June 25, 2013
John Bolton (Michael Conroy/Associated Press)
John Bolton (Michael Conroy/Associated Press)

Just as the real invisible primary for the 2016 presidential primaries began months ago, the things that go with the serious business of presidential nominations are getting started, too. And so yesterday we had the first of the frivolous candidates. It’s John Bolton, the former ambassador to the United Nations and all-around uberhawk.

Yes, frivolous. Bolton may or may not wind up entering primaries or caucuses in 2016, but he’s not going to be the Republican nominee, and (unless he’s deluded) he’s not going to be entering those contests because he plans to be the nominee. And: Hey, reporters! You don’t have to pretend that he is a serious candidate!

These frivolous candidates (Gary Bauer? Alan Keyes? Um … Michele Bachmann?) may or may not be frivolous people. Some “run” because they want to advance a policy agenda; there’s nothing frivolous about that. Some, on the other hand, appear to “run” because they’re after a slot on Fox News, or because they want to goose their waning share of the conservative marketplace. And that’s politics; it’s not the job of reporters, or anyone else, to question motives.

One can, however, judge viability. And it’s pretty straightforward: Viable nominees have conventional qualifications and are in the mainstream of their party’s views on public policy.

Sometimes that can be tricky, to be sure. Backbench members of the House do not have conventional qualifications for the presidency, but one can certainly make an argument that Dick Gephardt, in 1988 and 2004, was a serious candidate. And when parties are split, being in the mainstream on policy isn’t relevant, since the nomination fight itself is what settles the question of who is mainstream and who isn’t.

But sometimes it isn’t tricky. Bolton isn’t going to be the nominee. And he doesn’t have to be treated the same way that a Marco Rubio or a Bobby Jindal should be treated — by the media, or, for that matter, by the Republican Party, which should (collectively) do whatever they think is best for themselves about fringe candidates.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that political junkies can’t enjoy the show — even if Bolton is likely to be less entertaining than Herman Cain was. But he’s not going to be a real candidate for the nomination, and there’s no reason to pretend that he is.