Jay Cost, one of our best politcal bloggers, told us at Berry College a few weeks ago that what's wrong with the current system used by our political parties to select presidential nominees is that it's very short on deliberation.
Our national conventions, since 1972, have almost always been dominated by delegates who enthusiastically support the person who will inevitably be the party's nominee. Those delegates have mostly been selected through primaries and the occasional caucus that occur in the various states over a several month period. The outcome of that process isn't really so democratic: The turnout in primaries and especially caucuses is usually pretty low, the person who gets nominated often didn't really get a majority of the vote in the competitive primaries (think McCain, for example), and too much weight is given to the results in the early contests—Iowa, New Hampshire, and so forth.
The biggest problem, however, is there's no place at the convention for party leaders--those who should take responsibility for the party's future—to really deliberate about the candidate both most qualified to be president and most likely to win the election. So the Democrats got stuck with some pretty lame candidates: McGovern, Carter (well, he won, but barely, and then...), and Kerry. And the Republicans with guys too old to either win or rule: Dole, McCain.
(To be fair, the current system produced two successful candidates and presidents who never would have been chosen by the party leaders or "insiders"—Reagan and Clinton.)
Having said all that, we have to add that Jay might have neglected the new form of deliberation the Republicans seem to have. The public intellectuals—who write for the leading newspapers (Will, Brooks, Douthat, and others), the top blogs, and the most respected magazines (The Weekly Standard, The National Review, and so forth)—have meticulously evaluated and talked, so to speak, among themselves about the candidates who have been participating in the seemingly endless series of debates. What's new is how important this extended prelude to actual delegate selection has become.
These experts have proclaimed, with solid reasons, that Perry, Bachmann, and Cain are lacking what's required to be nominated. They've most recently turned their guns on Newt Gingrich—going after his character and temperament more than anything else and schooling Americans on the fact that debating skill and a big brain aren't nearly enough to be a competitive candidate or a competent president. Gingrich, as a result, lost a big lead he had in the polls for several weeks (as did Perry and Cain earlier). After looking like a lock in Iowa for awhile, he's now saying he'd be okay with finishing in the top three or four.
The first thing to be noticed is how long and grueling this process is. Someone might even say that the perverse outcome is that the Republicans have just about run out of candidates before anyone has voted. Certainly the Republicans best qualified to both defeat the president and run the country haven't thrown their hats in the ring--Bobby Jindal, Paul Ryan, Haley Barbour, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, General Petraeus, and Mitch Daniels. In proverbial good old days, one of those so-called "dark horses" would have entered their race very late or even have been drafted at the convention. It's just about certain that can't happen now.
To my mind, the negative campaign of the public intellectuals against Gingrich could be understood as deliberate in the good sense—or fully justified: Newt would be a disastrous candidate and a rather dangerous president. And he could have been nominated (or maybe even still could).
Now The Weekly Standard, The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, and so forth are going after Ron Paul with considerable ferocity. They're right that he too would be a dangerous president, despite the fact that he missing many of Newt's character flaws. But Ron ain't Newt. He's still a marginal figure, and the prospect of his victory in Iowa depends on his getting maybe 30 percent of the vote and the others dividing up the rest. He won't do better than that anywhere else. Too many of his stands on the issues—for example, his radical noninterventionism—put him at odds with too many Republicans. And I'm following my own advice by not bringing up all that racist, conspiratorial, homophobic, and other miscellaneous redneck stuff that appeared in the newletter bearing his name or his incredible view that Iran's nuclear program is necessary for a basically defensive power.
So my advice to those who engage in what passes for Republican deliberation is to tone down the criticisms of Paul. The real danger is that he'll run as a third-party candidate, and the less his supporters are alienated or reminded of their marginalization the better. The Republican nominee can't win without most of them in November. And who can deny that Paul's done some good work in helping in the effort to take Newt out?
The deliberate or responsible Republicans have either endorsed Romney in so many words or implicitly by not going after him all that much. But the problem still remains for that "establishment" that most Republicans want a candidate with more charisma and principle than Mitch offers.
So they remain in anyone-but-Romney mood. That's why they flirted with even Newt. And right now they don't seem to have a candidate they can believe in. (To repeat, it's not Paul.)