Over at Big Think, Peter Lawler writes that:

Another reason for the low turnout is the bizarrely huge number of debates that have absurdly lengthened the campaign. Robert says that those who Republicans who long for a candidate worthy of their deep devotion—such as Jindal or Christie or Daniels—forget that none of those able governors have been subjected to this long and endlessly demanding vetting process.

The problem with the new vetting process, of course, is that it might be that almost nobody could get through it unscathed. All those bleepin’ debates strung out over well over a year—and not, as Newt claimed, the mainstream elite media—might be the reason that hardly any decent and able person would actually enter the race.

I think there is a lot right to all of that, but I think that the lengthened campaign operates to discourage good candidates somewhat differently than Peter describes.  It is true that a Daniels, a Jindal or a Christie would have been shown to be mortal by entering into the presidential race.  We would have heard unflattering stories about their lives.  They are human after all.  There would have been issues on which any of them would have ended up on the opposite side of the median Republican primary voter.  They would have been bad days where they misspoke and said something they didn’t mean or misspoke by saying something they meant but wish they hadn’t said.  But I don’t think those things, in themselves, would have been fatally damaging.  Would Jindal look less articulate and less authentically conservative than Romney (to say nothing of some of the more deplorable anti-Romneys)?  Maybe, but I doubt it.

I think one of the biggest problems in the current system is that it makes running for President hard and pretending to run for President too easy.  Developing a real agenda on the full range of national issues and crafting a rhetoric that can appeal to both primary and general election audiences is hard.  This on top of building a national donor base, building campaign organizations state by state, doing retail politics in the early states, and preparing for the debates.  You try explaining premium support Medicare in two minutes sandwiched between Jon Huntsman and Rick Perry.  It is especially hard if you are a governor who has real executive responsibility and has to manage often difficult relations with your state legislature.  You are basically talking about two fulltime jobs that start about twenty months before the presidential election.  If you are reasonably happy doing worthwhile activities, the current system gives you plenty or reason not to run for President.  But what if you aren’t doing much worthwhile?

Which brings us to Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain.  If you are glib, unprincipled, have good contacts in the right-of-center media, have no particular responsibilities, and your goal is to increase your name recognition, then running for President is much easier.  Not easy.  It still means a lot of travel, a lot of nights in hotels, a lot of interviews with reporters, etc.  You need a lot of energy and a modicum of political talent.  But it is still easier than being governor and really running for President.  You can focus on making your promises sound good rather than having them sound good and add up too.  You never have to really tell anyone no.  You can focus on fantasy solutions.  You can lie when people point out the downsides of your proposed policies.  You don’t have to build organizations in the states with later primaries.  You can go on a book tour several months before Iowa. It will all catch up to you, but with a little bit of luck, it won’t catch up with you until you’ve had a run that gave you huge amounts of media attention.  Even if you don’t win the nomination, you still win.  That is because the point isn’t really to win.  The point is to leave the race with a fraction of the public thinking well of you.  That will sell more books and mean higher speaking fees down the line.  That will mean more show invites and maybe a show of your own.  Maybe a company with business before Congress will decide they need a historian or a pizza leader on their payroll.  Short of a sex scandal, you almost can’t lose.   

Still, it is a shame.  The debates have been basically worthless other than for showcasing the weaknesses of the various candidates.  They could have been a valuable educational opportunity in which even one principled and able candidate could have focused on the institutional reforms in health care and entitlement policy that we need.  Santorum tried to do that once in a while, but he just doesn’t have the talent.  Instead the debates gave us 9-9-9, the HPV controversy, Romney pretending to be more anti-illegal immigration than the rest, Gingrich beating up the moderators and Romney beating up Gingrich.  Millions of people watched and even more they listened .  The debates really drove the nomination race.  We would be better off as a country if we had had better candidates that gave us a better debate.  I can see why the better GOP politicians passed on running for President.  They all had their reasons, but the country is very much worse off that a Daniels or a Jindal or a Christie didn’t run and that the field was left to the Bachmanns, Cains, and Gingriches.

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