A punchless lineup

    So much for the rapture. The world is still here, and the roster of Republican presidential candidates is still thinner than the Philadelphia Phillies’ lineup.The GOP establishment’s designated It Guy, Mitch Daniels, opted over the weekend to forgo the inevitable slings and arrows of a White House quest, thereby becoming the fourth Republican in a month to deal himself out. There just doesn’t seem to be an outsize appetite to brave the withering scrutiny, fight with the various conservative litmus-testers, and face an incumbent armed with one billion bucks. Actually, Daniels’ decision has brought a bit more clarity to the contest. Unless some kind of cosmic miracle occurs – perhaps Jeb Bush inexplicably convincing himself that his brother didn’t sully the family name, or perhaps Ronald Reagan rising from his grave – it appears that what we see is what we’re gonna get: A few ex-governors who can be roughly described as grownups (Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, Jon Huntsman), and a slew of losers who would be slaughtered in any general election (Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Rick Santorum, Herman Cain, Gary Johnson, Buddy Roemer). It’s theoretically possible that Rudy Giuliani could surface to commit political suicide (again), or that Michele Bachmann could provide some transient entertainment, or that Chris Christie could bow to the various entreaties (despite the fact that his New Jersey poll numbers have dropped, an inevitable happenstance in that politically volatile state), or even that we could be treated to a late entry by a tweeting former half-term governor whose name escapes me. But the top-tier contestant field seems to be largely set.Daniels’ decision to punt is clearly a disappointment to all the Republicans who are horrified at the prospect of Mitt Romney, their front runner by default. But maybe they were dreaming. Maybe Daniels would’ve peaked on the day of his announcement, as often happens to alleged dream candidates. He had never contended outside of Indiana, he had scant national support among grassroots Republicans (four percent, according to a mid-May Suffolk University poll), he is “short, bald, and boring” (as one conservative blogger disdainfully noted), and, quite possibly, his complicated marital history (which I mentioned here) would have been the least of his problems.It’s clear that he didn’t want to expose his family members to merciless publicity, and his stated desire this weekend to respect their wishes was undoubtedly sincere. But I bet there were other reasons for bailing, reasons that were best left unstated – such as the fact that a lot of religious conservatives and loudmouth talk radio conservatives didn’t like him.Remember, Daniels had famously said that Republicans should call a “truce” on social issues such as abortion and gay marriage; he had said that these hot-button controversies were so polarizing that they prevented Democrats and Republicans from working together to solve our fiscal crisis. You can’t win Republican primary contests in Iowa and South Carolina by talking that way. Even last autumn, radio host Mark Levin was saying, “Mr. Daniels, you’re too weak…You’re ready to battle on some turf, but on way too much you’re ready to surrender the turf.”I suspect that Daniels knew darn well he would not have been batty enough for the Republican right. Daniels used to work for (and he still admires) Indiana Senator Dick Lugar, a Republican who is viewed by tea-party critics as too liberal. Daniels wants to cut the defense budget, a stance that roils many national-security conservatives. He doesn’t hurl invective, and that would have frustrated the red-meat crowd. He even says that he buys The New Yorker. And he’s an Arab-American whose paternal grandparents came from Syria, which probably would have sparked right-wing rumors about a Daniels plot to impose Sharia law. Why would he have wanted to subject himself to all that grief?Which candidate will benefit most from Daniels’ absence? All speculations are equal. Maybe it’s Pawlenty (who announces officially today), because now he won’t have to compete against another Midwestern governor, one whose fiscal record is superior to his own. Or maybe it’s Huntsman, who has some establishment Republican creds, and who might be able to tap the Bush family money network that otherwise could have gone to Daniels. Or maybe it’s Romney, the least popular Republican front runner since the dawn of modern polling in 1952, if only because he has already spent five years building a mighty money machine and could be well positioned to grind down his few serious rivals.So it would appear, at least for the moment, that the Republicans have two options, with respect to their relatively punchless lineup: They can compromise among themselves and choose a credible general-election candidate whom they’re not wild about; or they can chuck themselves over a cliff, a la Barry Goldwater in 1964, by choosing an unelectable candidate who stokes their passions. Neither seems particularly ideal.Or maybe they’d just prefer to wait for the rapture.——-In my Sunday newspaper column, I wrote more about Arnold Schwarzenegger and the abuse-of-power issue…pairing him with Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the now-ex French presidential candidate and “rutting chimpanzee” who was abetted for years by the misogynist French political and media culture.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.