03.29.11

All the Also-Rans for President

Why do pols like Rick Santorum with no real shot at the White House keep running? The lure of TV celebrity makes even the most unlikely prospect press ahead for a while, writes Jack W. Germond.

You may or may not have noticed that Rick Santorum is running for president. He has been to New Hampshire 12 times in the last few months and has been similarly attentive to Iowa and South Carolina. He is telling his fellow Republicans he is the real goods if they want a true believer on issues like abortion and gay marriage.

So far, however, the most you can say about Santorum is that he is a contributor to the candidate clutter that now seems to plague presidential campaigns every four years—an abundance of self-motivated candidates with no visible rationale for their ambitions or constituency for their campaign. In many cases, all they have is money.

There is ample precedent for Santorum, even a case from his home state of Pennsylvania, which Santorum represented briefly in the Senate without leaving any lasting mark. In the1970s, a Democratic governor, Milton Shapp, tried to run for president. Although he kept telling reporters he was running, he was widely ignored by the mainstream press when there was no evidence of any support in the party—ignored to the point that reporters who covered Harrisburg were pleading with their colleagues in Washington to, as one put it, "write the damned presidential story so we can forget about it." When Shapp finished fourth of five candidates in the Pennsylvania primary, his 89-day campaign folded.

What is different today, of course, is the media—and particularly the cable television networks that have such huge news holes to fill. Even a Rick Santorum or Herman Cain or Buddy Roemer or John Bolton can get some TV coverage from appearing at candidate forums or debates. And a candidate with some verve— Michele Bachmann comes to mind—is catnip for the cameras. Donald Trump already has the celebrity but what else he's got is a mystery.

For the Santorums of the field, the lure of TV celebrity, no matter how brief, inevitably will persuade even the most unlikely prospect to press ahead for a while. It's nice having people tell you how wonderful you are. It's nice to have a few points in an opinion poll. And candidates with money as well as dreams will find themselves being importuned by hired guns who will promise to make them famous and successful for, let's say, $50,000 a month to start.

These long-shot (or no-shot) pretenders all know that the first rule of politics is never say never.

These long-shot (or no-shot) pretenders all know that the first rule of politics is never say never. And they are all aware that Jimmy Carter captured the White House after a single term as governor of Georgia. So they can nourish dreams, while showering, of political lightning like whatever it was that moved John McCain to put Sarah Palin on his ticket last time out. Vice President doesn't sound bad if you're nobody.

Meanwhile, the clutter is growing each four years in the party out of power. And the picture of so many candidates contributes to a perception of a party without strong leadership or a coherent message.

In 1988 the Democrats were "the seven dwarfs;" today the Republicans are the 15—or more—political pygmies. That's not fair to the candidates with valid credentials. No one who knew him thought Michael Dukakis was a dwarf in 1988. Nor are all this cycle's Republicans pygmies. But politics is not always fair.

The problem with thinning out this clutter lies in the fact that any American citizen 35 or older can be president. Too many leaders of both parties and too many sponsors of political debates seem to think this means anyone who qualifies is constitutionally entitled to the opportunities of all the big guys.

As far back as 1972, sponsors of a televised debate in New Hampshire allowed one Ned Coll, a self-described activist from Hartford, to join other Democratic candidates on a panel. He proved his seriousness of purpose by pulling out a large rubber rat and waving it at the cameras to emphasize his commitment to slum clearance. In 1992 Ron Brown, a Democratic national chairman with a well-earned reputation for political smarts, allowed Larry Agran, a one-term mayor of Irvine, to be treated on terms equal to the contenders in a California debate.

Some of these candidates-without-portfolio make a career out of running. Alan Keyes, an African American from Maryland, is unchallenged in his talent for finding an opening. He also-ran for president twice and for the Senate three times, capturing Republican nominations in hopeless cases in Maryland in 1988 and 1992 and in Illinois in 2004. He gave spellbinding speeches that party audiences often greeted with wild shows of enthusiasm. But his share of the Senate vote declined from 38 to 29 to 27 percent. He would be a natural for the Republicans today.

Jack Germond has been covering national politics and Washington since 1960. He spent 20 years with the Gannett papers, then eight with the still-lamented Washington Star and more than 20 with the Baltimore Sun. He and his partner Jules Witcover wrote a syndicated column five days a week from 1977 through 2000, and four books about the 1980, 1984, 1988 and 1992 presidential campaigns. Germond's memoir is called Fat Man in a Middle Seat—Forty Years of Covering Politics; he has just completed his first novel. He and his wife Alice live on the Shenandoah River in West Virginia where he enjoys watching the birds and playing the horses.