The list of potential Republican candidates who didn’t run for president is long: Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, Rep. Mike Pence (Ind.), Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, Sen. John Thune (S.D.), Sarah Palin, Rudy Giuliani, Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.) and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie come to mind. It is understandable, then, that there are a great number of conservatives who are grouchy that their guy or gal didn’t run. Then there are the legions of bloggers who can’t bear the thought of the most un-Tea Party candidate of them all, Mitt Romney, winning the nomination. So you hear, not only from the mainstream media and the Democrats but from Republicans as well that the “field is weak” or the candidates are underwhelming. But is that really the case?
Let’s consider that this is one of the most substantive primary races in recent memory. Multiple candidates have jobs, energy, tax and spending-cut plans.Texas Gov. Rick Perry is going to add his this week. We have had a series of meaty debates with an extraordinarily high level of interest. For the five televised debates in the past six weeks, 20 million watched. There was also the Post-Bloomberg debate and the South Carolina candidates forum. And before that we had the debates in South Carolina, New Hampshire and Ames, Iowa.
With the exception of foreign policy ( to which an entire debate will be devoted Nov. 15) it is hard to complain that the candidates haven’t talked about the issues. There have been relatively few “Do you believe in evolution?” interludes, but plenty of discussion on immigration, the debt, jobs, tax policy, spending, crony capitalism, the Federal Reserve, health care, the 10th Amendment and marriage. We know a lot about the qualifications and backgrounds of the major candidates, some of whom were entirely unknown to a large chunk of the electorate this summer.
And the candidates themselves have improved as time has gone on. Newt Gingrich, shed of his staff, is brimming with ideas and pointed criticisms of Obama. Romney is a dramatically improved candidate from 2008. Perry is getting around to introducing serious proposals. Rick Santorum is managing to integrate cultural/family issues with economic issues. Watching the last couple of debates, it struck me: Some of these guys aren’t half bad.
While early polling should be taken with a grain of salt, many of these candidates run even with the sitting president. So really: Is the field that weak?
As with parents, you don’t need a perfect candidate, just a good enough one. Several, excluding Jon Huntsman and Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) (who is simply bonkers on a range of issues), if elected would be a considerable improvement over Obama. Note the reaction of Bachmann, Perry, Romney and Santorum on Iraq. They all get it; they all understand the foolishness of putting the victory at risk and encouraging Iranian aggression.
That is not to say it doesn’t matter whom the Republicans nominate. Quite the opposite. Some candidates are more polished than others. Some have more baggage than others. Some will have an easier time reaching out to critical independent voters or have more executive experience than others. Some are temperamentally more suited to the drumbeat of criticism or have a better track record of leadership than others. And some have more foreign policy experience than others. In a sense, the rise and fall of candidates is evidence the vetting process is working exactly as it should.
We also should keep in mind that the skills, positions and knowledge we think the next president should have may not be the ones he or she will need the most. President George W. Bush didn’t set out to be a wartime president. Likewise, in this election voters are focused on the economy, and the base is worried about Obamacare. But if Iran presses its advantage in Iraq or announces it’s on the cusp of producing nuclear weapons, we’ll need a president who’s prepared to manage foreign policy crises. Conservatives don’t want to be “fooled” again into voting for someone who will “sell them out.” But perhaps as the economy worsens competency becomes ever more critical (particularly if both houses of Congress have GOP majorities and provide plenty of conservative firepower.)
We are still months away from voting, and the candidates will get better as time goes by. When a winner is selected, he or she will have grown into the role of nominee, have weathered multiple storms and put Republican voters’ minds at ease. He or she will have compiled policies and become practiced in debating domestic and foreign policy.
So Republicans should quit the pouting. The 2012 election is turning out to be more exciting and more heartening than many conservatives imagined.