I don’t begrudge the folks at Politico their decision to launch a gimmicky new feature called “Politico Primary,” in which readers are invited to nominate and vote on independent presidential candidates for the 2012 election. Sure, there’s absolutely no reason to think an independent or third-party candidate could seriously contest the presidency, and there’s abundant reason to think that if, by some miracle, an independent president did win, he or she would be hamstrung when it comes to actually running the country. But Politico is being light-hearted about what is essentially a reader engagement enterprise—it’s presented as “part parlor game, part reporting assignment”—and there’s nothing wrong with a little blue-sky thinking from time to time. Heck, it could, theoretically, even be a vehicle to inject new voices and new perspectives into the political process, something we always support here.
But, but, but. Did they have to make the thing so terrible? Maybe some creative reader nominations will salvage Politico Primary (or maybe not—see update below), but the project’s original installation—in which executive editor Jim VandeHei and chief White House correspondent Mike Allen select and make cases for five candidates—captures all the worst parts of the Politico gestalt. Indifference to policy, an eagerness to see politicians as products to be marketed, undue deference to institutional authority, a fetish for “centrism,” regurgitated conventional wisdom, a breathtaking failure of imagination—it’s all here.
The feature’s single most aggravating aspect is the gaping chasm between Politico’s pretensions to outside-the-box thinking and populist sentiment and the crushing, establishment-approved obviousness of the first five candidates. In the introduction to the feature, VandeHei and Allen write that, “the public has had it with Washington and conventional politics,” Americans have “lost trust and respect in the conventional governing class,” and there is “mounting evidence voters don’t see” President Obama or any of the Republican contenders as good options.
Those are big, bold statements. So who’s one of the five candidates VandeHei and Allen put forward to fill this void and restore trust and respect? Hillary Clinton—yes, the Hillary Clinton who has spent two decades as part of the “governing class,” and was very nearly our forty-fourth president. If that weren’t obtuse enough, VandeHei and Allen argue that Clinton would be a viable independent candidate in part because “her family’s access to rich donors is legendary.” Because, as we all know, only legacy candidates with legendary access to rich donors can restore trust in public office.
The other candidates are no more inspired, and hardly offer more of a solution to the problem VandeHei and Allen say needs solving. Empty-headed pundits are forever pining for military leaders to save us from political dysfunction, so of course David Petraeus is here, apparently on the grounds that voters are craving a “no-labels” candidate, especially if he has a strong chin, salutes smartly, and looks good in uniform. (Actual opening sentence to the Petraeus blurb: “In the end, every voter wants the same darn thing: a strong leader they can truly believe in.”)
A corollary to the military savior fantasy is the business savior fantasy, so there’s also a place for Generic CEO, played here Cisco’s John Chambers. Ostensibly, Chambers’s appeal is that he knows how to create jobs in a competitive global economy. (Though not always, apparently.) VandeHei and Allen don’t really say what such a policy agenda might look like. They have, though, given thought to how to package Chambers for voter consumption:
He could run as an authentic outsider, someone who hasn’t spent his life pursuing public office. A Washington-has-no-damn-clue message on navigating and dominating the world economy would resonate for many. His smooth speaking style and self-confidence would play well on the national stage.
Moving on, we get to Condoleeza Rice—because, of course, former Secretaries of State represent such a sharp break from “the conventional governing class.” The case for Rice seems to be that she has held both Republican and Democratic associations, she is generally seen as moderate and temperate, and she balanced the budget while serving as Stanford provost. As for whether she has, you know, anything to say about our current political and economic challenges, VandeHei and Allen acknowledge that, “Rice would need to find a sharper, more populist voice.” But don’t worry about that, they assure us—“she can play at this level.”