A Great Catch by Ben Smith

Belly-aching about the presidential field is nothing new

The announcement by Mitch Daniels, the Republican governor of Indiana,
that he won’t run for president in 2012 seems likely to spark the latest round of commentary about the supposed shallowness of the GOP field.

But a sharp post from Politico’s Ben Smith offers a useful corrective to that narrative. Smith unearths from the archives of The New York Times this story, published in 1991:

Democrats struggled today to adjust to the last thing they needed six months before the Iowa caucuses: an already tiny Presidential field that keeps shrinking.

As expected, Senator John D. Rockefeller 4th announced in Charleston, W.Va., today that he would not seek the 1992 Democratic Presidential nomination. That announcement, just three weeks after Representative Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, the House majority leader, took himself out of the race, combined with the demurrals of other Democratic heavyweights to create a frustrating, embarrassing pattern for the party.

While the West Virginia Democrat struggled to cast his decision as a personal one, it left a clear public perception that one leading Democrat after another was looking at the 1992 campaign and deciding that George Bush could not be beaten.

“Am I frustrated?” asked Phil Angelides, chairman of the California Democratic Party. “Absolutely.”…

Senator Rockefeller’s withdrawal is expected to open new opportunities for those who seem eager to run, like Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas and Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa. It is also expected to heighten the pressure on Senator Al Gore of Tennessee and Gov. Mario M. Cuomo of New York to enter the race…

“In previous Presidential campaigns, people were now dispatching their state campaign managers with well-defined plans,” Mr. Torricelli said. “I’m not certain there’s anyone now considering a race other than Mario Cuomo who could make up for the lost time.”

Cuomo famously didn’t run, but, as you may recall, the eventual Democratic nominee ended up doing OK against an incumbent president.

The broader point here, which has been noted by some sharp observers, is that many presidential fields look shallow in the early going, because none of the candidates have yet had the stature-boosting experience of winning a major party’s nomination for president. But one of them will, and his stature will rise when it does. At the same time, there’s a “grass is always greener” effect at work—the people who aren’t running look stronger than the people who are in part because they’re not running, and so they’re weaknesses have not been scrutinized so closely.

To bring this all back to the current GOP field: as it now stands, Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty look like heavy co-favorites. As former governors of swing (or Democratic-leaning) states, they both seem likely to make perfectly viable nominees, as well-equipped to win a general election as anybody else if economic conditions and other events leave Barack Obama vulnerable. And while some of the current caviling seems to come from the conservative movement’s dissatisfaction with Romney and Pawlenty as standard-bearers—Fox News apparently didn’t even carry Pawlenty’s official announcement speech today—winning a primary campaign will mend most of those
intra-party fissures.

If there’s something unusual about the Republican field, it’s not so much the shortage of credible candidates as the abundance of non-serious ones (Paul, Cain, Gingrich, etc). That fact—and the general rightward drift of the party—may help to explain a more
meaningful development, which Smith and his colleague Byron Tau reported on Friday: even “establishment” candidates in the race, like Pawlenty, are embracing some far-out economic positions, such as railing against “fiat currency.”

The “will he or won’t he?” phase of the campaign may be with us for awhile—that NYT story unearthed by Smith didn’t run until August. Here’s hoping that well before then we see a little less on who’s in and who’s out, and a little more reporting on the substance of the actual policies being pushed by the candidates.

P.S. At Tapped, the excellent Jamelle Bouie target=_blank>flags another Times story that appeared even later in that election cycle. “Democrats Dread a Season Without Heavy Hitters” appeared in February 1992, and included this on-the-record assessment of Bill Clinton by a leading Democratic senator: “His campaign is in trouble.”

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx. Tags: , , , , ,