Analysis & Opinions - The Washington Post

The Serious GOP Candidates Are In. Will Voters Get Bored?

| May 27, 2011

Former Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis was very much a grown-up, but he ran a soulless campaign in 1988 and could manage passion only when speaking Spanish — a strange facet of a serious personality that he shared with my candidate, former Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt. And later, in 2004, came John Kerry, the second grown-up Democrat to lose to the man who couldn't talk straight.

Of course, the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, transformed the frat boy who beat Gore into a tried and tested president, eight short months into his first term. Presidents have no choice but to be grown-ups, which is one explanation for why they are so hard to beat — and why the Republican Party has been bemoaning the quality of its field. In 2008, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, the youngest person in the race, managed to be both the grown-up and the candidate you’d most want to play a game of pick-up basketball with, although he delegated the beer-drinking-with-blue-collars to Joe Biden.

Isn't that combination what we're always looking for in a president? Someone who seems knowledgable enough about the job that you can trust him to take care of all the stuff you don't want to know about — but at the same time, someone who doesn’t constantly remind you that you weren't all that good in school. Bill Clinton was the ultimate policy wonk who also once drove a pickup truck with AstroTurf in the back. A grown-up with the heart of a teenage redneck. It doesn't get much better than that, especially if you need to win reelection in spite of a sex scandal.

It turns out that being seen as a grown-up is the first step in a pretty complex process. This explains why, when the silly season ends, those labeled "not a serious candidate" either drop out or drop off. Goodbye, Warren Beatty, Carol Moseley Braun, Pat Buchanan, the Donald.

In 2012, Republicans will be running against an incumbent who vanquished the nation's No. 1 terrorist, yes. But deficits are huge, unemployment is at 9 percent, and U.S. soldiers are still in harm's way after a decade of war. The seesaw of American politics has tipped in favor of maturity and responsibility. That might favor former House speaker Newt Gingrich, except that he is a grown-up with the blurting tendencies of an adolescent. Take his comment about how Rep. Paul Ryan's "right-wing social engineering" of Medicare is a mistake. Newt is right, and smart — no politician who tries to radically alter a plan at the financial core of so many American families is likely to survive.

But his comment was not part of a political strategy. Gingrich was just mouthing off. And that caused his former aide Rich Galen to call for "adult supervision" or Gingrich's campaign would be over.

So that leaves most Republicans still yearning for the grown-up with whom they would like to have a beer. Pawlenty is giving it a go. Time magazine came up with a new label for "boring grown-up," calling him the "process-of-elimination candidate." But as soon as T-Paw entered the race this past week, the official candidate's official tweets started trying for "Daily Show" sarcasm: "@Barack-Obama sorry to interrupt the European pub crawl, but what was your Medicare plan?"

One of these guys will manage to put it together. Manage to make us feel that he is competent enough for the job while making us feel that he is also one of us.

And then we will have a race for the presidency.

Elaine Kamarck, who served in the Clinton administration, is on the faculty at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. She is the author of Primary Politics: How Presidential Candidates Have Shaped the Modern Nominating System.

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For Academic Citation: Kamarck, Elaine.“The Serious GOP Candidates Are In. Will Voters Get Bored?.” The Washington Post, May 27, 2011.