Is a 2012 VP Run Too Risky for the Shortlist?

Before the No. 1 on the Republican 2012 presidential ballot has even been decided, there’s incredible buzz and speculation about who the No. 2 on the ticket should be.

The excitement and odds-making is largely a reflection of whom many would have liked to see on the presidential ballot, and embodies hope that the perfect addition to a Mitt Romney ticket would fill in the nooks and crannies to make the GOP ticket simultaneously more appealing to both the base and a wider swathe of the electorate.

Swing-state voters? There’s a pick for that. Conservatives who don’t think Romney is conservative enough? There’s a pick for that. The ever-growing bloc of Latino voters? There’s a pick for that. Women, who currently skew heavily toward the Democratic ticket? There’s a candidate for that.

George Will said Sunday, “I’ve never met an American who said I voted for presidential candidate A because of running mate B.” The hope that a vice presidential pick will shift a campaign into high gear and keep it there was attempted in 2008, and Barack Obama became the 44th president of the United States.

If that strategy is attempted again, who will say “yes” if the stakes include potential damage to one’s political future? After all, we are in 2012 but 2016 is just around the corner.

Whom would the Democrats run in 2016? Vice President Joe Biden has soaked up the adulation when campaign crowds have cheered on the possibility of a White House run, and heaven knows that was the career politician’s goal when he unsuccessfully tried to get the Dem nod in 1988 and 2008. It’s not a good sign, though, when political analysts spend the latter half of the president’s first term speculating whether the gaffetastic Biden will be replaced on Obama’s 2012 ticket.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) dismissed that speculation in an interview Sunday, saying, “Biden is a great guy, enjoys his own popularity in the country.”

“I do think, though, the secretary should entertain the thought of running in 2016,” Pelosi added.

Hillary Clinton, who gave Obama a run for his money in 2008, said in an interview with NBC’s Andrea Mitchell that she’ll be happy to take a break after this term; it’s been known for a while that she has been looking forward to leaving the State Department.

“I want to do the best job I can as the secretary of state for this president,” she said. “I want to then take some time to get reconnected to, you know, the stuff that makes life worth living, you know, family, friends, the sort of activities that I enjoy. And I’ll do some writing and some speaking, and I’m sure I’ll be continuing to advocate on these issues.” Not exactly long-term plans guaranteed to gobble up more than four years.

Aside from Clinton, other 2016 speculation is tipped to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Sen. Mark Warner (Va.), former Virginia Gov. and DNC Chairman Tim Kaine, and even Obama’s onetime strongman Rahm Emanuel or Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. Former Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) could resurrect into the political world, though he gave me the classic noncommittal presidential aspirations answer when I pressed him on the subject after he gave a stump-ish speech to AIPAC in 2010, shortly before he retired. Though even former Pennsylvania Gov. and DNC Chairman Ed Rendell recently said “Andrew should look elsewhere” because “it’s going to be Hillary Clinton in 2016.”

Just a couple of weeks ago, Politico advanced the idea that Biden in 2016 is “not so crazy” — though Lord only knows what crazy things will come out of the VP’s mouth in the next four years — because of the A-list advisers he’s been lining up behind the scenes. Biden, who would be 73 in 2016, has been relied on by Obama for early campaign stumping, included his spring series of four speeches targeted at key constituencies that are supposed to lay the bedrock of a 2012 strategy.

Add this potential roster to America’s natural tendency to vacillate between Republicans and Democrats, and if Romney can’t make Obama a one-term president it would be a cakewalk for the right Republican after Obama runs rampant with policy in the lame-duck years. One could argue that this was a banner year for Republican presidential hopefuls considering Obama’s track record and sad polling trends, but at this point it appears that a Republican victory is anything but assured and the cyclical economic trends are bouncing back in Obama’s favor.

As a Republican relatively early in your career, you’ve got to look at the landscape and weigh some serious decisions.

Will hopping on a ticket now give you the valuable name recognition and experience on the stump to pave the way for future political aspirations?

Or would it give you a stinging amount of media exposure before you’ve politically matured enough? If you jump on board a losing ticket, is your brand forever scarred?

Simply put, while many clamor that being the No. 2 would be the party’s best hope, the GOP’s best and brightest will be weighing whether the VP nod is in his or her best interest right now.

Among the names being floated for the Republican vice presidential nomination, even though the the real hunt isn’t expected to start solidifying until summer as the top of the ticket is still up in the air, are Gov. Chris Christie (R-N.J.), Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), and Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.).

All four had to beat back speculation of their own presidential bids. All four could be more formidable contenders in their own right in 2016 than any of the Republicans who vied for the nomination in 2012. All four have a bit of seasoning to do in their respective positions that could only help them four years from now.

