Right now there’s an intense debate among Republicans and conservatives when it comes to who would be the better nominee, Newt Gingrich or Mitt Romney. Advocates for both men are putting forward lawyer’s briefs for and against each candidate. There’s something to be said for this approach. But as an alternative, let me suggest four categories that people of any political party might apply when choosing a nominee.
First, is the nominee electable? A person may have achieved a perfect record when it comes to purity tests. He may thrill the base. But if that individual cannot be elected, it won’t much matter. Barry Goldwater ran a principled, and in many respects an admirable, campaign in 1964 — and he was wiped out by Lyndon Johnson. As a result, we’re struggling mightily with the effects of the Great Society (and not only the Great Society). An honorable defeat is better than a dishonorable defeat. But a loss is worse, and has much further-reaching consequences than a victory.
Second, what are the nominee’s core principles — and will he/she fight for them? Will a nominee, if elected, champion necessary reforms even if they might be momentarily unpopular? Does the person possess a “fighting faith” or do they bend and break in the face of strong winds? Will they create a legacy — or will their achievements amount to little more than footprints in the sand? To take a specific issue in our time: who in the GOP field would put their shoulder to the wheel when it comes to structurally reforming Medicare, which is urgent, necessary, and politically difficult? It’s one thing to give a speech and check the box during primary season; it’s quite another to dedicate oneself to a cause.
Third, basic competence. Will the nominee run a campaign, and later the White House, with efficiency, crispness, and professionalism? Good ideas are a necessary but not a sufficient condition; the acid test for those in government is whether their good ideas get translated into reality. The presidency is far more than a university seminar; it is about the nuts and bolts of governing. It involves the ability to prioritize an agenda, rally public opinion, negotiate with legislative allies and opponents, and turn policy proposals into concrete legislation. In addition, the success of a president also depends in large measure on the quality of the people with whom a president surrounds himself. Lincoln with McClellan was considered a failure; Lincoln with Grant was greatness.
Fourth, governing temperament and character. Which of the candidates are steady, well-grounded, discerning, self-disciplined, and wise? Are they people of integrity? Are they consumed by their resentments or are they free of bitterness? Are they disposed to view opponents as enemies? Do they learn from their mistakes and are they open to new evidence? In a crisis, do they demonstrate equanimity or erratic behavior? Are they tempted to cut ethical corners in the quest for power and success?
It’s unlikely any single person will excel in all these categories. We all possess certain strengths and weaknesses; the questions voters need to ask are what the mixture is, the degree to which virtues and vices off-set one another, and which qualities a candidate possesses best fit the moment in which we live. I’ll grant that it’s impossible for us to answer all of the questions posed above with certainty. We often don’t know how we would respond in a crisis, let alone a person we don’t know well at all.
My point is really rather basic: Greatness and excellence in human beings are the products of many different tributaries, including character and judgment. Those things are often intangible and therefore not always easy to discern. But neither are they hidden from our view, clouded in mist and shadows. Voters have to do the best they can to judge candidates in the totality of their acts. And then they have to hope they got it right.