I guess Rick Perry’s brain freeze during last night's Republican presidential debate makes it official. The Iowa Caucuses are less than two months away and the Republican Party has only come up with one plausible presidential candidate. I submit that “plausibility” in this context is a function of a candidate’s looking at the time that s/he declares a candidacy like: (a) s/he has a decent chance of winning the Republican nomination; (b) s/he’ll stand a decent chance of prevailing in the general election; and (c) s/he’s up to running the country competently if s/he does prevail. Nobody besides Mitt Romney in the Republican field comes close to meeting those criteria.
On the basis of past experience, you’d expect a major party presidential primary campaign to be a contest among plausible candidates when the first caucus and primary votes are counted. By my count, in 2008 the Democrats had at least three such candidates (Obama, Clinton and Edwards) and the Republicans had four (McCain, Romney, Giuliani and Thompson.) Granted, the plausibility of the Edwards, Giuliani and Thompson candidacies evaporated very quickly after the voting commenced, but their implausibility was readily apparent only in hindsight.
You don’t need any hindsight to winnow the Republican field down to Romney. I doubt that Cain, et al. were ever deluded enough to think that they really were presidential material at least in this election cycle. And Pawlenty and Huntsman were disabused of the illusion that they were soon after they announced. That meant that, before last night, the application of criterion (a) alone had long since narrowed down the Republican field to Romney and Perry. Given Perry’s record of success in Texas politics, you could still be excused for thinking that the jury was out with respect to his capacity to satisfy criteria (b) and (c). But the final verdict came in last night when he looked to all the world like an unelectable doofus. That leaves Romney both the first and the last man standing before a single vote has been cast.
Off the top of my head, I can’t think of another instance of that happening in a major party without an incumbent president. Even quasi-incumbent sitting vice-presidents trying to succeed two-term presidents have had to contend with plausible competition. Al Gore had to meet Bill Bradley’s challenge in 2000 and H.W. Bush had to meet Bob Dole’s in 1988. So how do you explain Romney’s being in a position to win the Republican nomination by default?
Some will say it’s a symptom of the ideological degeneracy of the conservative wing of the Republican Party that it can’t field a plausible candidate to Romney’s right. But that’s pretty far-fetched when you think about it. It’s easy to think of intellectually formidable candidates to Romney’s right who could have mounted plausible candidacies against him had they chosen to run (like Paul Ryan, John Thune, Chris Christie or Mitch Daniels). Try naming an intellectually formidable Democrat besides Hillary Clinton who could go toe-to-toe with Obama even if he weren’t a sitting president. If anything, there seems to be more talent sitting idly on the Republican than the Democratic presidential bench.
I can only conclude that Romney's a very lucky man.