Weak Presidential Field. Again.

Why are all the candidates for president so awful?

Ross Douthat laments that, in a country of over 300 million people, “the Republican Party has been unable to find a candidate for the White House in 2012 who inspires anything but weary resignation from its voters.” Alas, he notes, “it’s not that much weaker than a number of recent presidential vintages, from the Democrats’ lineups in 1988 and 2004 to the Republican field in 1996. In presidential politics, the great talents (a Clinton, a Reagan) seem to be the exception; a march of Dole-Dukakis-Mondale mediocrity is closer to the rule.”

Kevin Drum agrees, observing, “I think it’s fair to say that Reagan in 1980 and Obama in 2008 were unquestionably inspirational figures among their party’s base, not just candidates they were willing to settle for. I think it’s also safe to say that Mondale, Dukakis, Bush Sr., Dole, Gore, Kerry, and McCain, weren’t.” Of the rest, only Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were even close, in his judgment, to filling that bill. Thus, “out of 11 non-incumbent candidates over the past three decades, only two were clearly inspirational at the time, two more were possibly B-list inspirational, and seven were basically duds. ”

Douthat’s theory is that, “a successful presidential campaign calls on a trio of talents that only rarely overlap. Being a master politician in a mass democracy, in this sense, is a bit like being a brilliant filmmaker who’s somehow also a great economist, or a Nobel-winning scientist who writes best-selling novels on the side.”

First, a great politician needs the gift of management. A would-be president has to be the C.E.O. of his or her campaign, with a flair for fund-raising, an eye for talent, and a keen sense of when to micromanage and when to delegate. This is the arm-twisting, organization-building, endorsement-corralling side of presidential politics, and not surprisingly it tends to favor insiders and deal-makers and old Washington hands.

But successful insiders and deal-makers are rarely comfortable with the more public, rhetorical, self-advertising side of politics. The great manager is unlikely to be a great persuader, capable of seducing undecided voters with his empathy, or inspiring them with what George H. W. Bush (who lacked it) called “the vision thing.” He’s also unlikely to be a great demagogue, capable of demonizing his enemies and convincing his supporters that they stand at Armageddon and battle for the Lord. The manager can play these roles, but there will always be a hint of irony, a touch of phoniness, a sense that he’d much rather get back to the inside game.

Nor do the gifts of persuasion necessarily overlap with the gifts of demagoguery. Quite the reverse: The politician who’s good at reaching out to the unconverted is usually mistrusted by his own base, and the politician whose us-versus-them rhetoric inspires devotion among ideologues rarely finds it easy to pivot to a more transcendent, unifying style.

I’ve long held a similar belief, that great presidents needed to be simultaneously wonks, mastering the complexities of public policy and passionate about a few programs and yet come across as folksy to outsiders. They also need to be simultaneously cold, decisive leaders able to make hard calls even if it means alienating long-time friends–and yet a master empath, able to be the nation’s head cheerleader and Mourner in Chief as the occasion requires. And they need to be master coalition builders, able to inspire their party base and help elect more of their partisans to office while at the same time seeming above politics, putting the interests of the country first.

That’s just about an impossible combination.

Clinton, I would argue, combined these skills better than any president in my lifetime–including Reagan. He combined raw analytic intelligence and emotional intelligence better than anyone I’ve ever seen in public life. And, yet, he inspired an amazing amount of antipathy, both because of his excess of appetite and lack of self-control and his seeming ability to get away with it. Because he left the presidency young and in great health, though, he’s elevated himself to elder statesman status because his gifts can now be viewed without partisan animus.

Reagan, despite the warm recollections, was also quite polarizing, if not on such a visceral level. His mastery of the demagogic gift created plenty of hard feelings on the left, with many seeing him as uncaring toward the less fortunate. His “welfare queens” bit, in particular, is still cited as racist dog whistle politics. Unfortunately, since he was younger when he entered the presidency than Clinton is now–and contracted Alzheimer’s either late in his presidency or almost immediately after retirement–he never had the opportunity to become a non-political figure.

