Whatever the Republican National Convention did for Mitt Romney, it seems to have one solid accomplishment: it boosted the careers of several Republican politicians, leading to an emerging media consensus that the Republican bench is strong should they have an open nomination fight in 2016. As a reporter said to John Sides:

It seems that plenty of Republicans are mentioned as potential candidates in 4 years: Christie, Daniels, Rubio, Scott Walker, Jeb Bush… even Nikki Haley and Rand Paul. It seems far fewer Democrats are on the bench… there’s always Hillary, and some talk about Martin O’Malley and Andrew Cuomo, but I don’t hear too many more.

I think there’s a real misconception here about candidates and the process.

Republicans in 2012 did have an unusually small group of conventionally qualified candidates to choose from because of the 2006 and 2008 landslides – some experienced potential candidates lost, and few if any new ones were elected in time to serve at least four years (well, almost four years – what Obama had served by Election Day in 2008).

But still, there were lots of Republicans who had political talent and conventional credentials. However, the primary process – which severely penalized candidates for any deviation from conservative norms, which themselves appear to be ever-changing – probably did a lot of pre-winnowing that we don’t even know about. Vote for TARP? Oops. Support Romney-style health care reform? Well, obviously it didn’t prevent nomination, but it was an issue. Immigration? Thanks for trying, Governor Perry.

Not to mention that some of the bright lights of the convention and the party – Condi Rice and Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval, for example – are ineligible because of the absolute veto anti-abortion activists have on the nomination.

But we can see abortion now; what we can’t know is what tough votes any of the rising stars will have to cast over the next few years, and how they’ll turn out. Which governor, for example, will be pressed by a Democratic legislature to sign a tax increase? Which one will wind up on the wrong side of the marriage issue? Nor can we tell which of this group (or, to be sure, the seemingly promising Democrats we’ll be hearing from next week) will have a macaca moment, or get involved in a personal scandal, or otherwise be disgraced. Many of them will have to go through re-election campaigns in 2014, and all sorts of things could go wrong.

Some of that would, I’d think, apply equally to both sides: for every John Ensign, there’s an Eliot Spitzer. However, the combination of ideological and policy issue vetoes, on the one hand, and rapidly and constantly changing must-have positions, on the other, certainly appears to me to be far more of a problem on the Republican side at this point.

So it’s good for the Republican Party that they have a good-sized group of talented politicians. If the past is any indication, they’ll need it just to manage to have one or two solid candidates the next time they have an open presidential nomination contest.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.