In a recent analysis on Fox News Sunday, former Bush strategist Karl Rove discussed Sen. John McCain’s vice-presidential options. Declining to identify the proffered candidates as a “short list,” Rove characterized them as archetypes – representative of the types of vice-presidential candidates from which presidential nominees can usually choose. Regarding former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, Rove labeled him the “defeated primary opponent,” the one who the nominee beat during the campaign, in the manner Bush 41 was to Ronald Reagan in 1980. The choice is conventional, lauded as practical, and usually serves the nominee well; indeed, Rove named Romney as the best choice. Romney would be an estimable choice, but not for the usual political calculus; should McCain win, Romney could ease the tumultuous transition American conservatives will face as their once dominant movement recedes.
Even after an uninspiring campaign, Romney still cuts an attractive political profile. As has been well recounted, Romney was a tremendously successful businessman and venture capitalist before rescuing the Salt Lake Winter Olympics in 1998 and serving a successful term as a Republican governor in Democratic Massachusetts. In a more cohesive Republican Party, Romney could have been a more successful contender.
Unfortunately for Romney, the Reaganite coalition for whose affection he positioned and marketed himself no longer existed. Add an inexplicable animus to his Mormon faith and his candidacy consistently underperformed. Romney won 11 primaries, but came up short after Super Tuesday and, unlike the second-place finisher in the Democratic derby, dropped out graciously with a strong endorsement of McCain.
The prevailing conventional wisdom suggests McCain should select a running mate on the basis of “balancing,” whether it be generational, gender, or ideology. Romney comes up short on each of these -- a 61-year old white male conservative, he’s McCain less the military service. Taking Massachusetts 12 electoral votes would be great in this election, but Romney is unlikely to deliver.
Luckily, conventional wisdom has taken a beating in this election and perhaps the Fates will smile on American conservatives and persuade McCain to recognize the alternative advantages Romney would bring more to his presidency than his candidacy.
Consider the following. If McCain defeats Obama in what is universally regarded as a Democratic year, it would be a personal victory for the former prisoner of war and not a mandate for conservatism. He would have likely triumphed on the strength of his personal profile as a maverick, a stoic patriot, and his attractiveness to independents and Reagan Democrats not sold on Obama's elitist message of salvation from above.
The political reality would be a narrow victory against an ascendant Democratic liberalism. A President McCain would champion some Republican conservative themes and initiatives, but the likelihood of a possibly filibuster-proof Democratic Senate and increasingly emasculated House Republican minority would mean his authority would be limited to the bully pulpit and a readily used veto pen.
Accordingly, what could a President McCain truly accomplish on behalf of American conservatism?
Nonetheless, the same way the Carter Administration signaled the demise of traditional Democratic liberalism, a McCain presidency would similarly mark the twilight of conservative hegemony. McCain’s term would at best be a transitional period for conservatism, not a sign of its continuing endurance.
As the modern Republican variant of conservatism founders, American conservatives are essentially left leaderless (almost), but not bereft of ideas as some allege. Fundamental objectives such as entitlement reform, rationalization of the tax code, and modernization of national security structures still provide the basis for a compelling conservative reform agenda. (For an articulate overview of such an agenda, see Yuval Levin’s “…A Reform Agenda For The 21st Century…”.) But again, a President McCain would be a transitional figure and a Vice-President Bobby Jindal or some other ideal figure would be invariably diminished by serving in his administration.
Accordingly, the vice-presidential nominee must similarly be transitional, but still effective in terms of governance. Enter Mitt Romney.
One key facet of Romney’s appeal was his singular representation of businessmen in the twenty-odd collection of longtime government personalities bidding for the White House this year. In a year where change is the winning mantra, a Massachusetts venture capitalist trying to succeed a despised Texas oilman was a non-starter. Nevertheless, less heralded was the zeal with which Romney wanted to conduct a “strategic audit” of the U.S. government toward restoring its effectiveness.
Strategic audit is the vaunted business consulting methodology Romney applied while at Bain Capital and the Salt Lakes Olympic Committee. Documented in his book, Turnaround: Crisis, Leadership, and the Olympic Games, strategic audit is an exhaustive examination of a struggling entity – scrutinizing every piece of data, comprehensively surveying virtually every stakeholder, manager, employees, customer, and competitor, and applying rigorous metrics. The process yielded tremendous results for Bain and was key to rescuing the 1998 Winter Olympic Games.
Each element is important, but the scrutiny applied to the feedback and perspective of the individuals involved in the enterprise is critical. To apply an innovation recently undertaken by the US military, mapping the “human terrain” will be essential if government reform is to be accomplished. Government agencies have only began to apply modern human capital strategies, but existing metrics are rudimentary and the efficacy of their personnel are taken for granted when devising courses of action. The strategic audit approach underscores how the importance placed on individuals should be more than just the rhetoric of government executives and strategic plans. If reform is to be achieved, success would likely start with Romney’s emphasis on the human component. Perhaps not all federal workers would survive the audit, but those remaining would know coinciding structural and procedural changes would enhance their potential, not limit it. Moreover, the American public would know it too.
Government as the problem is not a revelation to American conservatives, but, as P.J. O’Rourke said it best, Republican are the ones that say government doesn't work “…and then they get elected and prove it.” While government should not be an instrument of first and only resort when new challenges arise for the American people (as liberals propose), but government should, at a minimum, perform critical functions – sustain economic competitiveness, provide for the national defense, and respond to catastrophic emergencies – effectively.
A new generation of conservatives are rightly diagnosing average Americans disgust with an incompetent government (see Comeback and Grand New Party), but they are also unfortunately advocating accommodation with the liberal agenda by blessing continued government provision of social insurance programs and regulation of the economy for the benefit of the environment.
Astonishingly, some liberal Democrats are finally recognizing the size and scope of government as a hindrance to its potential effectiveness. In the same vein as the aforementioned Levin, Dr. Paul C. Light of New York University and the Brookings Institution had an op-ed in the June 25th Washington Post lamenting a “government ill executed,” followed up by an open letter to the presidential candidates, urging them to aggressively repair government by calling for a flatter structure, less political appointees, more accountability, and greater oversight, all which should resonate with American conservatives and signal the continuing viability of their voices in this debate.
Current Vice President Richard Cheney has demonstrated the opportunities the office can provide a capable executive. The prospects of a Vice-President Romney leading a government-wide reform campaign, rigorously conducting a strategic audit of the federal government – an underperforming organization without peer – with an aim toward facilitating the above named conservative objectives should be carefully contemplated when McCain comes closer to decision hour.
Prediction: Barack Obama will select Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana to be his running mate; Bayh is a former governor, a moderate, youngish, well-liked, a New Democrat unconnected to the Clintons, and well-respected.