the artwork she brings home from summer camp -- who can blame her?

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    MORELLO   
    With her marriage to prison penpal Vince Muccio, Lorna finally got to wear the white veil she has fantasized about since childhood (even if it was made of toilet paper).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    CINDY   
    Cindy's embrace of Judaism makes sense when we see her childhood, lived under the fist of a terrifying father who preached a fire-and-brimstone version of Christianity. As she put it: "I was raised in a church where I was told to believe and pray. And if I was bad, I’d go to hell."

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    CAPUTO   
    Joey Caputo has always tried to be a good guy, whether it's offering to fight a disabled wrestler at a high school wrestling event or giving up his musical ambitions to raise another man's child. But trying to be a nice guy never exactly worked out for him -- which might explain why he decides to take the selfish route in the Season 3 finale.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    BOO   
    In one of the season's more moving flashbacks, we see a young Boo -- who rejected the traditional trappings of femininity from a young age -- clashing with her mother over what to wear. Later, she makes the decision not to visit her mother on her deathbed if it means pretending to be something she's not. As she puts it, "I refuse to be invisible, Daddy. Not for you, not for Mom, not for anybody.”

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    SOSO
    We still don't know what landed Brooke Soso in the slammer, but a late-season flashback suggests that some seriously overbearing parenting may have been the impetus for her downward spiral.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    POUSSEY
    We already know a little about Poussey's relationship with her military father, but this season we saw a softer side of the spunky fan-favorite, who still pines for the loving mom that she lost too young.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    PENNSATUCKY
    Pennsatucky had something of a redemption arc this season, and glimpses of her childhood only serve to increase viewer sympathy for the character, whose mother forced her to chug Mountain Dew outside the Social Security Administration office and stripped her of her sexual agency before she was even old enough to comprehend it.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    CHANG
    This season, we got an intense look at the teenage life of one of Litchfield's most isolated and underexplored inmates. Rebuffed and scorned by her suitor at an arranged marriage, the young Chinese immigrant stored up a grudge, and ultimately exacted a merciless revenge.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    HEALY
    It's difficult to sympathize with the racist, misogynist CO Sam Healy, but the snippets we get of his childhood -- raised by a mentally ill mother, vomited on by a homeless man he mistakes for Jesus when he runs to the church for help -- certainly help us understand him better.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    NORMA
    This season, we learned a lot about one of Litchfield's biggest enigmas, as we saw the roots of Norma's silence (a childhood stutter) and the reason for her incarceration (killing the oppressive cult leader she followed for decades).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    NICKI
    While Nicki's mother certainly isn't entirely to blame for her daughter's struggles with addiction, an early childhood flashback -- of an adorable young Nicki being rebuffed on Mother's Day -- certainly helps us understand the roots of Nicki's scarred psyche.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>