George H.W. Bush, I’ve long contended, would have been an outstanding prime minister. He was genuinely smart and decent and mastered the policy world, especially foreign affairs, in a way no president in my lifetime has. Further, he was genuinely a Country First leader, willing to reach across the aisle and work with the Democratic opposition as partners. Alas, he was also an awful campaigner, visibly annoyed at the damned silliness of it all. He could spout the demagogic lines on the stump, but was alternately bored or restraining himself from rolling his eyes.

George W. Bush had, if there is such a thing, a failed two-term presidency. Hopes that the Iraq War would be rehabilitated in the eyes of history are fading fast, as that country descends into what looks to be another civil war. Afghanistan, seen by most as a necessary war, has dragged on too long and everything but the initial invasion to topple the Taliban and punish them for harboring the 9/11 attackers will be seen as stupid. Katrina was a debacle, even if little of it was his doing. The Great Recession, or whatever we’re calling it, began on his watch and, while it likely would have happened whoever was in office, the guy in the big chair gets the blame. His Big Government conservatism has long since been rejected by his own party, so there’s no one left to fight for his legacy, either. Still, I would argue, he actually possessed a fair amount of each of the skills Douthat identifies. Which perhaps explains how he managed to get re-elected by a fairly comfortable margin despite Iraq and a general lack of enthusiasm among the base.

Outside the heat of a partisan campaign, I’d argue that many of the non-winners that we’ve written off as mediocrities were better than we think. Al Gore and, especially, John Kerry have rebounded nicely after bitter defeats. Gore has gone on to greater glory, but also descended into bitter frothing from time-to-time. Kerry has quietly become a genuine elder statesman in the field of foreign relations while still on active duty in the Senate. For that matter, while not the most exciting man to win a major party nomination for president, we could have done a lot worse than Bob Dole.

Mitt Romney may not have what it takes to beat Obama, who’s an exceptionally skilled organizer and campaigner. He’s got great managerial skills and self-discipline but he may be a worse campaigner even than Bush the Elder. He combines Gore’s penchant for looking artificial and Bush’s inability to deliver a half lie. The continued debacle over his taxes also signals some defect, probably a combination of too much self-awareness and defensiveness of the advantages he’s had in life.

Still, like every one of the nominees that we complain about, he’s objectively quite accomplished and impressive. He only seems small compared to the office to which he aspires and the handful of greats who have held it.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2012, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. I’m not sure Reagan or Obama would have been all that inspiring either were it not for who came before each of them.

  2. James Joyner says:

    @Michael Demmons: Comparisons help. certainly. But Reagan and Obama generated an electricity that none of the others did. Clinton and Bush 2000 came closest, but were always more polarizing.

  3. superdestroyer says:

    Every Republican will be seen as a flawed candidate. In the age of snarky politics and politics being dominated by the “cool kid” progressives, all Republican candidate will been seen seriously flawed

    It is just another reason that the U.S. will soon be a one party state. When everyone in one party is seen as seriously flawed but when the candidates in the other party are always shown in a positive light, there is no reason to believe that two party politics will continue.

  4. Two things. First, as I said a few days ago, never underestimate the effects of the RINO purge. The Republican party removed pragmatists from concideration, and that matters. Second, you could more cynically phrase the tension as “must be able to raise money, and must be able to govern.”

  5. Yeah, I’m really afraid that these writers take refuge in abstract navel-gazing, to avoid the more real problem. When a party pushes itself to an ideological extreme, and makes that the bar for entry, of course it ends up with a set like this.

    You talk about Reagan as an example of statesman above, but how many times have we talked about Reagan being an impossible candidate for the current party?

  6. Kylopod says:

    >Which perhaps explains how he managed to get re-elected by a fairly comfortable margin

    He got reelected by a 2.4% margin in the popular vote, the narrowest for an incumbent in history. (His electoral-vote margin of 286-251 is merely the second narrowest, after Woodrow Wilson.) I would not call either of those a “fairly comfortable margin.”

  7. Deciphering this chart, there look to be about 50 million American men, and about 50 million American women, between the ages of 50 and 60. Call those prime Presidential years.

    The navel gazers may say the skill set is rare, but the pool is large. Very large. Especially compared to the pool in 1775 (2.5 million total). And from that small pool a number of great statesmen emerged.

