May 27, 2011

After some weeks of hand-wringing over the need to have a “grown-up” in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, we now have a field of them. The contest is “settling,” the party establishmentarians said after lead grown-up Mitch Daniels announced that he wouldn’t run. It is settling down, settling in, for the long haul to Iowa.

But with eight months to go before the Republican primaries, will voters be content with this group of boring guys or go looking for someone more exciting? What, exactly, does being a grown-up mean? And, more important, do grown-ups win?

Not always. I should know. If the grown-up in the race is the one with the best policy credentials, the one who finds the mistakes in the briefing book before he opens it, the one who knows the name of the Nepalese prime minister and can even pronounce it — that’s my man (or woman; Hillary Clinton fit the bill in 2008). Over the years I’ve always fallen for and worked hard to elect the grown-up, only to learn the hard way that, as often as not, everyone else finds him boring and sometimes sort of irritating.

Like the late David Broder, whose “Broder primary” winner was always the wonkiest, I’ve learned that the grown-ups often lose.

In political parlance, “grown-up” is the antonym of “rabid partisan non-starter,” someone who makes our ears ring. In theory, of course, we all long for a grown-up discussion, but soon after it starts, we get distracted and go looking for the guy we just want to hang out with.

This past week is a case in point. Daniels, the governor of Indiana, was the grown-up du jour — a serious man with plenty of experience who knows what the medieval art of “budget scoring” is. No sooner did he disappoint his supporters than the emergent establishment figures — Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty and Jon Huntsman — each began vying for the title of most serious contender. That quickly brought cries for someone else with a bit more juice, a fresh face, say, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida or New Jersey tough guv Chris Christie. There were even calls to resuscitate Mr. Unpredictable himself — Rudy Giuliani.

And within a few more days, up popped those tea party darlings, former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, with their own plans to inject sizzle into the Iowa pilgrimage.

None of this is very new. Take the 2000 election. Al Gore, who could pronounce not only the multisyllabic names of foreign leaders but also the multisyllabic names of environmental pollutants, ended up losing to a guy who said, “Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?”

Thinking back to that race, the contrast hardly seemed to matter. The nation was rich, we had a budget surplus, unemployment hovered at just above 4 percent, and our soldiers weren’t getting shot. Americans went for the guy they’d rather have a non-alcoholic beer with.

Gore joined a long list of serious candidates who had failed. Before him came Bob Dole, a war veteran and a serious legislator with a wonderfully dry sense of humor. But by the time he ran against Bill Clinton in 1996, Dole was 73 years old, no match for a young incumbent intent upon building that “bridge to the future.”

Former Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis was very much a grown-up, but he ran a soulless campaign in 1988 and could manage passion only when speaking Spanish — a strange facet of a serious personality that he shared with my candidate, former Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt. And later, in 2004, came John Kerry, the second grown-up Democrat to lose to the man who couldn’t talk straight.

Of course, the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, transformed the frat boy who beat Gore into a tried and tested president, eight short months into his first term. Presidents have no choice but to be grown-ups, which is one explanation for why they are so hard to beat — and why the Republican Party has been bemoaning the quality of its field. In 2008, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, the youngest person in the race, managed to be both the grown-up and the candidate you’d most want to play a game of pick-up basketball with, although he delegated the beer-drinking-with-blue-collars to Joe Biden.

Isn’t that combination what we’re always looking for in a president? Someone who seems knowledgable enough about the job that you can trust him to take care of all the stuff you don’t want to know about — but at the same time, someone who doesn’t constantly remind you that you weren’t all that good in school. Bill Clinton was the ultimate policy wonk who also once drove a pickup truck with AstroTurf in the back. A grown-up with the heart of a teenage redneck. It doesn’t get much better than that, especially if you need to win reelection in spite of a sex scandal.

It turns out that being seen as a grown-up is the first step in a pretty complex process. This explains why, when the silly season ends, those labeled “not a serious candidate” either drop out or drop off. Goodbye, Warren Beatty, Carol Moseley Braun, Pat Buchanan, the Donald.

In 2012, Republicans will be running against an incumbent who vanquished the nation’s No. 1 terrorist, yes. But deficits are huge, unemployment is at 9 percent, and U.S. soldiers are still in harm’s way after a decade of war. The seesaw of American politics has tipped in favor of maturity and responsibility. That might favor former House speaker Newt Gingrich, except that he is a grown-up with the blurting tendencies of an adolescent. Take his comment about how Rep. Paul Ryan’s “right-wing social engineering” of Medicare is a mistake. Newt is right, and smart — no politician who tries to radically alter a plan at the financial core of so many American families is likely to survive.

But his comment was not part of a political strategy. Gingrich was just mouthing off. And that caused his former aide Rich Galen to call for “adult supervision” or Gingrich’s campaign would be over.

So that leaves most Republicans still yearning for the grown-up with whom they would like to have a beer. Pawlenty is giving it a go. Time magazine came up with a new label for “boring grown-up,” calling him the “process-of-elimination candidate.” But as soon as T-Paw entered the race this past week, the official candidate’s official tweets started trying for “Daily Show” sarcasm: “@Barack-Obama sorry to interrupt the European pub crawl, but what was your Medicare plan?”

One of these guys will manage to put it together. Manage to make us feel that he is competent enough for the job while making us feel that he is also one of us.

And then we will have a race for the presidency.

Elaine Kamarck, who served in the Clinton administration, is on the faculty at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. She is the author of “Primary Politics: How Presidential Candidates Have Shaped the Modern Nominating System.”

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