The notion that David Petraeus might be Mitt Romney’s running mate—the banner headline on the Drudge Report Tuesday—is preposterous on at least seven levels. Let’s look at them, one by one.
First, Petraeus doesn’t want to run for political office, he really doesn’t. He has been asked this question over and over, and each time he answered unequivocally. There’s no evasiveness in his reply, nothing like “I have no plans at present …” or “I have no intention of running ….” Rather, he’s said, simply, “No.” As in: “I thought I’d said ‘no’ about as many ways as I could. I really do mean no. … I will not ever run for political office. I can assure you.” Or: “I am not a politician, and I will never be, and I say that with absolute conviction. … No way, no how.” His press office at CIA headquarters issued a similar statement in response to queries yesterday.
Second, Petraeus is director of the Central Intelligence Agency, a much more interesting job on the slowest of days than the vice presidency is on all but the very fastest. And, according to several people who are in touch with him regularly, he likes the job a lot. “I’m living the dream,” he told one acquaintance who asked how things were going. Petraeus is something of an egghead; he’s proud of his academic achievements (a Ph.D. from Princeton) and regards himself as a serious analyst as well as a man of action. The top slot at CIA lets him be all those things.
Third, Petraeus is a shrewd operator. Even if he were interested in the veep’s job (and, again, he isn’t, for reasons elaborated below), it would be a huge risk to go for it now. Whether or not he follows Nate Silver, he must know that Obama is the odds-on favorite to win. If he jumped ship to join the GOP ticket, and if Romney lost, his career would be finished. No Democrat (except, maybe, Joe Lieberman) would ever again appoint him to a serious position. Republicans would probably drift away as well, dismayed that his putatively magical powers (“the miracle man of Mosul!”) don’t apply to the home front. He might go write analytical papers for a think tank (something that he would like to do in the future), but they would be seen as partisan tracts, not professional studies. His reputation remains as high as it does now, across party lines, precisely because he’s viewed as apolitical; if he ran for office, especially against a sitting president who has been his commander in chief, that image would be blown. Meanwhile, if Petraeus stays where he is and Romney somehow won, he’d probably get some juicy position: maybe a renewed term at Langley or maybe a callback to active duty as a four-star general and an appointment as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Bottom line: There is no percentage in budging from where he is.
Fourth, Petraeus is a modern Army officer—which is to say, he rose through the ranks, from his time as a West Point cadet, imbued with the principle that civilians control the military. Ever since Gen. Douglas MacArthur tried and failed to subvert President Harry Truman’s command in the Korean War, officers have been drilled, over and over and over, that they are to stay out of politics—the higher the rank, the more intense the drilling. In recent times, if generals ever feel tempted to stray from this edict, the example of Wesley Clark serves to stiffen their resistance. Clark, an intelligent, capable retired general, ran for the Democratic nomination in 2004 after writing a book that was highly critical of George W. Bush—and bombed out quickly. The message to other generals who were watching: Not only are we not supposed to go into politics, we might not be any good at it.
Fifth, Petraeus almost certainly realizes that he would not be very good at it. When he was commander of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, he was exposed to a lot of politicians: He briefed them and gave them tours of the battlefield; he testified before their committees; he met with them behind the scenes. He got to know some of them well, even to like them. But according to a few of his associates at the time, he concluded that their club was one that he wouldn’t want to join. There was too much fundraising, too much glad-handing, too much caving in to interest groups for no good substantive reason. And, although it’s unclear whether he knows this, there’s something else about Petraeus: He isn’t the most riveting public speaker.
Sixth, it’s unclear what Petraeus would bring to a Romney ticket. Yes, he has executive experience, but Romney’s supposed to have that. Yes, he has foreign policy experience, which Romney wincingly lacks, but this experience is that of a combatant commander (he may have displayed broader skills in his current job, but he can't talk about it, it's all highly classified), and even that is a double-edged sword. Petraeus had success in Iraq, in that he turned an impending disaster into a situation sufficiently stable for the United States to pull out, leaving the Iraqis to screw things up for themselves. But he didn’t exactly close the deal in Afghanistan—mainly because, it turned out, there was no deal to close, but still, it was his to make or break. When the time for “transition” began, he recommended a much slower withdrawal of troops than President Obama wound up ordering—which, whatever one might think of that, is hardly a position to win popular favor. Beyond that, the type of war in which Petraeus made his name—large-scale, protracted counterinsurgency campaigns—is precisely the sort of war that nobody wants to enter ever again. (That doesn’t mean we won’t ever actually get involved in such a war, but the Army’s 2006 counterinsurgency field manual, which Petraeus was once celebrated for writing, isn’t the most winning campaign document in 2012.)
Seventh, hey, let’s back up a bit. We are talking about a story on the Drudge Report. Here’s Drudge’s lead:
President Obama whispered to a top fundraiser this week that he believes GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney wants to name Gen. David Petraeus to the VP slot. ‘The president wasn’t joking,’ the insider explains to the Drudge Report.
For one thing, Drudge wasn’t claiming that Romney wants to name Petraeus, only that Obama told someone that he thinks Romney wants to. For another, Obama’s press spokesman, Jay Carney, said when asked about this lead: “I can say with absolute confidence that such an assertion [has] never been uttered by the president.” No equivocations there.
Drudge also wrote, “Romney is believed to have secretly met with the four-star general in New Hampshire.” Again, two things to note. First, this “is believed” by whom? Second, a source close to the four-star general told me that Petraeus has met with Romney only once, when the former governor visited Afghanistan. There has been no other meeting, secret or otherwise, in New Hampshire or anyplace else.
Drudge reported with his usual breathlessness: “A Petraeus drama has been quietly building behind the scenes.” If so, it’s happening far, far behind the scenes, as far away as in Matt Drudge’s head.