As he begins his search for a running mate, Mitt Romney needs to keep one question foremost in his mind, because the decision could affect us all for years to come. He needs to ask: Will this person be good for American comedy?
The prospective Republican nominee will have a tough time living up to recent standards. It's hard to imagine a Romney vice president who would inspire a story like the one in The Onion: "Shirtless Biden Washes Trans Am In White House Driveway."
Nobody is ever going to have a run like Tina Fey had with Sarah Palin. The chances are slim that the next veep will accidentally shoot someone in the face.
So cancel my suggestion. But Romney should also ignore the advice from those who think he can significantly improve his electoral performance if he selects someone who satisfies the tea party or appeals to women or has a Hispanic name.
In fact, he would be chasing a will-o'-the-wisp. Vice presidential candidates, though commonly thought to be politically important, rarely make a discernible difference.
Dan Quayle instantly became a national joke while riding to victory with George H.W. Bush in 1988. Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman on a major party ticket in 1984, couldn't keep Ronald Reagan from capturing 55 percent of the female vote.
In 2000, when Al Gore picked Joe Lieberman to be the first Jewish running mate, the Democratic share of the Jewish vote soared to 79 percent—from 78 percent four years earlier. Dick Cheney brought the GOP the shimmering promise of Wyoming's three electoral votes, which hadn't gone to a Democrat since 1964.
It's a rare vice presidential nominee who affects the outcome. Even if Palin hadn't cost John McCain 2 percent of the overall vote, as one study calculated, Barack Obama would still be president.
So a wise presidential candidate will disregard all the bogus factors that excite political forecasters and commentators. Romney should ask only two questions: 1) Would this person be an asset to his administration? and 2) Is this person equipped to be president?
A veep can be a useless nonentity or a continual annoyance—or a great help. By routing Ross Perot in a TV debate in 1993, Gore helped Bill Clinton win approval of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Biden is not just a good punch line. After 36 years in the Senate, he has been a boon to Obama in dealing with Congress, as when he helped secure the votes for a major arms control deal with Russia.
Washington experience is an asset, particularly for someone, like Romney, who has spent little time there. Cheney's days as White House chief of staff doubtless served him well in helping George W. Bush exploit executive power to the fullest.
Equally important is finding someone who can step into the president's place should the unexpected happen—as nine vice presidents have done.
Who fares best among the possible candidates according to these criteria? They may point Romney to a boring, safe choice—the most notable being Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, who held two Cabinet posts (U.S. Trade Representative and budget director) under George W. Bush.
Another is Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who spent 18 years in the House of Representatives—and was chairman of the budget committee when the budget was finally balanced in the 1990s.
What about the gaudier names on the list? Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin is just 42, but seven terms in Congress is adequate training. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, elected in 2010, has too little time in the capital to be much help with Congress.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has none. Ditto for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has spent less time in elective office than Palin had.
If Romney wants someone with sterling credentials who would make a big splash, there is Condoleezza Rice, who was George W. Bush's national security adviser and secretary of state. It would be hard to find a running mate who would create a less traditional look for the GOP—or one better prepared for the Oval Office.
So Romney can be dull or daring in his decision. It doesn't really matter, as long as he's good.
And if the next vice president doesn't offer much fodder for comics? No problem, Governor. Something tells me they'll find material.
Steve Chapman blogs daily at newsblogs.chicagotribune.com/steve_chapman.