Presidential candidates are confronted with all kinds of problems when it comes time to pick a running mate. If a candidate shares the ticket with a bore, we understand, the ticket becomes more boring. If he or she (really he) opts for a dynamo, however, the candidate becomes duller by comparison, and the ticket becomes—yes—more boring.
Doomed, stubborn, or charmed candidates need not concern themselves with this conundrum. John McCain had the poor man’s luxury of tapping whomever he woke up wanting to lose with. George W. Bush, who made a habit of sticking it to the establishment in the most establishmentarian way, went for the least electable insider ever to seek the Vice Presidency. And Barack Obama ensured with his careful selection that Hillary Clinton would spend her days and nights anywhere on earth but up in his business.
Mitt Romney, by contrast, is neither doomed, stubborn, nor charmed. His pliability and his formlessness as a candidate mean that his VP pick matters even more than it normally would. He’s white, he’s a businessman, he’s Mormon—yawn. The media, the amateur armchair analysts, and Obama’s well-oiled attack ad machine are going to go nuts when they finally have some fresh candidate meat to tear into. You can only talk about how Romney made his millions for so long before it becomes painfully dull.
Political gossips are already deep into their third set of ocular warm-up exercises, primed to roll their eyes one way (Pawlenty?!) or the other (Condi?!). It’s not so great news for Republicans, who as a group are utterly at a loss to decide who completes the ticket, or even according to what standard.
For Team Romney itself, I imagine it’s just another day at the office—another action item to be taken on the way any highly-paid consultancy squad would do. The Romney campaign is all about safe bets, and the safe bet on Romney’s choice is a safe person. Tim Pawlenty is boring, which is good, but his brand of over-optimistic pro-growth conservatism is problematically identifiable, not to mention stale. Romney wants to be both unclassifiable and new, so Pawlenty ought to be out. Paul Ryan is a wonk beloved and hated, whereas Romney’s managerial strategy is to be loved and hated by no one. Bobby Jindal—hey, there’s an idea… Did you hear about that time he performed an exorcism in college?
The real answer, the right choice, is none of these. It’s not even Chris Christie or Rand Paul, the two best shots Mitt could take at redefining the Republican party. The man Team Romney is waiting for is his otherworldly double, his twin from a parallel universe—CIA Director and former four-star commander in Iraq and Afghanistan David Petraeus.
Like Romney, Petraeus is very white and unambiguously male. Yet the similarities do not stop there. Romney rose smoothly and surely to distinction in a rigorously hierarchical realm predicated on merit, discipline, and performance. (You may think venture capitalists are evil, but they aren’t stupid.) Ditto Petraeus. Romney is most comfortable working, taking transparently little joy in talking about what he’s going to do, or even who he is “as a person.” Petraeus too. Both men thrive on extreme complexity. Both men have massive patience for sprawling, extended missions with no guaranteed date of completion. They’re the kind of ultra-competent, ultra-boring managers who can command armies and change the health care system in an entire state.
If Mitt Romney had that thing in him that makes you go through the hell that is a military academy, he very well could have been David Petraeus, and if David Petraeus had liked money more than blood and honor, he might have been Mitt Romney. Had they both wound up on the same career track at the same time a little corner of the universe might have tucked into itself and imploded.
But, of course, they weren’t. And so Petraeus is in a mesmerizing way everything Romney is not. Frank. Tough. Authoritative. Heroic. Non-negotiable. These muscular characteristics permit Petraeus to make Romney look bigger by lifting him onto the ticket. Much as Obama seemed more chill and clever than ever after he hooked up with Biden… much as Dubya seemed even more Christian and country with Dick Cheney by his side… much as McCain—well, let’s not go down that road. Petraeus is the one figure who would make Romney, and the ticket, seem more than the sum of its parts.
The America Mitt Romney sings songs about looks like Romney/Petraeus ’12. It’s that simple. Boring white guys who look like the uptight dean in a college party flick will never go out of style.