Mitt Romney, a conventional presidential candidate who rarely takes big political risks, is poised to do something historically unconventional and politically risky. The presumptive GOP nominee lacks foreign policy and national security experience, but Romney appears ready to buck the 50-year-old practice of picking a running mate who does.
The former Massachusetts governor, since grinding through a tough GOP primary effort, has run a presidential campaign that has focused almost exclusively on reviving the sluggish U.S. economy and creating jobs. Other than the occasional jab at President Barack Obama, Romney has focused so little on foreign policy and national security issues that even some in his own party wonder how he would manage America's diplomatic and military affairs abroad.
One thing appears certain, a President Romney would rely little on his No. 2 on such issues. Romney reportedly has whittled his vice-presidential short list to three: Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. All are considered "safe picks" by political pundits, and each has the kind of economic and budget-cutting bona fides that could help Romney in an election that so far has been all about the economy and jobs.
Romney flirted with the notion of picking Condoleezza Rice, who was White House national security adviser and then secretary of state under George W. Bush. His campaign even leaked her name on a longer version of the short list late last week, but that trial balloon never really took flight in GOP circles.
If Romney selects a running mate with only domestic policy credentials, it would be the first time since 1968 either party has done so. In that election, the Democratic Party nominated Hubert Humphrey and Edmund Muskie. Both were far more experienced on domestic issues. The duo lost to Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew.
The Romney team's vice presidential list is calculated, with opinion polls showing the economy and unemployment far outpacing foreign policy and national security issues in terms of importance to voters. That means voters might not care if Romney picks a domestic V.P. candidate.
"Most people are concerned about the economy, and Americans tend to turn isolationist when we have a struggling economy," says Susan MacManus, an international affairs professor at the University of South Florida. "Numerous polls show most voters want all U.S. troops to be brought home from everywhere they are. ... War, global trade, foreign aid--they're against all of it right now."
What's more, America has changed. Several decades into an all-volunteer military, many Americans don't know anyone who has served, fewer have worn a military uniform, and even fewer have seen combat.
"For for so many years, a sizable portion of lay people had military experience, or someone in their immediate family did," says MacManus. "That is simply no longer the case."
Yet, a domestic policy expert as the GOP vice presidential candidate could haunt Romney if a global crisis becomes 2012's game-changing moment.
Andrew Smith, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire, agrees that "this has been an economic election." But, he's quick to add "there have been a lot of balls popping around that could show there are some considerable foreign policy issues that the next president will have to deal with. You've got Russia, China, the Middle East. We could see something happen with Iran or Syria that could shake up the snow globe and cause a lot of people to question [the pick.]"
Smith notes that in 2008, Obama and his GOP foe, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, sparred for months over war policy and foreign policy, only to see the economic collapse late in the campaign season change the face of that race. "That easily could happen this year," says Smith.
Vice President Joseph Biden has a long track record of foreign policy experience, and has been involved in every major Obama administration decision on war policy and managing crucial global relationships.
Biden would undoubtedly seek to exploit his experience and label his GOP counterpart as unqualified to step into the commander in chief role during vice presidential debates, MacManus says. The flip side there, however, is debates between the individuals at the bottom of presidential tickets simply don't change election outcomes.
Beyond the campaign-trail horse race, national security experts say military experience and foreign policy expertise are not clear indicators of how effective a president will be as commander and diplomat in chief.
"A President Romney's ability to fashion an effective national security policy will depend more on who he chooses as his secretary of state and secretary of defense, and his entire national security team," says Andrew Krepinevich, who heads the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and sometimes advises the Pentagon. "A president's background is not necessarily a good indicator. Just look at Abraham Lincoln's success as commander in chief. Ulysses S. Grant had extensive military experience but wasn't a very good president or commander in chief."
John T. Bennett covers national security and foreign policy for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter.