I was around the Prospect offices when word first started circulating that Tommy Thompson was going to run for president. The idea is, of course, absurd. Nevertheless, as Reihan says if you sit back and think about it, Thompson really should have been the GOP nominee in 2000: “Imagine if Republicans, in 2000, had run a reformist Midwestern governor with a long record of accomplishment and a reputation for pragmatism instead of political scion and modest political success George W. Bush.” Well, the GOP would be in better shape and the country would be a better place.
Not that this changes anything or Thompson’s prospects, but it is worth pointing out that the primary system very much fails to bring the best candidates forward. Thanks to their big 1994 sweep, Republicans had, during the 2000 cycle, any number of governors in their second-term who’d won and been elected in purple or blue states thanks to a combination of political talents, pragmatic conservatism and, simply put, an ability to not fuck things up during the good economic times of the 1990s. Instead, though, we got George W. Bush whose political achievements were very modest (a conservative elected in Texas amidst a national GOP tide — say it ain’t so!) and who held an office with shockingly little in the way of actual power and responsibility.
What it comes down to is that, somewhat perversely, the “more open” primary system — as opposed to old-school smoke filled rooms — has in many ways made webs of connections more rather than less important. Power has been taken out of the hands of a small group of geographically dispersed elites who, acting out of self-interest, might choose to elevate a relatively obscure figure in the interests of securing victory and placed less in the hands of a broad mass of people than in the hands of a small geographically concentrated elite that controls the channels of mass communications — i.e., the Washington political press. This elite, lacking an actual stake in the outcome, can afford to let self-interest essentially dictate a policy of laziness. Hence, we may be doomed to an endless cycle of Senators (who DC political reporters already cover), governors from Virginia and Maryland (whose exploits are detailed in the Metro section of The Washington Post), and scions of famous families.
The counterpoint to this, needless to say, would be the improbable rise to national prominence of Howard Dean, obscure governor former governor of Vermont. The question arises as to how much this highlights the possibility of a “people-powered” “netroots” strategy in elevating someone from obscurity versus how much it simply highlights the political possibilities opened up by the Democratic Party leadership’s support of the Iraq War. One hopes for the former, but fears the latter. So far, discussion — both in the press and on the blogs — of ’08 contenders seems focused almost entirely on current or former Senators and Al Gore. The wide range of second-term governors — Sebelius, Blagojevic, Granholm, Richardson, Napolitano, Rendell, Henry, Doyle, etc. — falls almost entirely by the wayside.