    This is not a candidate problem, this is a party problem.

    This is not an individual problem, it is a selection problem.

  8. superdestroyer says:

    @john personna:

    there maybe 100 million people but look at what the real qualification are.

    1. How many of those 100 million are a graduate of Harvard of Yale (graduate or undergraduate). That cuts the numbers down to a few thousand. Reagan was the last non-Ivy president.

    2. How many of them have experience in the goverment out of that 10K Ivy League graduates. That cuts the number down bymore than half.

    3. How many of them have been successful while in goverment. That eliminates some more.

    4. How many of them are male. The U.S. is still a long way from electing a woman president.

    5. Now that we are down to less than 1K, how many of them have been married once, have successful kids, have not been involved in a scandal, and not been on the wrong side of a major issues. The number left is very few.

    6. Now does the person have the personality to run for president and travel around Iowa and New Hampshire for a year? Does the person have a spouse willing to go on the campaign trail? How many of them are telegenic, extroverts, and are good on television.

    In reality, all candidates will been seen as seriously flawed in the future and the number of candidates who will ever be considered likely candidates is very small.

  9. @superdestroyer:

    I’ve been thinking those things over since my post. First, of all parties, the Republicans should be the ones able to run a businessman. They of all people should be able to say “20 years running big companies and experiencing commerce is what we need.”

    But to back up to it being a party problem, how good has the party been at feeding presidential timber into governorships and congress?

    It’s possible that they’ve been short-sighted, but in the specific case of the GOP over the last 10 years, we’ve had that RINO convulsion.

    (I think your “math” dividing down to 1K is bullshit in the purest sense of the word, and it does not get the party off the hook for selecting poorly now, nor for preparing poorly over the last 10 years.)

    This is what parties are FOR.

  10. (If any Republican, of all people, wants to tell us here that experience in congress or as a governor is a requirement for president … do you really want that to come back to haunt you? Do YOU want to be the one to rule out a Peter Ueberroth?)

  11. Kylopod says:

    In 2004, an entertaining and insightful book about the political and cultural scene post-9/11 was published called Sore Winners, by John Powers, and it had this to say about the 2004 Democratic field, which is really applicable to any weak field:

    “I sometimes fantasized about the ideal Frankenstein candidate one could stitch together from the contenders. He would have the passion of Dean, the good looks and trial-lawyer eloquence of Edwards, the physical stature and gravitas of Kerry, the brains and record of Wesley Clark, and the left-wing dreams of Kucinich–topped off by the sharp wit, and incomparable hairdo, of Al Sharpton. But such daydreams all too easily turned into nightmares: I kept picturing Kerry’s yard-long face atop Dean’s ham of a neck, framed by Kucinich’s hairline and Wesley Clark’s sweaters, and talking about Tawana Brawley with all the moral smugness of Joe Lieberman. The scariest thing was, I thought even this second jerry-built Democrat would be a better president than George W. Bush. And I surely wouldn’t have been the only one.”

  12. superdestroyer says:

    @john personna:

    I think an aspect that you have been thinking about but do not want to face is how badly the Bush Clan has hurt the Republicans. The Bush Clan from about the mid-80’s forward has wanted the Republican Party to be arranged so that only members of the Bush Clan will be elected president.

    That is why there is no talent in the Repubican Party. In addition, since the Republican Party is non-existent is California, Mass, NYC, or Maryland, or Northern Virginia means that very few Republicans live and work in the places where political power and experience are developed.

    Anyone less than 40 y/o and who is interested in politics will be a Democrat because to be involved in politics and live on the east and west coasts means that one has to be a Democrat.

    That is also why there are so few Republicans coming out of the Ivy Leagues. Ot get into an Ivy League requires one to be able to mouth conventional Democraitc Party boiler plate positions.

  13. Related:

    That evidence looks something like this: Although the nomination is technically decided by delegate counts, and somewhat less literally by the preferences of rank-and-file voters, ultimately the nominee is determined by a sort of open negotiation among the party elite, which includes elected officials, major donors and the partisan news media, among others.

