If you arent bored with the long-running Republican presidential primary race by now, you must be a political junkie. The talking heads on TV report breathlessly that the next debate is only a few days away, or that Rick Santorum got a remarkable bump from his showing in Iowa.
After each debate, the political analysts take over to point out every little misstep and the weakness of the offending candidates. Between debates, pollsters conduct a new poll faster than the last one can be digested, all in the hope that the candidates can better tailor their messages. An economy has reached a high degree of sophistication when it can afford so many well-educated people to tell citizens what they think. And all of this is introduced as Breaking News.
Arent there an extraordinary number of candidates still in the hunt, and why is that so? There are at least two reasons that are visible, and there might be others.
The first is the crumbling of the Republican National Committee (RNC) filling its historic role of an honest broker among competing candidates, and asserting its clout by the distributionÑor withholdingÑof funds for selected candidates. If there was ever any doubts about the effectiveness of the RNC, the 2010 election swept them away. Because the RNC went to sleep and automatically endorsed all sitting senators and congressmen, the Tea Party was able to sweep in and defeat many of the Republicans in Name Only (Rino) by running strong fiscal conservatives in the primaries and then sending them on to win in the general election. This was a victory of transcendent importance to fiscal realists of any party, but it has had the unintended side effect of maintaining an undisciplined presidential primary. Additionally, the Tea Party and fiscal conservatives are having a hard time finding a candidate that would meet their criteria of (1) showing the capability of defeating President Obama and (2) comporting with their established views of fiscal conservatism if elected.
The second reason the contest for the nomination is so long running is the profusion of debates. The networks are sponsoring the debatesÑfree TV time for the candidates at the back of the pack even though their own fund-raising results may have been less than successful. Do you ever wonder what would occupy the news and the talk shows if the Republican nominee were established by concession now? These are hard-eyed businessmen managing the networks who have decided to spend their money on the debates. Of course, if questioned the network managers would say it is their patriotic duty.
And then there is the continual hand-wringing about the quality of the Republican contenders. Attractive possibilities who have disqualified themselvesÑlike Ind. Gov. Mitch Daniels, N.J. Gov. Chris Christie and Rep. Paul RyanÑhave weighed the impact of national scrutiny on themselves and their families in a run for the nomination. We are witness to the fallout from this scrutiny, and to the difficult fundraising efforts requiredÑnamely, Tim Pawlenty and Rep. Michele Bachmann. The surviving candidates are all scrambling to represent themselves as fiscal conservatives so as to look more appealing to this segment, including evangelical voters.
There is something almost ludicrous about Santorum and Newt Gingrich debating this issue, as their own public records establish beyond a shadow of doubt that neither has actually behaved as a true believer. Gingrich was attractedÑor succumbedÑto every big government initiative when he was Speaker of the House; Santorum was a classic Rino as a sitting senator, endorsing big spending and leading the league in earmarks. Gingrichs defense is I was younger then; Santorum attempts to divert by talking family values and proposing a zero-percent income tax on manufacturing. Clearly, Santorum was the beneficiary of the evangelical vote in IowaÑwhich will not translate nationally. Santorum illustrates the distinction between social conservative (anti-abortion, gay marriage, etc.) and a fiscal conservative (cut spending, cut the deficit, stop the flood of federal regulations, etc.).
The voting public will have to decide the credibility of these and other candidates. We wont get much help from traditional economists who are so wedded to Keynesian solutions that they cannot changeÑthey cling to their security blanket that only more government investment can lift us out of the morass we are in. The fiscal crises in Greece and Italy represent the culmination of this dont cut government spending nowÑdo it later.
Thomas C. Graham is a founding member of T.C. Graham Associates. He is a former chairman and chief executive officer of AK Steel Corp., president and chief executive officer of Armco Steel Co. LP, chairman and chief executive officer of Washington Steel Co., president of the U.S. Steel Group of USX Corp. and president and chief executive officer of Jones & Laughlin Steel Co. His column appears monthly. He invites readers comments and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.