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110517 Selecting a Brilliant Nominee

Selecting a Brilliant Nominee



It is with relief that we should greet the delay in launching the Republican presidential nomination contest. We are in May—just either eight or nine months from the Iowa Caucuses—and the field is only now taking shape. This is a stunning departure from the last few ever-lengthening cycles: at this time four years ago, all but one consequential candidate had already been in the race for some time. That one was Fred Thompson, whose demise can in part be traced to his having waited as long as he did.


This year’s change is a welcome one. There is no benefit to Republican candidates cat fighting throughout the first half of the off year, and we rank-and-file Republicans immediately gain two benefits for skipping the spectacle: first, the candidates will consume less of the Republican donors’ money on internal conflict, and, second, everyone has focused more on actual governance and the Republican reform efforts in Congress.


That having been said, in the next month or so, the field will largely be set, so now is the time to figure out what we want. Approaching the candidates with preexisting criteria is wiser than waiting for them to tell us what matters.


Obviously the list of important issues is quite long, but there is one meta-criterion that deserves immediate attention: does the candidate come across as smart? We all know of former President George W. Bush’s struggles in this area. This is not to say that he was not smart. He certainly was. No one can become president otherwise. However, his persona as an average guy, while certainly having some branding benefits, left him as just that: average, not particularly worthy of popular deference or respect. Try as he might, by the end of his administration, he had largely lost the gravitas so crucial to the job.


How can we avoid this happening again? A useful test of a Republican’s intellectual persona is to look at how Democrats behave toward the person. President Bush let some of our most liberal friends reduce him to a tired cartoon of uncouth incompetence (to the extent that one must wonder whether they can explain how our country physically survived all eight years). As slanderous as this was, I do not really blame the far left. Blind left-wing partisan anger is what it is. However, I do blame President Bush for letting himself be put in that position. A person’s know-how should be obvious to all.


A great current example of this is House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, who in recent months has achieved remarkable branding success as the intellectual epicenter of the Republican Party. If one looks closely, it is hard to find a Democrat who scoffs at Ryan. They know that questioning his knowledge and intellect is off limits, so the Democratic talking points seem fine-tuned to rebut his conclusions but not him as a person. The same needs to be true for our nominee.


Smarts matter. That is probably why Sarah Palin will likely not be running. A woman who once showed potential as an up and coming Republican leader has demonstrated that she cannot face the heat, so her role has been confined to the outskirts of the Party leadership. Had she demonstrated strong intellect, she would be a major candidate today if she wanted. Palin quite possibly could have won. However, now a group of a dozen or so others will be showcasing themselves to us. Which one will the Democrats fear rather than jeer?