    Voter preferences can make some difference, but more as a lagging than a leading indicator. Being well-credentialed and building a traditional campaign matters, and candidates who do not do so may soar in polls but inevitably fall back to earth. Moreover, parties tend to come to fairly rational decisions about their nominee, placing heavy emphasis on electability. (This view is eloquently explained in the book The Party Decides, by the political scientists Marty Cohen and others.)

    The competing paradigm might be called “This Time Is Different.” It asserts that a fundamental change has occurred in America’s political culture, or that a temporary shift is especially salient in this year’s Republican race.

    There are two thrusts to this article. The first is that the party usually decides the candidate, and second, that parties have lost control.

    I don’t think sufficient weight is placed on the party failing at that job, and leaving a vacuum.

    Or as an independent, if parties fail at this, why are you still registered?

  14. Mark Thoma’s explanation is that the Republicans don’t want to be President.

  15. James Joyner says:

    @john personna: While I fully agree that there are genuine problems with the Republican party right now, they’re much more recent than the “problem” identified here. After all, the GOP arguably hasn’t nominated an exciting candidate since Reagan.

    Further, it’s a problem that exists with Democrats, too. Both Douthat and Drum contend Obama is the only superstar they’ve nominated. I’d add in Clinton, albeit with the caveats noted in the post. Still: Mondale, Dukakis, Gore, and Kerry as all fairly ho-hum in terms of the discussion.

    As to the Founders vs. the modern generation, I’d say it’s truly apples and oranges. First, they’re judged through the lens of their overall accomplishments, not their television skills. Second, they were hand picked by other elites, not the masses. Third, it was simply more attractive to be president when we were building a nation and there was no TV, talk radio, or Internet.

  16. @James Joyner:

    I voted for George Herbert Walker Bush, and IIRC, Bob Dole. RINOs both, I know, but sold and sane candidates.

    BS, that the same problem exists for Democrats. They have not let crazies this close to the top of their ticket. (Howard Dean’s disquieting yell aside, he wasn’t actually crazy.)

    Again, you are using a generic argument to avoid a specific problem. You are claiming that excellent people are rare (given) but not explaining why crap candidates were selected.

  17. (Step back and think about those big numbers. With 50-100 million to pull from, you KNOW there are excellent conservatives out there. Why didn’t the party find them?)

  18. And don’t forget the global warming and evolution litmus tests!!!!

  19. Rob in CT says:

    And for all that, Andrew Jackson became POTUS. Granted, that was after the founders had died off.

    But yeah, TV/soundbite-culture greatly increases the value of attributes that have very little to do with governing. Hell. Handbasket. Get off my lawn! 😉

    There’s a reason I don’t watch political speeches (or listen to them, either). I read the transcripts. I’ve done this since Clinton, whose smarmy (“I feel your pain”) voice turned my stomach. I read the policy proposals, and opinion pieces regarding said proposals. I don’t watch the talking heads discuss ’em.

  20. OMG, let’s take a moment to remember that Sarah Palin was a party selection, pushed on John McCain over preferred choice, Joe Lieberman.

  21. PJ says:

    @Kylopod:

    He got reelected by a 2.4% margin in the popular vote, the narrowest for an incumbent in history. (His electoral-vote margin of 286-251 is merely the second narrowest, after Woodrow Wilson.) I would not call either of those a “fairly comfortable margin.”

    Exactly.

    And if about 60,000 (2% of those who voted for Bush) in Ohio had voted for Kerry instead of Bush, Bush would have lost despite getting about 3 million more total votes than Kerry. Which would have been fitting considering how he got elected in 2000.

  22. steve says:

    “Ot get into an Ivy League requires one to be able to mouth conventional Democraitc Party boiler plate positions.”

    Nope. Speaking from experience, when I got in I was a hard core rightie, having been brought up in a John Birch family. Most of the people I know, I live in a very conservative area, whose kids got into an Ivy are pretty conservative.

    @James- I think most of the problem this year is that the candidates are mirroring the party. The party is dominated by talk radio politics. That is reflected in the candidates, except for Romney who clearly feels uncomfortable playing that part, but tries (unconvincingly). Think about it. You have people defending Gingrich, who is close to a true scumbag as you can get in politics and still be able to run.

