Condi for VP? Mitt’s Done It Before

The rumor-du-jour is that Mitt Romney is looking at picking Condoleeza Rice as his running mate for the presidency. It’s been widely pooh-poohed as a too- convenient distraction to get the press to stop talking about whether Romney was forthcoming about when he left Bain, and how many years of tax returns he’ll release. The pundits say it’s too big a problem that Condi is pro choice, that she’s not an attack dog, that she doesn’t even want to be vice president (though on the last point, is anyone who says that ever telling the truth?).

But this won’t be the first time Romney has picked a running mate. And if you look at the decision he made when he ran for governor of Massachusetts in 2002, a Condi selection looks very much in character.

Romney’s running mate for lieutenant governor was Kerry Healey, then the chairwoman of the Massachusetts Republican Party. (Disclosure: I was a college student at the time, and I spent the summer interning for the campaign, handling Dr. Healey’s correspondence.) Like Rice, Healey holds a Ph.D. in Political Science and is a policy wonk. And like Rice, Healey had never held elective office before, though she had run two campaigns for state representative and lost by wide margins.

Despite chairing the party, Healey came into the race with essentially zero name recognition. She’s not a natural politician and didn’t connect well with voters. Conservatives distrusted her, believing her to be a social liberal. Howie Carr, the influential and obnoxious Boston talk radio host, endlessly skewered her, giving her the nickname “Muffy” due to her oceanfront home and patrician air. It stuck; even a favorable 2006 profile in Boston Magazine was titled “Muffy the Democrat Slayer.”

Massachusetts has a weird nominating system: governor and lieutenant governor candidates run on joint tickets in the general election, but must be nominated in separate primaries. Though Romney was unopposed for the Republican nomination, Healey drew a primary challenge from a better-known candidate, and the Romney campaign spent much of its effort in the summer of 2002 getting Healey nominated.

So why did Romney pick Healey? Because she is very smart and very loyal -- an ideal lieutenant.  While lieutenant governors often sit in obscurity, Healey had meaningful policy portfolios and effectively served as the governor’s director for intergovernmental affairs, handling the state’s relationship with cities and towns.

When Romney left office after one term, Healey became the Republican nominee for governor and Deval Patrick defeated her soundly. Still, Healey remains a frequent surrogate for Romney as he runs for president; she was even on MSNBC this morning. Romney could have had Scott Brown, then a member of the state legislature, as his running mate, but I don’t get the sense that he regrets, for a second, picking Healey.

The same pundits who tell us a Rice pick would be crazy also remind us that the VP selection almost never has any bearing on the outcome of the election. So why wouldn’t Romney focus his decision making on someone who can help him govern, rather than one who can help him get elected? By that measure, Rice looks very appealing: she’s an expert in foreign policy, where Romney is weak; she has plenty of gravitas to act on the president’s behalf, and yet she’s unlikely to seek the presidency herself.

Mitt Romney is a logical man who makes decisions carefully. Last time he picked a running mate, he went for one in the Rice mold. We shouldn’t be shocked if he does so again at the national level.

(Josh Barro is lead writer for the Ticker. Follow him on Twitter.)

Read more breaking commentary from Josh Barro and other Bloomberg View columnists and editors at the Ticker.

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