As the Republicans prepare for their contest Tuesday in New Hampshire, we all ought to be a little bit sad.
Republicans should be sad because this field could blow a precious chance of beating President Barack Obama. Democrats ought to be sad because we have an interest in the caliber of the candidate on the other side — because he may be our next president.
Mitt Romney, the favorite, took thinly veiled jabs in Iowa at Newt Gingrich for divorcing his wives — as if disavowal were not a strategic centerpiece of the Romney campaign.
Rick Santorum, who finished a close second to Romney in Iowa, lost his last Senate race in a historic trouncing by the home state voters who know him best.
Ron Paul, who ran a close third in Iowa, has spent the past few weeks feigning ignorance of the morally nauseating statements made in his magazine under his name.
Newt Gingrich, who ran fourth, pursued impeachment against Bill Clinton over an extramarital affair with a staffer as Gingrich himself was having an extramarital affair with a staffer (revealing Newt's catechism: "Love the sin; hate the sinner").
Why isn't there a stronger Republican field?
Hyper-passionate primary voters tend to have an inflated sense of their own virtue and an exaggerated sense of the sins of the other side. That conceit sets the boundaries of permissible public debate. If you venture toward what's honest, reasonable and bipartisan, you get outflanked by those who will go further than you will to flatter the voter. This is a huge disincentive for serious candidates. The candidate least inclined by temperament to flatter voters — Jon Huntsman — didn't campaign in Iowa, because he thought his opposition to ethanol subsidies would be too great a barrier to overcome.
Two Republican governors turned down high-profile recruitment efforts, perhaps because they figured — as did Huntsman in Iowa — that they couldn't bring themselves to say what the voters wanted to hear.
This past summer, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's nominee for a state judgeship was assailed by critics who argued that because he was a Muslim, he would work to impose Shariah. That charge would have to be treated with respect in a Republican primary. But Christie said: "This Shariah law business is crap. It's just crazy. And I'm tired of dealing with the crazies."
Too bad Christie didn't run. He would have made the campaign more colorful, serious and honest.
But the biggest loss to the Republicans was Mitch Daniels' decision not to run.
His knowledge of the budget, his experience in Washington and his record as governor of Indiana give him a résumé made for this race. But the skill, experience and temperament that could make him a capable president would make him a bad candidate in a Republican primary.
In his speech last summer at the Conservative Political Action Conference, here's what Daniels had to say:
On fiscal policy: "We are currently borrowing the entire defense budget from foreign investors. ... Talking much more about ... 'waste, fraud and abuse' trivializes what needs to be done and misleads our fellow citizens to believe that easy answers are available to us."
On bipartisanship: "We have learned in Indiana (that) big change requires big majorities. We will need people who never tune in to Rush (Limbaugh) or Glenn (Beck) or Laura (Ingraham) or Sean (Hannity)."
On government: "We should distinguish carefully skepticism about big government from contempt for all government."
On compromise: "It is up to us to show, specifically, the best way back to greatness. ... But should the best way be blocked ... then someone will need to find the second-best way. ... Purity in martyrdom is for suicide bombers."
People say that Daniels is not an exciting speaker. Actually, if he were in New Hampshire this week making those points, the excitement in the primary would go up, not down. If he's not running because honest talk and pragmatic problem-solving are not a winning message in a Republican primary, then we've discovered the reason for the weak Republican field.
To find out more about Tom Rosshirt and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.