For months now, even as the rest of the conservative commentariat has gradually resigned itself to the existing presidential field, the Weekly Standard’s bill Kristol has continued to pine — publicly, unstintingly, immune to either embarrassment or fatigue— for another candidate to jump into the race. He’s dreamed of Mitch Daniels, touted Chris Christie, talked up Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio, name-dropped Jeb Bush, and circled back to Daniels once more. He’s quoted poetry on behalf of his cause — Yeats, and (with some revisions) Andrew Marvell. He’s endured snark from the Huffington Post, eye-rolling from Slate, mockery from New York Magazine. But he’s continued undeterred — and in the wake of Newt Gingrich’s South Carolina victory, he was back at it again, throwing out a link to “a new online petition was launched Saturday night … at runmitchrun.com.”
And do you know what? He’s been right all along. right that the decisions by various capable Republicans to forgo a presidential run this year have been a collective disgrace; right that Republican primary voters deserve a better choice than the one being presented to them; and right, as well, that even now it isn’t too late for one of the non-candidates to change their mind and run. True, any candidate who jumped in would have a necessarily uncertain path to the nomination (requiring, at the very least, more than one convention ballot), and by casting themselves as a white knight they would risk embarrassment on a significant scale. But with the field having been winnowed and their opening clear, their path would be smoother and their odds higher than many successful presidential candidates in the past — Barack Obama in 2008 very much included.
It’s also true, as I wrote this weekend, that lousy presidential fields are common in American politics, from the Democrats of 1988 to the Republicans of 1996, and that the combination of gifts that makes a great presidential candidate is rarer than one would expect. But this is a general explanation of a general phenomenon: it does not excuse the specific decisions by specific politicians, in a year that is emphatically not the prosperous and peaceful year of 1996, to forgo putting their own talents to the test.
Contrary to what some of my more excitable colleagues in the press corps have been claiming, the weekend’s results didn’t demonstrate that Newt Gingrich could actually win the Republican nomination, or prove that Mitt Romney could actually lose to him. (Yes, I’m still on the “against this field, Mitt’s inevitable” bandwagon: more on that anon.) But the last week was a reminder, after months in which the incompetence of his rivals made him look better than he is, that Romney remains a tremendously weak frontrunner, whose strengths don’t compensate for a style that leaves conservatives cold and a background that will leave him open to attacks across a variety of Democratic-friendly fronts in the general election. I don’t think he can lose the primary, and I still give him decent odds of winning in November. But those judgments have everything to do with his political environment, and very little to do with the man himself. and under such circumstances, it seems absurd and pathetic that both the party and the country won’t have the chance to consider another option besides Newt the great and terrible.
Absurd, pathetic, and pretty much inevitable. But Kristol deserves credit for demanding better, long after the rest of us have given up. the scenario he’s seeking almost certainly won’t happen. But that’s very different from saying that it couldn’t, if someone, from Daniels to Jeb to Bobby Jindal, were willing to step into the breach that caution has created, and cowardice has sustained.