Paul Begala: I Know Who Romney’s Running Mate Will Be

Mitt Romney campaigns with Ohio Sen. Rob Portman in Cincinnati. Gerald Herbert / AP

You heard it here first: Mitt Romney is going to select Rob Portman, the junior senator from Ohio, to be his running mate. I have no insight into how Romney will make this decision. But I had a front-row seat at what I believe was the best veep choice of my lifetime.

When Bill Clinton was choosing his running mate in 1992, I made a pitch for Sen. Harris Wofford—a visionary who had worked closely with Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy. Wofford seemed perfect because he would have balanced the ticket, and that’s what conventional wisdom considers most important: Clinton was young, Wofford was older; Clinton was a Southerner, Wofford was from Pennsylvania; Clinton was a governor, Wofford served in Congress; Clinton was a Protestant, Wofford was a Catholic; Clinton was a moderate, Wofford was a liberal. But Clinton was blown away by his meeting with Al Gore and settled on him quickly, even though Gore was the same age, same region, same religion, and same ideology. “Why pick him?” I asked. “Because, Paulie,” Clinton said in a near whisper, “I might die.” Gulp.

I wasn’t in the room when George W. Bush chose Dick Cheney. (Well, Cheney actually chose Cheney, but never mind.) Cheney wasn’t picked for his animal magnetism, and Wyoming’s three electoral votes weren’t a factor, so politics had nothing to do with it. Obama’s choice of Joe Biden was likewise about governing, not campaigning. Delaware was never in doubt, and Biden’s global experience and middle-class sensibility made him a great choice.

Can Romney, with his Etch a Sketch character and Slinky spine, make a nonpolitical decision on his veep? He’d better. Above all, he needs an anti-Palin: someone who will not overshadow him, someone who will not blow up in his face, and someone who will fit Romney’s play-it-safe, buttoned-up image.

That rules out Marco Rubio, everyone’s preseason first-round draft choice. Choosing Rubio might be bold (the first Latino), but it would also be risky, inviting massive scrutiny of a guy who was speaker of the Florida House five minutes ago. Same goes for other impressive Hispanic newcomers like Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez. Plus, choosing any of them guarantees lengthy and uncomfortable discussions about why Romney has positioned himself so far right on Latino issues. Not the conversation Mitt wants to have.

What about Paul Ryan? The House Budget Committee chairman is the darling of every Beltway mandarin—the folks who have ideas about policy but never actually read budgets. They say he’s “courageous.” I love that. Only in Washington is cutting taxes for rich people, saving tax breaks for oil companies, and hammering the elderly and sick on Medicare considered courageous. Anywhere else we’d call Ryan what he is: a bully. Ryan’s budget is toxic. Romney was foolish to embrace it, and he’d be even more foolish to run with its author.

Romney has other options. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is bold and blunt—two things Romney will never be. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels is highly regarded but has said he’s uninterested in national office. Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell is said to be a Romney fave, but his recent signing of a law mandating invasive procedures for Virginia women seeking an abortion would highlight social issues. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal might be a good choice, if he’s upped his game from his 2009 response to the State of the Union address, which he apparently did in character as Kenneth the Page from 30 Rock.

And so, by process of elimination, we circle back to Portman. He’s from Ohio, the quintessential swing state, where he consistently won his southern Ohio House district with 70 percent of the vote. In his 2010 campaign for Senate he outspent his opponent 9-to-1, garnering 57 percent of the vote and carrying 82 of his state’s 88 counties. Impressive. He has executive experience as well, having served George W. Bush as budget director. There’s a big downside there: it was Bush’s budgets that turned history’s biggest surpluses into history’s biggest deficits, mostly by cutting taxes for the rich and bogging us down in endless wars. Romney, whose agenda focuses on still more tax breaks for the rich and who opposed Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq, could be painted as a man determined to drag us backward. As Obama strategist David Axelrod has said, Romney “sees the world through the rear-view mirror. He watches Mad Men and thinks it’s the evening news.”

Still, every pick has a problem. I’m betting that Romney’s choice will reflect who he is: a bloodless technocrat who wants to double down on trickle down.