How to separate the contenders from the pretenders

Tuesday, January 8, 2008 | 9:55 a.m. CST; updated 2:52 p.m. CST, Monday, February 2, 2009

By the time you read this, Iowa and New Hampshire will have made their selections in the longest and perhaps the most tiresome of all presidential primary chases. Beginning with several of the states’ adolescent jockeying for positions in “me first” efforts to change the timing of primaries to the specter of too many candidates promising unrealistic solutions to every real or contrived problem along with the usual glut of mudslinging, it is difficult to fault those who have already tuned it out.

For me, the principal annoyance is the conduct and format of what are generously referred to as debates. With each candidate responding to a pre-prepared list of questions often designed to favor the moderator over the candidate, the affair becomes nothing more than a series of sound bites, memorable for little more than exhibitions of wit or stumbles.

Regardless of political party, the debates provide more show than substance — the leading candidates all claim victory while those of lesser relevance cry foul, complaining that the star value of the front runners causes them to be ignored. The only relevant issue raised by these televised engagements was provided unintentionally by the Democrats — it is difficult to take seriously the claims of being “tough on terrorists” when espoused by candidates who fear an appearance on FOX News Channel.

All of the wannabe nominees advance one common theme: Their particular leadership experiences qualify them to guide the nation through domestic and foreign crises alike. It is in this area that the discriminating voter can separate the actual from the pretender inasmuch as there are but four candidates remaining who offer real world executive decision making experience in either the political or corporate realm: New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

It is no accident that, with the exception of Sen. John Kennedy in 1960, not one president in recent memory has been elevated directly from the Congressional ranks — instead they have enjoyed leadership experience as governor, mayor or as a corporate or military executive. The voters obviously prefer a candidate with proven ability to consider options and advice, make the hard decisions and take responsibility for the consequences. This is in no way a degradation of the importance or ability of our legislators; nevertheless, having been a member of the Senate, the House of Representatives or the wife of a president hardly constitutes an accurate measure of leadership credential.

Each of the candidates portrays similarities unique to the platform and message aimed at its party faithful. For example, the three front runners in the Democratic Party have adopted an anti-war philosophy seeking to take advantage of the polls indicating the public’s war weariness. To those who may accept the three as genuine — it is your choice — I find them disingenuous. Sen. Barrack Obama swears he has always opposed the war, former Sen. John Edwards voted for the war but claimed to have been misled and Sen. Hillary Clinton voted for the war but now appears to be both for or against, depending upon the audience.

The Republican candidates share an image problem also. In an ingloriously vain effort to reach out to each of their constituencies as well as energize the party’s base in their favor, each has tried to out-Reagan his opponents. This is a patently obvious exercise in futility as there was but one George Washington, one Thomas Jefferson, a single Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and, thankfully, only one Jimmy Carter. Any candidate who cannot run on his or her own accomplishments and potential is a poor choice.

Gratefully, by mid-February the relative unimportance of the Iowa and New Hampshire votes will have been supplanted by completed primaries in most of the states, thereby narrowing the field to those candidates who were viable from the outset. We will still be subject to preposterous campaign promises, debates emphasizing style over substance, shifting positions on issues akin to a snake shedding its skin and appeals attesting to the compassion and decency of one party over the other.

To this end, I offer the following advice: Study the record, character and morals of the candidates, ignore the implausible rhetoric and remember this homily by former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo: “You campaign in poetry, but you govern in prose.”

Karl Miller retired as a colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps. He is a Columbia resident and can be reached via e-mail at

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