Why Presidential Races Are so Limited

The New York Times reports that the Republican presidential field is caught in a “you first!” death spiral in which good candidates won’t commit to running without support from big-money paymasters and big-money paymasters won’t open their wallets until good candidates commit to running. As a result, when the South Carolina Republican party threw a presidential debate last week, the only people who showed up were Tim Pawlenty, a well-known nutty libertarian, an unknown nutty libertarian, a pizza baron, and Rick “Santorum” Santorum.

Given the nine percent unemployment rate and the fact that the Democratic incumbent is a liberal black man, many political observers are wondering if the vaunted Republican political machine has slipped a gear. I don’t think that’s likely. Instead, they’ve run up against the laws of probability at the best possible time for Barack Obama.

That’s because sometime during the last half century, the guardians of conventional wisdom decided that only three kinds of people are qualified to run for President of the United States: those who are (or recently were) senators, governors, and Vice Presidents. So instead of finding the best candidate among 300 million people every four years, we’re only allowed to choose among about 200.

And actually, a lot less than that. There are 100 Senators but most of them are disqualified from running for obvious reasons. Nobody would seriously consider Senator Sanders (socialist), Vitter (hookers), Ensign (cheater), Akaka (ancient), Kerry, McCain, and Alexander (had their shot), Lautenberg and Coats (recycled), Hatch and Lugar (imminent primary victims) or Lieberman (retiring, plus, come on) to be viable candidates. America still hasn’t really gotten on board with the idea of a female president (Hillary Clinton ‘08 was sui generis) so that knocks out 17 more. Senate leaders come to symbolize all that’s wrong with the archaic upper chamber, which is why Senators Reid and McConnell are widely disliked. Some are too new or obscure (Coons) while others (Mikulski, Rockefeller, Ben Nelson) have been around for a long time and have clearly gone as far as they can go.

Governors have the advantage of holding an executive branch job that’s a closer fit to what voters envision leadership to be. But again, it’s not like everyone can run. Some (Schwarzenegger, Granholm) are constitutionally ineligible. Others are disqualified for obvious reasons (Jerry Brown, old and recycled; Jan Brewer, governor of crazy town) or have no realistic chance of raising money and a national profile, or are women. Only current or recently former governors who also happen to be white men from southern, Midwestern, or reasonably large states are allowed in the door.

All of which means that in any given election year, each major party only has about 20 people from which to choose. At that point, the population is so small that the laws of probability come into play. Some cold feet here, a sex scandal there, a couple of unknown skeletons in the closet, a few ill-considered remarks about Civil War, and eventually a year will come when there is simply nobody left. 2012 is looking like that year for Republicans. They have mountains of corporate cash, an army of well-trained political consultants, and a structurally winnable race. But the candidate pool dice roll has come up snake eyes. Thus, the increasing possibility of a Pawlenty vs. Mitch Daniels race that broadcast networks will be unable to televise due to the risk of viewers having their souls erased by the creation of an anti-charismatic vortex of absolute personality zero.

This is bad for democracy, and America. One of the biggest problems with starting with such a small pool of candidates is that after the disqualification process is finished, everyone left over is considered a viable candidate by default. The paltry news coverage of Senator John Ensign’s sordid adultery scandal never failed to mention that his cheating had derailed aspirations for a presidential run. The key thing is that those aspirations were taken seriously, despite the fact the Ensign’s sole qualifications for the job were being the right gender, race, and age, holding a Senate seat, and looking the spokesmodel for a Cialis campaign. John Thune was a leading contender because he is a senator, handsome, and tall. Haley Barbour’s governorship meant he was taken seriously as a candidate despite various outstanding issues involving white supremacy and them Duke boys.

And while Sarah Palin could never have run for president prior to August 2008, the vice presidential corollary to the de facto presidential eligibility rule meant that John McCain was able (at first) to present her as a legitimate choice to be his backup. Despite her manifest shortcomings, she was a governor, which mean she had actively disqualify herself from consideration.

On the flip side, we find Barack Obama, who has proved to be a smart, bold, and decisive commander in chief. Those–and I’m one of them–who still have enormous enthusiasm for Obama should consider that he was only allowed to run for president on a technicality, by virtue of a short stint as senator from Illinois. Nobody voted for him because of what he learned in the Senate–he spent half his time there running for higher office. They voted for the man who gave the iconic convention speech in 2004, for his charisma, intelligence, and vision. Those qualities were all in place before Obama won a Senate race that depended in no small part on his main opponent’s candidacy collapsing after revelations of a sex scandal that involved (oddly enough) not cheating on his ex-wife. Obama the U.S. Representative or state senator or author or constitutional scholar or community organizer couldn’t have run, even though he would have been essentially the same person. That’s too important to leave to chance.

Kevin Carey

Kevin Carey directs the Education Policy Program at New America.