    Steve

    Steve

  23. Anon says:

    Part of the problem seems to be that those that vote in primaries seem to demand “star quality”. I would just settle for competence, non-craziness, and not too much baggage. Among the Republicans, there seems to be plenty of potential candidates that I (as a left-leaning moderate) would consider Presidential material, but they never seem to have even a chance. I just think it’s crazy that the Republicans might nominate someone like Gingrich over those like Daniels, Lugar (he’s probably too old, but he never had a chance even when he was younger), Huntsman, Christie, etc.

  24. James Joyner says:

    @john personna: Thus far, the post-Reagan nominees have been:

    GHW Bush
    GHW Bush
    Dole
    GW Bush
    GW Bush
    McCain

    No crazies there, although McCain can be bombastic. Nor was there any time during that period where a crazy was a serious contender for the nomination.

    In this cycle, Romney looked for all the world about to continue the streak. Now, Gingrich has emerged as a serious contender. Now, while I can’t imagine voting for him, I’m not sure he qualifies as a crazy.

    To be sure, there was Palin. I opposed that nomination from the moment it was announced, although just because she lacked the gravitas and experience necessary. As it turned out, she’s not all that bright–at least she’s a massive policy ignoramus–and a kook. But I don’t know that this was obvious even to desperate insiders, who were simply looking for a Hail Mary. Indeed, it’s quite possible that the national spotlight is the reason she’s so crazy: She was suddenly thrust into a position where she thought she was more important and presidentially plausible than she really is.

  25. Anon says:

    Regarding whether or not the situation is the same for the Democrats, I think there are two related but different distinctions that are being conflated to some degree. The first is “noninspirational candidates”. I agree that Democrats also tend to suffer from those. The second is “candidates that are crazy or have serious flaws”. I would say that the Democrats are significantly better marginalizing their candidates that fit this second category.

  26. @James Joyner:

    When do you suppose the “the crazy party” meme took hold? Sometime in the 2000s?

    On Gingrich, if he’s “sane,” you need a new definition.

    All in all, I understand that you are a party man, one who would go with the original form of the “all men” filler text. And so sure, you are making the best defense you can for a party in ruin. A party that cannot select someone who is both sane and conservative at the same time.

    We get that.

  27. Kylopod says:

    @James Joyner: I think you are using an overly literal definition of the word “crazy.” In a political context, the term does not necessarily mean what psychiatrists have in mind. Nixon was probably mentally ill, but his political views were fairly moderate. When the word “crazy” is applied to specific politicians, what it usually means is that the person expresses irrational, extreme ideas, such as conspiracy theories and the like. It doesn’t necessarily mean the person suffers from actual mental problems. Declaring that the Israel-Lebanon conflict in 2006 is the start of “World War III” or that Obama has a “Kenyan anti-colonial worldview” may not literally qualify Gingrich for a trip to Bellevue, but it certainly places him well within the definition of a “crazy” candidate as the term is generally used.

  28. Raoul says:

    “Katrina was a debacle, even if little of it was [Bush’s] doing.”

    Expert deflection of Republican responsibility for the downgrading of FEMA readiness and value under Bush, Mr. Joyner

    The cronyism that put Brown in charge was only a minor symptom of the Bush + GOP view that gov’t agencies are not meant to work well so let’s starve their budgets and put losers in charge.

    We can go back to Reagan and his famous “I’m from the gov’t and I’m here to help…” quip to understand how Katrina was emblematic of the failure of Republican ideology. To posit that government sucks and should be small enough to drown creates the debacles such as Katrina.

    Policies have consequences, sir, and to shrug off Bush’s role in implementing GOP ideology is to grant yourselves a pass you haven’t earned.

  29. @Kylopod:

    It depends dude. If Gingrich actually thinks the correct response to criticism is to attack the message, and preforms no introspection, he isn’t firing on all rational cylinders.

    Sadly, Jame’s defense, that Gingrich is a calculating hypocrite, asks that we think of him as some kind of sane monster. Without thinking that a contradiction in terms.

  30. Anon says:

    @James Joyner: Hm…okay, so it’s really only been in the last few years, and I’ve been overgeneralizing.

