Ross Douthat reconsiders Romney’s candidacy and the possible alternatives to it:
None of this means that Romney wasn’t a flawed candidate, or excuses his campaign’s manifest failures, or changes my view that the Republicans (and the republic) were ill-served by Hamlets like Mitch Daniels and Mike Huckabee and Chris Christie [bold mine-DL]. But it should be possible to acknowledge the nominee’s flaws without believing that there was an obvious alternative on offer [bold mine-DL].
The attention that many fantasy candidates received during 2011 was driven by the very strong belief that quite a few conservatives held that there were many obvious alternatives to Romney. Unfortunately, the alternatives that seemed most “obvious” to a lot of conservatives were the ones that would never become candidates. I have never found arguments for any of the fantasy candidates persuasive, and looking back on the presidential campaign I am even more convinced now that the emergence a viable candidate capable of defeating Romney in the primaries was extremely unlikely.
Douthat refers to Daniels, Huckabee, and Christie as “Hamlets,” but it wasn’t their indecision that bothered their admirers. On the contrary, the complaint against them was that decided quite early on to stay out of the race when their admirers wanted the opposite. They were the least Hamlet-like Hamlets we have ever seen, and unlike some of the politicians that chose to run their national political careers have not been destroyed.
Christie had made his lack of interest in a presidential bid quite clear for years. He acknowledged (I think correctly) that he wasn’t ready to be president yet, and made his decision accordingly. He was finally forced by months of his fans’ begging and pleading to consider the option for a short time and then once again rule it out. Daniels considered entering the race, but he ran into so much resistance while he was testing the waters that it seems only too likely that his candidacy would have flopped like the others that seemed good “on paper.” As Jonathan Bernstein has suggested, some of the people held up as party saviors did briefly run in the “invisible primary” and stopped when they couldn’t gain much support.
Huckabee was the fantasy candidate that pundits and activists fantasized about the least, which is one indication that the prospects for a second Huckabee run were never as good as they might have seemed. If Romney/Ryan had seen a drop-off in evangelical support, someone might have been able to argue that Huckabee would have been better able to mobilize these voters, but in the end evangelicals turned out and voted overwhelmingly for a ticket that spent most of the campaign mostly ignoring the things they cared about the most. In any case, it’s not as if Huckabee kept people guessing for months. He ruled out a presidential campaign in May 2011, which was very early in the process considering how slowly the declared campaigns began.
The politicians that stayed out of the 2012 race probably had a better understanding of the Republican primary electorate and the overall electorate than many of their admirers and cheerleaders. They recognized that Romney wasn’t as vulnerable or easy to beat in the primaries as many supposed, and they may have realized earlier than most in their own party that Obama wasn’t likely to lose. After all, why should they engage in a difficult and likely losing effort against Romney just for the chance to challenge a reasonably popular incumbent president?
Did the fantasy candidates do their party and their country a disservice by staying out of the race? That doesn’t seem right. I can’t imagine how a party could be more poorly served than by having ill-prepared candidates lured into the race against their better judgment. If these politicians were unwilling to enter the race, they wouldn’t have done their party any favors by doing so grudgingly and in spite of their own reservations. Had more than one of them agreed to run, it likely would have split up the conservative vote even more, so at most they probably would have prolonged the contest without changing the outcome.