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2012: ‘An Open Field and a Fair Chance’

Jan 31, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 19 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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"We need a candidate!” You can’t have a conversation with a Republican here in Washington without hearing that plaintive wail. Indeed, as President Obama stages a bit of a comeback, and it seems that 2012 won’t be a cakewalk, the plaintive wail has become an imploring request—even a pathetic and desperate cry: “WE NEED A CANDIDATE! NOW!”

2012: ‘An Open Field and a Fair Chance’

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No we don’t.

Or rather: Of course we do—by the summer of 2012. But not now. In fact, to get a strong candidate next year, what we need this year is lots of candidates competing. What we need in 2011 is what Lincoln called, in a different context, “an open field and a fair chance” for all plausible contestants to demonstrate their “industry, enterprise, and intelligence.” We need many candidates—experienced and not so experienced, old and young, congressmen and governors, formers and futures—all making their case, in debates and on the stump, in forums big and small, addressing issues of all sorts and reacting in real time to developments of all kinds. 

This vision should be easy for conservatives to embrace. Believers in the free market understand the virtues of competition, of low barriers to entry, and of lots of opportunities for (so to speak) price discovery. We know the superiority of spontaneous order to central planning. But too many GOP bigwigs in Washington who claim to have read Hayek have succumbed to the fatal conceit. They’re meeting nonstop trying to determine for us all now, a year before the first primary—with limited information as to relevant candidate skills and almost no knowledge of next year’s political environment—who the best presidential candidate would be. 

Democratic capitalists admire Schumpeter for explaining the virtues of creative destruction. But too many donors to the party of democratic capitalism are huddling in New York this winter figuring out if there isn’t some way to short-circuit this kind of healthy—if messy, to be sure—competition among entrepreneurial candidates testing their skills and their messages. Wealthy individuals who made their fortunes by defying the odds are trying to figure out who’s the odds-on favorite to win the GOP nomination so they can cluster behind him. Businessmen who swear by the virtues of competition decry the fact that there will be lots of competition for the GOP nomination. Shouldn’t they instead welcome the competition, even encourage it by putting a little venture capital behind several nominees to see how they do? Markets work, and political markets work too. At least, they’re better than the alternative.

Republicans and conservatives, admirers of the Founding Fathers, claim to grasp the merits of a system in which ambition counteracts ambition. Yet they shy away from the spectacle of ambition competing with ambition on the presidential campaign trail. Why not let our prospective leaders indulge their “love of fame, the ruling passion of the noblest minds”? Let them run, let them be tested, let the strongest candidate win.

So let timid souls huddle together, lamenting that there is no longer an establishment to anoint a frontrunner and make him the nominee. Let the rest of us enjoy and encourage a robust competition. And while it would be heresy to suggest that vox Republicani populi is in any way vox dei—let us say this: We prefer vox Republicani populi to vox Republicani establishmenti.

So The Weekly Standard urges everyone who suspects he or she would be the right person to defeat and replace Barack Obama to run. And of course we urge activists, donors, and citizens to get involved as they wish—but also to keep an open mind. And remember this: The 2012 GOP nomination would be a terrible thing to waste.


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