I've been wrestling all day with what wisdom to draw from last night's Republican debate, other than the dazzlingly brilliant insight, shared by a few other outlets, that the debate was not good for Rick Perry. I've finally given up, and am instead going to ask a question: why, exactly, are there are going to be Republican primaries?
Seriously, folks. Normally at this time in the cycle we have some sort of a competition underway. Candidates are building a campaign infrastructure in the early states, wooing local officials, holding town hall meetings in Derry and Dubuque. Reporters assess the candidates' message on the stump, their fundraising operations, the strength of their local support network. Most important, there are at least a few candidates who are...plausible.
What do we have now? We have Mitt Romney, who has prepared for this for years. We thought we had Rick Perry (The governor of the second biggest state in the country! The client of Dave Carney! A prodigious fundraiser!), but apparently we don't anymore, because the punditocracy has decreed, in a judgment as harsh as that of any middle school clique, that a single brain freeze is now fatal (boy, is Dubya glad he ran when he did.) We have Herman Cain, but he now has as many women making sexual harassment allegations against him as he has paid staff in Iowa, and he might have even more if they refuse to be cowed by Cain's lawyer's threat that other potential accusers better "think twice" before coming forward. We now apparently also have Newt Gingrich, whom I would gladly take seriously (a former Speaker of the House!), as it would give readers reason to reacquiant themselves with this sorry episode. Except it's hard to take Gingrich seriously given that when I asked a leading conservative activist in New Hampshire two weeks ago for the names of some Gingrich supporters in the state, she told me that she could not think of a single one. (My colleague Esther Breger, to her credit, managed to dig up a couple Newtites -- Newtonians? -- in South Carolina.)
So why are we going to go through this whole business? The pre-caucus crush in Iowa over Christmas. The lethally icy roads of New Hampshire in early January. The forced attempt to conjure up the usual narrative and suspense: will there be an Iowa bump? Who will make it to Super Tuesday? Will the new GOP system of splitting delegates proportionally, rather than winner-take-all, mean an elongated fight, or even a brokered convention? Non, je refuse. Or as Cain would say: nein, nein, nein. Until someone can make a convincing argument for any candidate other Willard Mitt Romney having a prayer of becoming the nominee, or unless there is any sign that someone else is in fact going to enter the race to challenge a man who still cannot get over 25 percent of his party's support but is nonetheless poised to sweep the primaries in a march to victory so dispiriting and predictable that it will make Kerry '04 and Dole '96 look scintillating by comparison, I say we put this baby on hold and reconvene in June, with Romney, Obama and whoever these guys manage to nominate. Granted, this is not in the self-interest of a political reporter to suggest, but goodness knows there's plenty else in the world for us to think and write about these days. So: Congrats, Mitt. We know you didn't even really want to run for president, so all the better for you not to have to go through the motions for the next six months.