Huston: A Crowded Field Until the Finish?

June 17, 2015

For the use of the membership only.

by Tom Huston

Lots of people seem to think it is inappropriate for unauthorized people to seek the presidency. While they don’t seem to agree on who does the authorizing, Democrats are convinced that too many aspirants are trying to climb aboard what they love to call the Republican clown car, and nervous Republicans are worried that too many choices are a bad thing except when shopping at Nordstrom Rack.

A brief review of the proceedings of the Republican and Democratic national conventions over the course of a century reveals that a dozen or so candidates trolling for votes at the convention was the norm. As late as 1968, eleven candidates received votes on the first ballot at the convention that nominated Richard Nixon. While only three of them were arguably “serious” candidates, several others believed with good reason that under remote but not impossible circumstances they could be nominated.

As so many traditional practices that have been abandoned in the name of progress, spirited competition among multiple candidates for a presidential nomination is now deemed unseemly. Why this should be so is not clear to me, but likely it is because the public suffers from historic memory fatigue and assumes that what they have experienced in recent years is the way it always has been.

It is the right of every person who believes the presidency is within grasp to throw his or her hat in the ring. It is equally the right of every voter to dismiss a declared presidential candidate as a fraud, charlatan, deluded egotist or money-grubbing misfit. Since no one ought to be under the illusion that politics is a profession for gentlemen (or ladies), the messy, unsavory process by which egos will be deflated, illusions shattered and careers upended should not turn any stomachs or elicit any retching.

I am partial to political brawls, and the more brawlers, the better the brawl. Good government types, on the other hand, are offended by the notion that politics is a blood sport. They would prefer to select candidates by a display of up twinkles.

I don’t find the notion of a “serious” candidate for the presidency useful. I have no doubt, for example, that Sen. Lindsay Graham is credentialed, prepared to wage a credible campaign and convinced that he ought to be president. Notwithstanding his seriousness, it is difficult for me to conceive of the circumstances under which he could win the nomination. I have a similar view of the prospects of Huckabee, Perry, Pataki, Kasich and Santorum. Of course, I may be wrong-headed, and one or more of these fellows might make the cut.

The conventional wisdom is to dismiss out of hand the three candidates who have never held public office: Ben Carson, Donald Trump and Carly Fiorina. The last nominee of this class was Wendell Willkie, the CEO of a public utility company who was nominated at the 1940 Republican national convention. With the exception of military heroes — Taylor, Grant and Eisenhower — the only successful nominee without prior elected experience is Herbert Hoover, the Secretary of Commerce in the Harding and Coolidge cabinets.

In an age in which race, class and gender are defining characteristics for the chirping sect that drives public discussion, the notion that an African-American, female or billionaire could be a viable Republican candidate is not beyond the pale. I dismiss Donald Trump’s prospects out of hand, and I am dubious that Dr. Carson will make it to the Iowa caucus. Carly, however, I have pegged as a potential breakout candidate if she can make it into the nationally televised A Team debate.

In the 19th century, the party pros yearned for an “available” candidate, a fellow such as Warren Harding who looked like a president, had no enemies, never expressed an offensive view, adhered to the party orthodoxy and could be relied upon to take care of his friends. The Donor Class has replaced the party bosses in the Republican nominating process, but it is equally as interested in an available candidate as any of the fellows in the smoke-filled room at the Blackstone Hotel who plucked Senator Harding from obscurity.

This cycle, Governor Bush is Mr. Available. Senator Rubio’s brush with controversy in the Gang of Eight immigration fight taints his availability, but, in a crunch, that is unlikely to deter the Donor Class from rallying to his support if Jeb is derailed early. Governor Walker, while doubtless acceptable in a crunch, has stirred up too much controversy during his term as governor to fully qualify as available. He is a strong candidate nonetheless.

Senators Cruz and Paul are rock-the-boat candidates who have to be taken seriously but who are fighting the odds in a party that is little inclined post-Reagan to kick up much dust in a political struggle. Each is likely to hang on past the customary sell-by date, but at some point prior to the convention, Rand Paul is going to have to pull the plug on his presidential candidacy and devote himself to holding his Senate seat, which will be contested in 2016.

In the normal course, only two or three of these candidates will still be in the game by the time of the Ohio, Florida, Missouri and Illinois primaries on March 15. Which of the contenders those will be, I haven’t the slightest idea.

Although not normally inclined to fantasy, in my gut I have a sense that this race could be more protracted than we anticipate, that it could go all the way to the convention. I wouldn’t take that to the bank, but the pieces are in place for a protracted struggle.

Tom Charles Huston, A.B., J.D., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review who resides in Indianapolis, served as an officer in the United States Army assigned to the Defense Intelligence Agency and as associate counsel to the president of the United States.

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