The GOP presidential field is strong

Andrew Kilberg Contributor
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Pundits often separate presidential candidates into “tiers” based on their chances of winning. A recent fad has been to separate contenders into faction “primaries” such as the “Establishment Primary,” the “Tea Party Primary,” the “Social Conservative Primary,” or the “Mormon Primary.” I prefer to look at candidates in terms of “ranks.” “Tiers” may tell us about the state of the race and faction “primaries” may describe how activists sort through their preferences, but if we divide candidates into “ranks,” we can separate the potentially great and successful leaders from the mediocre or even harmful ones.

If we Republicans want a reasonable shot at defeating President Obama in November 2012, we must support the most thoughtful, most serious, and most electable candidates out there, not those who adhere to a strict laundry list of positions or promise to endlessly repeat the same pledges of fealty to Ronald Reagan. We need to get behind the serious 2012 candidates of the highest rank and caliber. As it so happens, careful study of potential Republican 2012 candidates reveals that Republican leaders fall easily into ranks.

Let’s start with the bottom rung: the Libertarian Rank. Comprising Rep. Ron Paul and former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, this rank has the least to offer. Paul supporters may be the loudest and most insistent — one of my former college roommates decided it was easier just to reply “Ron Paul” to nearly everything after a while, even when asked to pass the salt — but most Republicans think that the self-proclaimed “Ron Paul Revolution” borders on cult status, and not in the Blade Runner, comicon, costumes, and fan-fiction way.

Hovering above the Libertarian Rank, but only slightly, is the Fox News rank. Former Governors Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee and former Speaker Newt Gingrich all have the innate ability to get a rise out of the Republican base, aided by their contracts with Fox. No one in the Fox News Rank, however, can unify the GOP and it is highly questionable whether any of the three could secure a national plurality.

Former Senator Rick Santorum and current Senator John Thune make up the third rank — the aptly, if unimaginatively, named Senator Rank. Santorum’s campaign would be based almost entirely around social issues, and the former senator is almost certain to play no role beyond that of Pat Robertson in 1988 or Pat Buchanan in 1992. While Santorum isn’t named Pat, he is an impressive debater; during the Senate debate on a failed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage in 2004, Santorum stayed on the Senate floor and rebutted each Democrat in turn without prepared remarks. His campaign would keep some attention on social issues. I happen to think this is a bad idea, but Santorum is a credible and smart guy.

Thune recently announced that he’s not running for president, but he still makes this rank for the amount of attention he received as a prospective candidate. Thune’s name has been kicked around as a future presidential contender since 2008 for three reasons: his upset victory over then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle in 2004 made him a Republican hero; he looks “presidential”; and he adheres to standard, across-the-board conservatism. While Thune has not yet developed a strong national following, the press attention he has received has raised his national image, promoting him as a non-offensive VP choice in 2012 and a potential frontrunner in 2016 if President Obama wins reelection.

And that brings me to the top rank — the Governor Rank. Yes, Palin and Huckabee were governors, but the Governor Rank is so named not just because each member is or was a governor, but also because each can make a plausible and credible case that he can unite the Republican Party, win the general election, and actually govern the nation. The press has been full of stories about conservatives unimpressed with the current crop and looking around to draft some other messianic Fred Thompson into the race. Yet five very impressive candidates are staring us full in the face: Haley Barbour, Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, Mitch Daniels, and Jon Huntsman. Each has his flaws, which the media (both mainstream and conservative) have been quick to spell out, capitalize, and underline. Yet, the prospect of a debate between these guys gives me a tingle not experienced since Chris Matthews last listened to President Obama practice his impressive doublespeak skills.

They are all former executives, and each adds something notable to the conversation. Barbour’s leadership of the Republican Governors Association has earned him the title of King of the Fundraisers and his unencumbered, humorous style of truth-telling is a refreshing contrast to the stale political speech we’ve all become used to. Romney’s experience as a business leader and the head of a blue state speaks volumes about his competitiveness. Pawlenty can connect to blue-collar workers and has a strong intellectual grasp of conservative principles. Daniels is a wonk’s wonk, and his recent speech at CPAC revealed his skill at explaining the danger of the deficits President Obama has created and seems intent on continuing to impose on the country. Finally, Huntsman combines inherent likeability with foreign policy credentials and an environmental and social moderation that appeals to independents.

So, let’s do away with talk of tiers and faction primaries. We have a rank of top-flight candidates, generals and admirals in a sea of sergeants and petty officers. If we stick with them, the Republican Party and the country will be better off. If we give too much oxygen to the other three ranks, well, how does $9 trillion in debt over the next ten years sound?

Andrew Kilberg is a graduate of Princeton University, a current graduate student in History at the University of Cambridge, and, most importantly, a former Daily Caller intern.