All four could potentially be wounded by a national race gone bad.

Ryan said last month that he would “consider” a VP offer. But the inescapable fact is that walking away from his chairmanship after he’s fired the first few volleys in groundbreaking budget reform, citing a mission to save the nation from financial collapse and a moral obligation to do so, could hurt his brand. When he’s so close to getting some serious victories under his belt — especially if the GOP can win back the Senate this fall — it would be bad timing to drop it all and hit the national campaign trail.

“I’m so focused on my job in Congress. If I wanted to be president or vice president so badly I would have run for president. I don’t — so I didn’t,” Ryan said near the end of March.

You wouldn’t blame these guys for thinking that their place is on the top of a ticket, and they’ve got the enduring public enthusiasm to back it up. And yet, one of them might receive and accept a Romney offer to be his wingman.

Christie generated so much presidential speculation on his own that he called a much-watched press conference to say that it wasn’t his time yet. But he’s not doing much to tamp down speculation that he could be Romney’s veep pick, saying, “I don’t think you talk about that stuff.”

Rubio insisted last fall that he would not be the vice presidential nominee and has played coy about the prospect even though he whipped out a Romney endorsement last week.

The risk goes both ways. The GOP nominee isn’t likely to pick Florida Gov. Jeb Bush for fear that a Bush could hurt the ticket’s brand. But a surprising McClatchy-Marist poll released last week showed that putting Bush on board with Romney evens the score with Obama-Biden, at a 47-47 percent tie, while putting Rubio on the ticket would sink it 49-44 against Obama. Forty-six percent of Latinos polled would vote for Romney-Rubio over Obama-Biden, while 57 percent would vote for Romney if Bush was the veep.

Four out of six women governors in the nation are Republican. While the Republican ticket could use help among women voters, as the latest Pew Research Center poll showed Obama with a 20 point gender gap advantage on Romney, no one in that corner is jumping for the nod. “I’d say, ‘Thank you, but no,'”  South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley said recently, a turn from the Romney supporter’s previous noncommittal responses. New Mexico’s Susana Martinez, the nation’s first female Hispanic governor, has also said she will not be a vice presidential candidate.

There is a pool that probably wouldn’t have much to lose by risking a VP run. Former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, for instance. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (Ind.) would likely benefit from the national exposure, but that’s exactly the reason why his family vetoed a run for the Oval Office. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a onetime Romney rival early in the primary race, said he’d taken himself “off the list” for VP consideration. Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell is on many’s shortlist, but is still in his first term after a much-hailed stomping of Democrat Creigh Deeds in 2009.

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) is emerging as a potential top pick, but while the former director of the Office of Management and Budget and the U.S. Trade Representative under President George W. Bush has good political chops, he lacks the Oomph Factor many feel that Romney would need on board. Portman has support in a crucial swing state. But for all intents and purposes, he’s a lot like Romney. He’s a safe pick. Portman said he’s “not seeking” the nod, which is a safe answer for someone who could eventually be asked and say “yes.”

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, while young with many career years ahead of him, has already taken his inglorious rising-star tumble from the Republican stratosphere back to Planet Earth. All it took was one bad GOP response to Obama’s February 2009 address to a joint session of Congress to damn his name among many who felt he was all but assured a place on a presidential run. Hopping on a Republican ticket would be like a comeback tour for the young governor, giving him little room for error but a shining chance at redemption whether or not the ticket fails.

How much of politicos publicly shrugging off the possibility of a nomination is playing hard-to-get, and how much of it is serious “uh-uh, no way” — not because they never want to be vice president, per se, but because they feel that right now, on this ticket, could hurt an upwardly mobile career?

What could possibly go wrong? Star power brought on board a star-less ticket can lead to more bodies at campaign rallies but more potential conflict with the person who’s angling to become commander in chief. Obama clearly didn’t want his pick to detract from his star power, as could have happened had he asked Clinton to come onto the ticket.

You’re put through a campaign gauntlet like no other, and may not prove to be as Teflon as Biden with slips of the tongue. Should the ticket lose, there’s a pre-made arsenal for the next campaign to use against you.

There’s also the matter of how the fortunes of the campaign rise and fall, and how the last chapter can follow you afterward. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, had she decided to run for the GOP nomination this year, would have been weighted by the 2008 presidential run in which polling before election day indicated a majority of voters felt she was not ready for the job.

Yes, any of this year’s potential VP picks could pick themselves up and dust themselves off. But with the specter of 2016 offering not only potential weakness on the left but ideal career timing for many up-and-comers, the rising stars on the shortlist will have some considerable consideration to do in determining whether to say “yes.”