  31. @James Joyner:

    BTW, you do have GWB and McCain in your list. Both were poor choices. GWB because he was too much an empty vessel. McCain because, while he was a great American, he was sadly past his use by date. Consider the positions McCain has taken since 2008.

  32. Kylopod says:

    @john personna: My impression of Gingrich, from following his career since the mid-’90s, is that he’s essentially a huckster. Of course it’s not always easy to tell the truly crazy ones from those who are faking it. Nobody thinks Romney believes what he’s saying when he compares Obama to King George III or declares that “We are only inches away from ceasing to be a free-market economy.” But that only underscores the larger point: the “craziness” of the modern-day GOP isn’t about the mental state of a specific person, it’s about the fact that the party has not only been tolerating increasingly irrational, extreme views but practically made them a rite of passage for its candidates, so that even people we presume are “normal,” such as Romney, feel compelled to pander to it. If and when Romney receives the nomination, he may fall into the Bush/Dole category in terms of his past relationship to his party’s right flank, but it doesn’t change the fact that he has expressed views that are more extreme and irrational than those of any major-party nominee in modern history–not because he himself is extreme and irrational, but because that’s where the party he represents has drifted.

  33. James Joyner says:

    @Kylopod: @john personna: Like the vast majority of Americans, I think Gingrich is a disgusting creep. But he’s more-or-less mainstream philosophically, as best I can tell. By contrast, I think Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann are probably fairly decent, grounded people. But they’re ideologically crazy.

    GWB was, if anything, a fairly centrist president ideologically. He had wide appeal to the American electorate in two campaigns. McCain is a cranky old man but, again, fairly centrist and mainstream.

    I’m worried about the direction of the party. As I’ve noted in other posts, the lunatic fringe seems to have taken over the grass roots, including nearly taking over the House. Thus far, they’ve been held off for the top leadership spots. That’s in danger of evaporating this cycle.

  34. @Kylopod:

    I think Stephen’s recounting of Newt’s academic career influences me. Applying for college presidency as an associate professor? The line between audacity and insanity …

    @James Joyner:

    The Party as an organization seems somewhat absent. Are they tepidly in Mitt’s corner, or just riding this one out?

  35. James Joyner says:

    @john personna: I think the party as an organization, to the extent such a thing even exists in our system, is tepidly behind Mitt. He has received almost all the key Establishment endorsements, but I’m not sure how much that matters.

  36. Steve Verdon says:

    Because a nebbish is never a good leader and our system ensures we usually get a nebbish.

  37. Curtis says:

    I think this is taking what we know of the presidents’ terms and pinning back on the campaigns.

    I agree with you about Clinton and his mastery of both intricate knowledge of the government and ability to connect with voters. But I don’t think this was anywhere close to common knowledge going into the 1992 campaign. Democrats spent the whole year bemoaning those who didn’t run, like Mario Cuomo, and thinking that Bush was unbeatable. But because Clinton did win, twice, and had a successful presidency, we take those skills and pin them back on that campaign.

    And we do that for the failures, as well. George W. Bush may have been the most imposing non-incumbent of my lifetime, and steamrolled to the nomination. But because he was a terrible president, we look for the germs of his failures in the campaigns.

    Sorry, I am just not buying it.

  38. anjin-san says:

    But he’s more-or-less mainstream philosophically,

    Sure. Fire government employees for being liberals. Mandatory loyalty oaths.

    I think you are swimming in a different stream than most of your readers…

  39. James Joyner says:

    @anjin-san: I’m not sure anyone takes those “proposals” seriously. Gingrich is a windbag who spouts of 90 ideas a day. My sense that Gingrich isn’t an ideological extremism is that almost none of the criticism leveled against him is on that front; rather, it’s about his being a jerk, a sleazeball, a pompous gasbag, and an undisciplined leader.

  40. anjin-san says:

    I’m not sure anyone takes those “proposals” seriously.

    If you had asked me the day after GW took office if we would have torture as a policy and secret gulags, I would have laughed at you. I am not laughing about any of the crazy sh*t that Republicans say any more.

    After the phony debt ceiling crisis that the the GOP created and the subsequent downgrade, I take it all pretty seriously. There are far too many bomb throwers in your party, and they have far too much influence.

