The Contenders and the Clowns

Nate Silver published a piece on Friday in The New York Times that deserves attention. “In their book The Party Decides: Presidential Nominations Before and After Reform,” he observes, “the political scientists Marty Cohen, David Karol, Hans Noel and John Zaller find that endorsements — not polls, fund-raising numbers or media hits — are the best early indicators of success in the presidential primaries.” Then, he points out that, by this standard, Mitt Romney is the front-runner, with Rick Perry a close second, with the other candidates “having little chance.”

This is, of course, the truth, but we really did not need to know who endorsed whom in order to know it, and my guess is that, in this stage of the contest, this would be the situation every time. There are contenders every cycle, and there are clowns – and there is rarely any doubt as to which is which.

The data Silver has collected is nonetheless interesting – for it shows that Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, Rick Santorum, Jon Huntsman, Ron Paul, and Michele Bachmann have thus far garnered no endorsements at all from any Senators, Congressmen, or Governors.

In the case of Herman Cain, this may not mean much. He is an unknown who has never himself served as a Senator, Congressman, or Governor. The rest, however, have done so – and in their years of service they have not earned the unabashed admiration of any of their colleagues. Put simply, there is no one in the Senate who thinks well enough of Santorum to endorse him; no one in the House who thinks well enough of either Bachmann, Paul, or Gingrich to endorse any of them; and no one in a gubernatorial chair who thinks well enough of Huntsman to endorse him. This is, I think, sobering. What it suggests is that not one of these individuals deserved to be up on the stage in the debate on Thursday night.

It is not hard to see why lack support. Gingrich is smart, but he blotted his copybook long ago, he remains erratic, and no one really wants him back. He might be useful in the cabinet; he is not presidential timber. Santorum is a joke. He has never held any executive office, and he lost his Senate seat by a margin of 18%. He is a might-have-been who became a has-been some time ago. He is utterly unqualified for consideration, and on Thursday night he made a fool of himself when he rose up in righteous anger to object to their being bi-national private health insurance for people who live along the Texas-Mexico border and do business on both sides. Ron Paul is a crank with a history of supporting third-party candidates. Jon Huntsman is distinguished only by his money and looks. And Michele Bachmann, who has also never held any executive position, is a loose cannon and a nasty piece of work with no friends in the Republican house delegation, who is best known for the speed with which she runs through and alienates staff. About the only thing that this crowd stars in is self-regard.

Of course, none of this would matter much were they not wasting our time at a crucial moment. The country is undergoing a crisis, and the 2012 election offers the possibility of a resolution. The Democratic Party’s presumptive nominee is bent on destroying this country as we know it and on refounding it on principles opposed to our own. The Republicans have not found a plausible candidate capable of restating the principles on which this country was founded and flourished, and the Republican National Committee makes us sit through debates dominated by figures for whom no elected official of any stature feels any enthusiasm at all.

I have no desire for the nominating process to be closed to those who are marginal. There may come a day when we really do need to turn to an outsider. But, at some point, it might make sense to exclude from the debates those who have not by that stage attracted an endorsement or two from Republicans in high office. Otherwise, the process of deliberation by which we choose our nominee will be short-circuited.