We are in the age of Twitter, 24/7 cable news and blogs. We have had more debates than anyone can keep track of. The power of political parties has eroded, and politicians are held in low esteem. And yet candidates still seek endorsements from other pols, hoping that the voters will be impressed or that voters’ fears about the candidate will be allayed. This week we’re seeing how bizarre the whole process can get.
We start with the premise that very few individual endorsements matter. In the GOP primary race, the biggest fish so far has been New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (although it sure didn’t seal up the nomination for Mitt Romney). Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) will not endorse, his staff repeatedly has told me, in large part because he has a fundraising role as head of the National Republican Trust. Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell has been likewise coy. He’s going to drop by a Romney event this week in Richmond, but he is seriously considering taking the Ryan approach since McDonnell holds the position of chairman of the Republican Governors Association. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush and former vice president Dick Cheney have signaled they are not endorsing in the primary either. In sum, the remaining big “gets” aren’t likely to weigh in.
So the scramble goes on for lesser lights. But the risk is that an endorsement appears silly (is former vice president Dan Quayle likely to change any minds?) or downright unhelpful. Take Newt Gingrich. He’s the lucky recipient of the Vito Fossella endorsement. Fossella was arrested for drunk driving and was exposed for having two wives and families. At the same time. (Gingrich’s marriages were at least serial.) Why in the world would Gingrich even want such a figure, who was an undistinguished congressman, aside from his personal abominations, to give him the thumbs up? It’s yet another instance of Newtonian tone deafness.
Then there is Herman Cain. I suppose a few of his followers might fall in line if Cain tapped a former rival. But, again, does a man ridiculed for ignorance, decimated by poor organizational skills and beset by accusations of sexual impropriety really give his endorsee a lift?
And let’s keep in mind that the value of endorsements is relative. A Sioux City, Iowa, pastor’s endorsement is a big help for Rick Santorum, who needs very much to get a foothold with social conservatives. Phyllis Schlafly does the same for Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.). Frankly, any endorsement and exposure for struggling candidates is usually welcomed. (That explains Santorum’s agreement to take part in the Donald Trump-moderated debate.)
Would a Sarah Palin nod matter? It would be manna from political heaven for Santorum (about whom she had many complimentary things to say). But would it have any effect, say, on Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.)? Probably not.
And that brings us to the Trump-run debate. He may or may not endorse one of the participants, but anyone on the receiving end risks appearing as clownish and unprincipled as Trump himself. Moreover, flattering Trump to get his nod is a cringe-inducing endeavor. And where good taste and restraint are absent, Gingrich is usually present. So sure enough, there was Gingrich laying it on thick yesterday, calling Trump “a genuine American icon” and saying that, in any event, he likes to go to New York for the holidays.
Paul, who refused to be part of Trump’s circus act, shot back with an e-mail to Politico: “We agree, of course, with former Speaker Gingrich — this is a country of people of enormous talent. Those who deliver thousands of babies like Dr. Paul and those who spend their time focusing on promoting themselves for profit. We even have those who lobby, but don’t call it such because, as they say, they can make $60,000 per speech. While those of us in the Paul camp might disagree with Newt Gingrich about whether Donald Trump is the right man to host a serious political debate, we do agree New York is a wonderful place to go at Christmas. We are sure two average Americans like Speaker Gingrich and Donald Trump will have a wonderful time picking out gifts for their wives. We suggest a place called Tiffany’s, we [hear] it is quite nice this time of year and given their celebrity status they can probably get special deals and $500,000 lines of credit.” Yowser. That round, I think, goes to Paul.
In short, an endorsement may not be nearly as important as how a candidate conducts himself in seeking, avoiding, receiving or losing out on an endorsement. (Who can forget the gold medal in sore-loserdom for Jon Huntsman upon losing the endorsement of former New Hampshire governor John Sununu?) So much of a campaign is what you learn when candidates are trying to do something other than recite their message (e.g. respond to a heckler, show grace in defeat, keep calm in a debate). A presidential campaign is filled with many distractions, but along the way we learn whose friendship the candidates value and how they navigate the unexpected ups and downs of a grueling election process.