A friend of mine asked me the other day why, given all the headaches the job involves these days, anybody in his (or her) right mind would want the presidency. I confessed to being as mystified as he was. But the evidence is right before our eyes.
Over in the Democratic Party, which has to be counted as the favorite because of the unpopularity of the war in Iraq and the natural tendency of the voters to change sides occasionally, candidates are falling all over each other to get the nomination. The front-runner is still probably the Ice Queen, given her universal name recognition, her husband's shrewd quarterbacking, and the huge campaign war chest she has amassed. But the young and attractive black senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, despite his relative lack of political experience, is giving her a spectacular run for her money, in part because nobody knows enough about him to dislike him. And coming up fast is the handsome former senator from North Carolina, John Edwards, who has the not inconsiderable advantage of hailing from the South. Nor must one forget the governor of New Mexico, Bill Richardson, who (despite his name) is Hispanic, and who has probably amassed more knowledge and expertise in the course of a long career in government than all three of his rivals combined. There are other candidates as well, but these four are currently the ones to watch.
You might suppose that the Republican nomination, given the party's current problems, would be less sought after, but not so. It is clearly regarded as a pearl of great price, and it is probably true that it might well lead on to the White House if the Democrats pick an unappealing candidate. At the moment there are three major Republican possibilities, trailed by a long list of ambitious governors and senators, and even a congressman or two. The Big Three are Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., former mayor Rudolph Giuliani of New York, and former governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts.
On National Review's post-election cruise down the coast of Mexico, 450 conservative activists mulled over, among other things, the prospects for 2008. These were not just flag-waving rednecks, but people serious and knowledgeable enough about politics to plunk down the money to spend a week discussing its finer points with the likes of Bill Buckley, Norman Podhoretz and Victor Davis Hanson. So I was interested when a panelist one day asked those in the audience who favored McCain in 2008 to raise their hands. A respectable number did. Then he called for those preferring Giuliani, and about the same number so indicated. Finally, he asked for the Romney supporters -- and a huge number of hands shot up, more than the preceding demonstrators' combined.
I was astonished, because Romney in November had only just embarked on his low-key pursuit of the nomination, and wasn't nearly as well known as either McCain or Giuliani. To be sure, his foes had not by then given him the working-over for his supposed "flip-flops" (away from relatively liberal positions on abortion, gay rights and gun control) that allegedly undermined his standing with conservatives early this year. But it was still a remarkable showing, given the political sophistication of the audience doing the voting.
Now we have the results of the straw poll taken at last week's annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington. This is the biggest annual event in conservative politics (6,000 attended this year), and once again it simply won't do to diminish the political know-how of the participants. Since November McCain has dimmed a bit (he was the only one of eight Republican presidential hopefuls who didn't bother to show up and speak), and Giuliani's star has risen higher than ever in the sky. (Polls show him leading the field among Republican voters, and beating Hillary if the Democrats pick her.) Moreover, Romney has by now, as noted above, been heavily attacked for his "flip-flops."
But lo and behold, the straw poll at CPAC showed Romney beating both Giuliani and McCain! The shrewd politicians there were trying to tell the Republican Party something, and it had better listen.