The weakest part of our political system, by a considerable margin, is the presidential nominating process. It tends to exclude from consideration those with the greatest experience in what is uniquely the president's responsibility, foreign policy and military strategy.
It tends less strongly to exclude members of Congress, particularly House members but also senators, whose extensive voting records inevitably contain material that is politically damaging at some point in the process. The process has become so lengthy that candidates often come up with strategies and programs that are rendered obsolete by the time of the next presidential inauguration.
All that said, we are struck with it -- or stuck with the version of the schedule that the national Democratic and Republican parties, acting for once in concert, and the various state parties and state legislatures can agree on.
So it may be worthwhile, before trying to assess the chances of likely, putative and possible Republican candidates in the 2012 cycle, to dismiss some of the rules of thumb that have arisen over the years.
The first is the notion that Republican nomination always goes to the candidate next in line in seniority.
Yes, Republican primary voters and caucus-goers are probably more inclined than Democrats to defer to seniority. But when you look back at the Republican nominating contests in the post-1968 era, and there are not many of them, you find that most of the nominations were close-run things.
Ronald Reagan came within a few convention votes of upsetting incumbent President Gerald Ford in 1976 and would probably have won if he had gotten 2,000 more votes in New Hampshire. Reagan's victory in 1980 was contingent on a number of close calls, as readers of Craig Shirley's "Rendezvous with Destiny" know.
The first George Bush's victory in 1988 depended on a big win in the South Carolina primary rescheduled by his campaign manager Lee Atwater, which would probably not have occurred if Atwater's premature death had come a few years earlier. In 1996, 8,000 more votes in New Hampshire would have made Lamar Alexander rather than Bob Dole the chief challenger of Pat Buchanan and hence the party's nominee.
The next-in-line candidates did win in 2000 and 2008. But George W. Bush only narrowly survived a rout in New Hampshire, and John McCain's strategy eight years later -- wait for all the other candidates' strategies to fail -- is one that usually guarantees defeat rather than victory.
As for 2012, the next-in-line candidate is said to be Mitt Romney, on the basis of a successful business career and a single term as governor of Massachusetts.