  41. Brummagem Joe says:

    A pretty good summary James particularly the takes on Clinton and Herbert Walker. A couple of caveats. Not by any stretch of the imagination did Reagan have much policy chops and Dubya didn’t win re-election by a comfortable margin it was the narrowest margin for an incumbent since Wilson in 1916. And as you say his two terms were a trainwreck that has no chance of being rescued by the verdict of history no matter how many valedictories we get from neocon commentators. Which brings us to the current Republican nominating process which in terms of candidates and theatrics has to be the most grotesque in history. And my memory goes back to Ike. This leads onto Obama who I see you largely left out of your commentary. He’s not quite as empathetic as Clinton but overall he’s in the top 25 percentile on all the qualities you listed and in some of them (mental toughness to point of coldness) he’s way ahead of Clinton. Whether this will be enought for him to best Gingrich or Romney remains to be seen.

  42. James Joyner says:

    @Brummagem Joe: I think Reagan was genuinely smart and interested in policy, but mostly at an abstract/strategic level. He left the details to the team–to good effect until about 1986. Douthat and Drum both put Obama into the Reagan category; I’m not quite sure where he’ll be seen down the line–he pretty much has to win re-election to have any shot at that–but I agree that he’s a remarkably capable individual.

    Fair enough on the GWB re-election margin. It seemed comfortable in comparison to 2000, I guess.

  43. Brummagem Joe says:

    @James Joyner:

    I agree that Reagan was not the amiable dunce (certainly not in his first term) of legend but his involvement in the policy making process where the devil is in the details was as you suggest rather distant. Maybe that’s why there were far more U turns than most conservatives like to remember. By Reagan’s second term age and the press of events were taking their toll. It stands out a mile if you look at video of Reagan in 1980 and 1988.

  44. James Joyner says:

    @Brummagem Joe: Well, he was a few days shy of 70 when he first took the oath. And he lost the Senate in 1986, so was a lame duck facing bicameral opposition.

    Regardless, as many postings over the years here have noted, while Reagan was a transcendent figure in a lot of ways, he’s not the Conservative Icon so many point to today. He was a former Democrat who was a True Believer on a handful of issues and completely willing to compromise on just about anything else to advance his goals there. Even taxes were flexible, so long as he got more defense spending to defeat the Evil Empire.

  45. Brummagem Joe says:

    @James Joyner:

    But the evil empire was doomed. I visited many times in the 70s/early 80’s and it stood out a mile even if the CIA couldn’t figure it out….but then they had a vested interest in not figuring it out!

  46. steve says:

    Bacevich noticed the same in his last book. It was pretty clear the USSR was falling apart. Where Reagan should get a lot of credit is convincing the Saudis to crank out the oil. That really killed the Soviet economy since it was really their only source of foreign currency.

    Steve

  47. An Interested Party says:

    I would say that the Democrats are significantly better marginalizing their candidates that fit this second category.

    They learned their lesson from the 80s… a lesson the GOP will now have to learn…

  48. grumpy realist says:

    I think you have to have a certain level of insanity to run for political office in any case. Think of it: when you’re trying to advance in business or elsewhere you may not get the top plum seat but the default position of the loser is usually pretty good (getting to be VP or similar.) In politics, there’s no “we try harder” position. You lose the race, you’re out on your ear. Which means that people who run for public office either have to have incredibly egotistical views of themselves or be extremely willing to gamble. (The third set of candidates are Joan of Arc types with a Mission. Enough said.)

  49. In looking at the picture of the candidates that you’ve selected for this post, I am struck (heavily) by the massive girth of Newt’s midsection. It is incomparably vast. Greater by far than that of any of his opponents on stage.

    Given his roughly six-foot height and his starkly visible ventral mass, it’s clear that this man is obese, and likely dangerously so.

    I am legitimately worried of the health implications of his abdominal obesity and the likelihood of it leading to (or already presenting as) metabolic syndrome, hypertension, coronary artery disease, and dementia.

  50. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Erica L. Canti:

    Taft Redux?

  51. @Erica L. Canti:

    That does’t look very healthy.

    And it highlights that the others probably planned ahead, and have been seeing personal trainers.