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Presidential Campaign Prizes Electability Over Competence

By David Shribman

Bill Clinton made a provocative aside while campaigning for his wife last week, and it bears some examination. "This electability thing is a canard; it doesn't amount to a hill of beans," the former president said in Portsmouth, N.H. "What you need to figure out is, who would be the best president."

On the surface, Mr. Clinton's remark is, well, unremarkable, except for the unconventional but maybe tasty rhetorical mixing of duck (which is the English translation of the French word "canard") and beans. A campaign for president should be a contest in which the voters decide who would be the best president. How could we think otherwise?

But probe your everyday political conversation, and sooner or later you will get around to wondering whether one candidate or another can actually be elected. More often than not, that one candidate or another is Mr. Clinton's wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and the comment that often will emerge is that the New York senator can probably get the Democratic nomination but probably cannot win the White House.

We're not going to examine Sen. Clinton's electoral prospects; there's plenty of time for that, although if the fandango of state primaries and caucuses (hold the castanets) continues much longer, the Iowa caucuses could be taking place on Columbus Day. This morning's exercise is to weigh electability against capability in American presidential politics.

The theory of the presidential campaign system is mostly unwritten but much understood: We conduct a presidential campaign as a test of the kind of character, intelligence, temperament, perspective and stamina that is needed in the presidency itself. The theory is that the campaign trail is a trial run for the White House: Succeed in the one and you will be a success in the other.

The problem with this theory is that the people who establish the campaign calendar and who sustain the campaign infrastructure are far more interested in one thing (winning) than in the other thing (governing). They would prefer not to be embarrassed by the candidate who wins, but most of all they want to win. The way politicos see politics is a lot like college presidents see NCAA football: There's a lot of high-minded talk but the eye is on the scoreboard.

The truth is that there have been a number of presidential aspirants who were lousy candidates but might have been terrific chief executives. Former Gov. Bruce Babbitt ran gamely for president in 1988, but everyone around him knew he didn't have a chance. Everyone around him, and that included the press and his competitors, also thought he had the makings of a superb president. So, too, with former Gov. Pete Wilson of California. Lousy campaigner (in part because of terrible timing: throat surgery at the beginning of the political season), but perhaps the best resume in American politics since Richard Nixon (state legislator, big-city mayor, senator, governor).

So there is often a disconnect between the qualifications for the presidency and success in gaining the presidency. But some terrible candidates sometimes become good presidents. George H.W. Bush may have been the worst presidential candidate of the 20th century. He mangled syntax, was on the wrong side of the emerging country club/country road divide in the Republican Party, seemed insensitive to the economic problems gripping the nation and never felt comfortable on the stump. Increasingly he is being viewed as one of the best presidents of the last half of the 20th century. (I'm ready for the e-mails attacking my judgment -- or sanity.)

Then there are the few cases where a presidential candidacy does show presidential potential. Controversial as he was in 1992, Mr. Clinton qualifies. His campaign was riddled with dissension (like his presidency), hampered by distractions (like his presidency), but full of hope (like his presidency). Through crises about his involvement with other women; difficulties posed by H. Ross Perot's candidacy, which created a three-dimensional race; and the burden of defeating an incumbent president who had prosecuted a popular war, Mr. Clinton showed the agility, toughness and intelligence he would need -- and would apply -- in the presidency. This was a textbook example of the system at work, and of the system working.

Right now we have a campaign system more warped by money than ever, more distorted by calendar disputes than ever. States are leapfrogging other states in an effort to be in on the early voting. Only Iowa, New Hampshire and maybe South Carolina have any track record with success in early contests, but that isn't stopping the new interlopers, Florida and Michigan, from asserting their already outsized roles in presidential politics. Whole doctoral theses are going to be written on the calendar competition for the 2008 campaign, which only underlines how broken the campaign system has become.

Mr. Clinton is right on point, though. We're focusing on the wrong things: the political calendar rather than the candidates' characters, their electability rather than their capability. Much of this can be traced to the introduction of that vile word "viable" from the medical world (capable of living or surviving) into the political world (capable of winning). As in: Do you think Mayor Lindsay will be a viable candidate?

Now, back to Mr. Clinton's contention that the "electability thing" is a "canard." He may have hit on something else worth examining. The word "canard" is a versatile term; it also can mean a two-surfaced aircraft that possesses some distinct aeronautical advantages in a stall. Every presidential candidate can see the virtue in that.

True, candidates have to get airborne. But they also have to be able to fly in stormy weather, navigate difficult airspace and reach their destinations. We're not looking merely for a candidate who is a pilot. We're looking for one who can really fly.

Copyright 2007 The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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