Had the George Washington Bridge scandal not rocked New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and his pre-presidential stable of advisers, it is unlikely that so many quality candidates would be seriously considering a presidential run. It is also unlikely that we’d have so many donors entirely undecided about whom they will support. Rather than take Christie out of the running, the bridge scandal knocked down the façade of Christie’s electoral strength and lock on the donor class. That opened the floodgates to new potential candidates.
As one former Mitt Romney adviser described former Romney donors: “[T]hey all seem to be dating around. Not many totally sold on Christie.” Candidates and donors alike go through their version of speed dating, giving one another the quick look-over with no obligations. It is in both groups’ interest to at least meet one another, even if there are no plans for another get-together. A good showing by one candidate might give a donor leaning toward another contender reason to wait. Right now there are few matches, but a slew of questions. (Hmm, Gov. Scott Walker seems solid but can he juice the excitement level? Wow, Gov. Rick Perry seems so loose and sound on policy now — do you think Gov. Rick Perry really did have debilitating back problems in 2012?)
As they kick the tires on a fleet of presidential hopefuls, GOP donors would be wise to remember some basics about presidential talent assessment:
1. Hillary Clinton found out the hard way in 2008 that a presidential campaign is as much about leading an operation with hundreds of millions in revenue as it is about debates or policy views. If you wouldn’t put a candidate in charge of a start-up company, with hundreds of employees operating in every state and drawing constant media attention, don’t give the candidate your hard-earned cash.
2. Don’t underestimate the role of character. You don’t get to be a presidential aspirant by being a wallflower or letting people walk all over you, but you are unlikely to sustain public scrutiny and win the presidency (at least if you are a Republican) if you’ve cut corners, made a boatload of enemies, put out contradictory messages, surrounded yourself with scoundrels or misrepresented your own record. Projecting confidence in public is a necessity, but you also want a potential president to be grounded, embrace self-deprecating humor and keep people around who will level with him.
3. Like any talent scout, donors have to assess candidates on their ability to grow and improve. Is this person someone who learns from mistakes? Is a candidate as good as he’ll ever be or could he, on a bigger stage, really come into his own?
4. In the hundreds or thousands of decisions a president will face or a presidential candidate will make during what is effectively a two-year campaign, there is no substitute for good judgment. Has this person gotten the big issues right, avoided obvious pot holes, learned to cut losses and developed a sophisticated antennae for voters’ sensibilities? If he has a poor record in this regard, there is no reason to believe his presidential campaign will be much different.
5. The party’s presidential nominee must have presence. Ronald Reagan had remarkable bearing and timing, no doubt qualities he developed in Hollywood. Bill Clinton had the ability to light up a room and convince everyone he was talking directly to him or her. But presidential contenders need more than mere charisma. Voters expect some gravitas from a president, a sense this person is big in spirit and capable of going toe-to-toe with foreign and domestic opponents. Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty was great on paper, but he never managed to project presidential authority. No matter what the polls said, you knew Herman Cain was never going to be president of the United States.
It is these qualities, rather than early polling or specific policy positions, that are the key to selecting a winning GOP candidate. Donors, at least the big ones, have gotten where they are by paying attention to leadership, humility, character, decision-making and stature in potential hires. They shouldn’t throw away everything they’ve learned when it comes to selecting the man or woman who could lead the Free World.