Well-qualified, but not an American idol

Tommy Thompson has dropped out of the campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. I didn’t write about Thompson’s candidacy, in part because he’s a law partner of mine. But now that his campaign is over, it’s worth reflecting on what his failure to generate enthusiasm tells out.
In his statement today, Thompson said, “I felt my record as Governor of Wisconsin and Secretary of Health and Human Services gave me the experience I needed to serve as President, but I respect the decision of the voters.” Thompson is correct about what he brought to the table. He was a hugely popular governor with a strong record of innovation. His work as HHS Secretary was also widely respected. If credentials and track record were the key to running for president, Thompson certainly would have been a first tier candidate, just as Orrin Hatch would have been in 2000. On the Democratic side, Bill Richardson, Joe Biden and Chris Dodd would be leading contenders this cycle. Barack Obama and John Edwards would be blips.
Why can’t candidates like Thompson, Hatch, Richardson, Biden, and Dodd get traction in the modern era? The three factors that occur to me are (1) television, (2) the vastly diminished influence of party leaders in the selection process, and (3) the discounting of, and indeed near-contempt for, experience gained in Washington.
The problem with the de facto disqualification of uncharismatic contenders and the bias against Washington experience is not that the process fails to produce nominees with good credentials and track records. For the most, it does produce such candidates, and likely will do so again this year. The problem is that it effectively reduces the number of high caliber contenders for the nomination, and thus increases the likelihood that the well credentialed contender who obtains the nomination will be flawed in other respects.

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