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.”