Four years ago, the press was full of complaints that the presidential campaign had started way too early. It was preposterous, we were told, to have candidates trudging through the snow in Iowa and New Hampshire asking for voters' support in primary contests more than a year away. This, though, was supposed to be the new reality. With an increasing amount of money spent on the campaign, a more complex media environment, and sophisticated new tools to target and persuade voters, we were just going to have to suffer through presidential campaigns that lasted a full two years.
Yet here we are at the end of January, with the 2012 election a mere 93 weeks away, and not a single major political figure has declared his or her candidacy for the presidency. The only one who has even formed an exploratory committee is talk-radio host Herman Cain, who is not exactly what you'd call "major." It's enough to make a political junkie cry out: Let's get this show on the road!
I realize I may be somewhat unusual in my thirst for the campaign to begin. But where else can you find a contest that contains both world-historical import and levels of shamelessness and inanity to rival any basic-cable reality show?
Relief, however, is in sight. Just over the weekend, we saw a report that Newt Gingrich had been speaking to Georgia politicos about establishing a campaign based in his home state, and heard Rudy Giuliani drop hints about a potential run. When New Hampshire Republicans elected Jack Kimball as their new party chair on Saturday, he got a congratulatory phone call from former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty within minutes (nevertheless, Mitt Romney easily won the presidential straw poll at the convention that elected Kimball). At last, the campaign is beginning.
The long campaign isn't just good for those of us weird enough to enjoy flipping on C-SPAN to watch a second-tier candidate make his pitch to a living-room full of Iowa retirees. It's also a test of the candidates, in which we can, if we pay the right kind of attention, learn a lot about the men and women who would be president. Can they assemble an organization that operates effectively over such a long haul? Can they talk in an informed and intelligent way about policy issues -- not just now and again, but over and over? Can they articulate something that resembles a vision for the country? Do they have the stamina to endure hundreds of fundraisers, interviews, meet and greets, and county fairs without going insane? The earlier the campaign starts, the greater the test of their mettle.
Depending on how you count, there are as many as two dozen potential GOP candidates (though the final number will almost certainly be less than 10). You've got your former candidates making another run (Romney, Mike Huckabee), your widely unpopular media stars (Gingrich, Sarah Palin), your earnest long shots (Pawlenty, John Thune), your extreme right-wingers looking mostly for attention (Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann), and your governors who will probably decline to run, deciding instead to wait for 2016 (Mitch Daniels, Haley Barbour, Bobby Jindal, John Huntsman).
But what will they actually be telling the voters? Anyone expecting discussion of policies that goes beyond the usual sloganeering (Small government! Low taxes! Ronald Reagan!) had better prepare for disappointment. Those in the current crop with governing experience and knowledge of issues (Romney is the best example) are the ones who will be working the hardest to channel the Republican zeitgeist and convince primary voters that they're mad as hell, too. The key Republican voting constituencies -- the Tea Party and the Christian right -- are not interested in nuance. No one is going to get the GOP nomination because of thoughtful policy ideas.
In fact, it will probably be impossible to distinguish the candidates on issues, and the policies they do offer won't actually tell us much about what their presidencies would look like. They'll all say that they want to undo the awfulness of the Obama years, but, aside from health-care reform, most of the big Obama initiatives were either temporary or widely popular, and thus impossible to undo. Republicans didn't like the auto bailouts, but the car companies are now back on their feet. They also didn't like the 2009 stimulus package, but all of that money will soon be spent. "We shouldn't do that again" isn't much of a plan for governing. And though Pawlenty recently said he'd like to reinstate "don't ask, don't tell" after getting to the Oval Office, that's no more likely to happen than a repeal of the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act or a reopening of the Medicare prescription-drug doughnut hole.
As representatives of the party that allegedly favors smaller government, Republicans don't want to put out a list of new programs they're planning to institute. You can talk about cutting taxes or rolling back regulations, but that won't make you sound any different than the other eight guys on the stage saying the same thing. There will no doubt be some disagreement about who hates Barack Obama the most, but that's a game none of them is really going to win -- unless Palin runs, in which case the other candidates may cede that crown to her.
So in the end, it will come down -- as it almost always does -- to things like personality and electability. The latter is something that becomes highly relevant when the other party holds the White House, and you can see the consequences of being out of power every day. That's why Democrats were consumed with electability in 2004 and 2008, and why Republicans will be talking about it a lot over the next year and a half. That doesn't mean they'll choose the most electable candidate; recall that eight years ago, John Kerry was the guy everyone thought was electable.
Politicians are a breed apart from the rest of us, and deciding to run for president is fairly good evidence that you're kind of nuts. To not only think you ought to be the most powerful person on planet Earth but also to be willing to undergo such an inhuman process -- a two-year marathon of begging people for money, sleeping in hotels and eating deep-fried Twinkies, dealing with one pseudo-issue after another, pretending to be overjoyed to meet every one of thousands of people you encounter and to be deeply concerned about whatever crackpot thing they complain to you about -- no normal person would put themselves through it. It's particularly odd given all the time candidates spend trying to convince us they're "one of us," just regular guys and gals.
Is this quadrennial ritual of pandering and humiliation worthy of the world's oldest democracy? Of course not. But it is a good show. Also, the fate of the world hinges on the outcome.