Commentary Magazine


GOP Final Four Had Guts to Stick With It

It’s easy for politicians and political commentators, myself included, to focus on the foibles, mistakes and awkward language that sometimes characterizes the current crop of GOP candidates. That’s why Bill McGurn’s words are worth reflecting upon:

As Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum force Republican voters to make their choice in a hotly contested Michigan primary, once again we hear the great lament that we have looked at the candidates and found them all unworthy. Not everyone puts it as harshly as the headline over Conrad Black’s piece in the National Post: “The Republicans Send in the Clowns.” But it’s a popular meme in the campaign coverage.

Like so many others who find the field wanting, Mr. Black laments that “the best Republican candidates—Jeb Bush, Mitch Daniels, Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan and Haley Barbour—have sat it out.” We’ll never know, will we? Because the “best” Republicans opted not to put their records and statements up for national scrutiny, commit themselves to a grueling campaign trail, and subject themselves to TV debates moderated by media hosts who often seem to be playing for the other team.

So say this for the final four: They had the guts to put themselves out there—and stick with it. That’s something a winner needs.

Bill is quite right. For one thing, the non-presidential politicians look good in large part because they’re not in the presidential arena. If they were, they would be reduced in stature, mocked, and ridiculed just like Romney, Santorum, Gingrich and Paul. Their past words and votes and life stories come back to haunt them. Any Republican who becomes a serious contender for the presidency is going to face withering scrutiny not simply from opponents but from the press. And there’s no guarantee any of the names on Black’s list – several of whom I wanted to enter the race – would be doing well at all. They might have met the same fate as Governor Tim Pawlenty, who looked quite good on paper but failed as a presidential candidate.

McGurn is also right to point out that at least Romney, Santorum, Gingrich and Paul – for whatever complicated mix of motives – were willing to put themselves through an exhausting, grinding campaign. It’s all fine and good for commentators and politicians past and present to critique the current combatants, to say how negative, foolish, unprincipled and tone deaf they are. But the truth is that all of us, including politicians of considerable accomplishment and skills — faced with the daily scrutiny and relentless pressure presidential candidates endure on a daily basis — would come off pretty poorly at times. It’s a lot easier to analyze candidates from behind a keyboard, microphone, television studio, and at a resort conference or cruise than it is to actually run day after day, speaking at event after event, taking question after question.

None of this is an argument for withholding honest critiques and opinions. It’s only an argument for a bit of modesty, a smidge of understanding, and the realization that there but for the grace of God go I.