The story is that Republicans want and need the federal budget to be a big campaign issue in the presidential election. The Republican hierarchy supposedly thinks the president is very vulnerable on the issue and that talking about the deficit and national debt will appeal to the GOP’s tea party wing.
There’s also a good deal of concern that the party’s base will decide that presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney is downplaying the importance of the federal budget if it’s not one of his big campaign issues and that it will abandon him if he does. Much like the first-term Republican House Members have done during the past two years whenever the leadership strayed from what they thought should be done on the budget, this would cause the tea partyers to be openly critical of their presidential candidate.
No one thinks they’ll vote Democratic instead of Republican. Instead, the concern is that the tea party wing won’t vote for anyone for president and will skip directly to the Congressional races on the ballot or, even worse, stay home on Election Day.
Making the federal budget into a central campaign issue almost necessitates having a vice presidential candidate with excellent budget credentials, someone whose selection signals that, rather than abandoning the issue, Romney and the GOP are doubling down and making it a cornerstone of the campaign.
That would make the vice presidential nominee someone who can talk with authority about the deficit and debt and be the campaign’s primary spokesperson on the issue. It would also be someone who has few negatives when it comes to the budget and therefore strengthens the campaign’s position rather than creates questions about its credentials.
But those who want or expect the federal budget to be a big issue in the 2012 presidential election might be extremely disappointed. Three of the biggest names supposedly being considered to be Romney’s running mate — including two who are considered to have the best fiscal policy credentials — not only will make it much harder for Republicans to criticize the president on deficits or debt, but could provide the Obama campaign with the ability to do what up to now has seemed to be impossible: make the Republican ticket extremely vulnerable on the budget.
As the saying about so much that happens in politics goes, anyone who actually knows who’s being seriously considered isn’t talking, and anyone who’s talking doesn’t actually know. But based on all of the reports and speculation, three names keep being mentioned as being at the top of Romney’s vice presidential list, and all three will cause big headaches for the GOP on the budget.
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty has no direct experience with the federal budget, and that could make him the best of the three when it comes to making the deficit and debt a focus of the campaign.
But back in 2011, when Pawlenty was running for the Republican presidential nomination, he repeatedly demonstrated that his understanding of the federal budget and ability to discuss it beyond anything but talking points was almost nonexistent. More important, however, is that Pawlenty will be vulnerable because, as governor, he consistently welcomed federal spending in his state and relied on it to balance his own budget.
Ohio Sen. Rob Portman would create an even bigger budget problem for Romney. Portman uses his experience as director of the Office of Management and Budget during the George W. Bush administration as a credential for the vice presidency, and many cite his serving in that job as one of the main reasons he should be on the ticket.
But Portman was OMB director for only 13 months — from May 2006 to June 2007 — and prepared only one budget, for fiscal 2008. That year’s deficit ended up being 267 percent higher than the year before.
Portman’s bigger problem will be that having him as a running mate will force Romney and all other Republican candidates to defend the dismal overall Bush record on the budget, which changed the four consecutive surpluses under a Democratic president (and Republican Congress) to eight consecutive and growing deficits under a Republican. At the very least, that will neutralize the message that Republicans are good for the deficit while President Barack Obama and Democrats are bad.
Some believe House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (Wis.) would be the perfect candidate to raise the budget issue in the campaign. After all, his budgets were right on the mark as far as tea party talking points are concerned, with big cuts in spending and reductions in taxes.
But Ryan and his budgets will be extremely vulnerable in a campaign because they include significant changes in Medicare. In case anyone has forgotten, Medicare is such a political hot potato that it has successfully been used in recent elections by Democrats to criticize Republicans and by Republicans to criticize Democrats. Polls show that even tea party supporters don’t want Medicare spending reduced.
Having Ryan on the ticket will allow the debate to be changed from what the GOP wants to talk about — the budget — to what Democrats will quickly say is the Romney/Ryan effort to kill Medicare. To say the least, that would put the Republican ticket on the defensive.
This could well mean that Romney’s best choice for making the budget into an issue in the campaign will be to select a running mate who has no budget credentials at all.