A former veep contender on Romney's 'veepstakes'
WASHINGTON (MarketWatch) -- Few people know more about what it's like to be in the "veepstakes" than former Sen. John Danforth of Missouri.
With speculation over who Mitt Romney will name as his running mate reaching a fever pitch, MarketWatch asked Danforth, who was on former President George W. Bush's short list of running mates, for his thoughts on what makes an effective vice-presidential candidate; how much gender and geography matter; and if there's an advantage to announcing a choice long in advance of the Republican convention.
Now a partner at the law firm of Bryan Cave, the 75-year-old Danforth in 1994 opted not to run for a fourth Senate term. Since then, the Republican has led a probe into the federal raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, and served as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under President George W. Bush.
The most important thing a running mate can do, Danforth told MarketWatch, is help a presidential candidate present the big questions to voters -- "which there has not been to date" in this campaign.
The following is a condensed and edited interview with the former senator, who spoke to MarketWatch by telephone from his law office in St. Louis, Mo.
MarketWatch: There's a lot of speculation that Gov. Romney will announce his running mate very soon, maybe as soon as this week -- which would be pretty soon, historically speaking. Is there an advantage or disadvantage to an early announcement? The convention is weeks away.
Danforth: I don't think it matters. There's talk about news cycles and trying to change the subject, and so on, but I honestly do not think it matters when he does it.
MarketWatch: There are so many different names on his list, and you know them as well as anyone else. Having been through this with President Bush, can you describe the selection process that a president goes through -- all the factors involved. Is it geographic, or policy experience, or gender?
Danforth: It would depend on the individual, it would depend on the presidential candidate. What the candidate wants, and what the candidate values most in a running mate. The candidate might think that his focus should be on winning the election, and what would help him with certain parts of the electorate or certain states; that could be one consideration.
Another consideration should be personal compatibility. Do you like the person? Do you like to be in the same room with the person? Do you like to exchange ideas with the person, and do you trust the person to serve the administration and not to have some other agenda? That would be a concern.
To my mind, the most important consideration is: Does that vice-presidential candidate effectively help the presidential candidate in sharpening the message, and in presenting the choices to the electorate?
MarketWatch: With Gov. Romney's tax returns in the news quite a bit, do you think that this will also be an issue in the vice-presidential race? When you were in the running, did you have to deal with questions like these?
Danforth: Well, you send in a box of stuff, and part of it is answers to a very long and probing questionnaire, and part of it is sending in back tax returns and all kinds of material, things you've written, all of that.
MarketWatch: Gov. Romney is said to be considering a woman for the vice-presidential post. Considering that he polls not as well with women as President Obama does, do you think that choosing a female running mate would help him, or not matter too much in the long run?
Danforth: I can really express my hope more than anything else, and my hope is this: My hope is that there will be a very clear presentation in this campaign, which there has not been to date. The basic direction, directional choice that the American people will have for the future of their country. That choice pertains to where we should look for the future, and for the growth of America.
Should we look to government? Do we really believe that government is the answer, that if only it grows more and employs more people and cranks out more regulations, and increases its take of the economy, that the country is going to be better and prosper? Or do we think that the private sector is the answer? How do we feel about taxes and spending? How do we intend to get this terrible, whatever it is now, $15 trillion or $16 trillion debt under control? I think that those are the big questions.
My concern is that, in the campaign so far, that the American people have not been presented with a choice that's before them. I was watching the TV this morning. It's very clear that on television at least, there are two big issues before America: when did Romney leave Bain Capital, and how many years of tax returns is he going to produce? I think if that's it, that really takes something away from the American people. It takes away their right to decide the future of their country, and turns it into something that is frivolous. And I think that if the question is how many years of tax returns, whether the vice-presidential candidate is a man or a woman, any of that is just a disservice to the country.
It's not from the standpoint of, whether the person is from say, Ohio, and it's not, is this person male or female? It's: can this person present the real choices? I don't know if [House Budget Committee Chairman] Paul Ryan is on the list or not, but there is a person who can spell out the choice, and that's what I would hope for.
MarketWatch: You were in Congress for a long time. Do you think there's an advantage or a disadvantage to picking a lawmaker, or a governor, or in Dr. [Condoleezza] Rice's case, a former Secretary of State?
Danforth: I think you would want someone who is familiar enough with the country, and its history, and the present state of affairs and the policy options to have thought about these things, and to be able to speak about them--that's what I think. Whether that person comes from one particular background or not, I don't think that would matter. As long as it's not somebody who is, you say, 'well, this is the nice-looking person' or something, and it turns out to be somebody who doesn't know what's up.
Who are the people who are most knowledgeable about the big question, as I said earlier, to do with size and cost and burden and power of the federal government, and who would be most familiar, who would be most likely to make the case?
If you think about Paul Ryan, and his background, and being so articulate, and his role on the budget committee, or you think about [Ohio Sen.] Rob Portman. I don't know either of these people. But if you think about Portman, who was the director of OMB…
I thought that [Indiana Gov.] Mitch Daniels would be a terrific presidential candidate, for the same reason. Here was a person who really understands where we are today, and is able to present it to the public, and if the public says 'no, we don't want to go in that direction, let's just keep cranking out the checks,' then OK, that's at least a choice.
But my concern is, if what's going to happen between now and the election is more of the same -- namely, frivolous stuff -- then the next president or the president who serves the next term will not have explained what course he's following to the American people, will have no kind of mandate, there will be no decision that's been reached, and we'll continue to just drift along until we get over the waterfall.
MarketWatch: You've mentioned Paul Ryan a couple of times. Does that mean that you think he would make the best choice for Gov. Romney, or someone like him?
Danforth: I am a fan of his, and as I say I think I was at one meeting with him once, but I really don't know him and I don't know Portman at all. But I think that they have the background and the knowledge of where we are as a country, and I'm immensely impressed with Ryan's ability to articulate a position and to do it in a very winning way, I think a very attractive way.
MarketWatch: Having been through the process some 12 years ago, is there anything else about the process that you think people should know?
Danforth: No, I don't think the public elects vice presidents. I don't think they should elect vice presidents. I think you can get from the vice-presidential choice a little bit of a window into the presidential candidate. But I don't think that that's crucial. I think if it could be somebody who would help articulate the big issue, and I'm not even saying policy choices or issues, the big issue, I think that that would be the best thing we could have.