In the sports pages last week, we read that the Churchill Downs people are changing the rules for the way horses qualify for the Kentucky Derby. The current system is based on money earned in stakes races. The new one will be based on allotments of points. Not all horse people are happy with this, but the point is that horse racing at least has a system for rating contenders. Our political parties do not.
On the track, you would never find graded stakes winners bumping up against unraced or lightly raced horses, horses too old or too young for the contest, horses who were eased or pulled up in their last race, or who were already put out to stud. In politics, alas, you do see their human equivalents -- at least during primary season, when a few seasoned and valid contenders find themselves lining up at the starting gate with a larger selection of broken-down horses, not from the cream of the cream of the party, and sometimes not of the party at all.
"The most striking thing about the current Republican vice presidential field is its striking superiority to the Republican presidential field of six months ago," says the wise Michael Gerson. His explanation: "[A] vice presidential field results from a party's consensus on talent and competence. ... Presidential candidates are largely self-selected, which favors ambition and self-regard above ... other traits."
"Talent and competence" are in short supply among modern candidates, in whom self-regard runs too high.
Since 1980, when the "reforms" of the '60s and '70s kicked in with a vengeance, we have largely seen fields of two or three plausible potential presidents surrounded by five or six party crashers. Among these latter, some are not in office or even in politics but nonetheless have points to make, books to sell, causes to push, grudges to settle, reputations to burnish and egos they think have been too long neglected. Pat Robertson, Jesse Jackson and Pat Buchanan delighted their fans and did not help their parties. Steve Forbes was smart, but hardly a president. Alan Keyes and Gary Bauer did not enhance their own or their party's prestige.
In 1992, Bill Clinton was the sole plausible Democrat, pestered by Jerry Brown and Paul Tsongas. In 2008, the pattern was broken when the GOP fielded no fewer than four major players; Rudy Giuliani ("America's Mayor"), Fred Thompson, John McCain, the eventual winner, and Mitt Romney, this year's winner. But four years later, it came close to implosion, with Romney the lone Derby horse in a large field of losers, whose sequential implosions proved embarrassing.
If someone from Churchill Downs had been in the Republican Party, he might have told Michele Bachmann that five years in the House does not make a president; told Herman Cain he should know more than pizza; and warned Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum that their quests to undo the memories of their prior implosions would not be successful, as the same traits of character that undid them the first time would return to undo them again. Horses that lose their last prep race by an 18-length margin don't get to try their luck in the Derby. Horse people know better than that.
Somehow, a "party's consensus on talent and competence" should be restored to the process of picking a president. Perhaps they should talk to the Churchill Downs people. Who knows? They might have some ideas.
Examiner Columnist Noemie Emery is contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and author of "Great Expectations: The Troubled Lives of Political Families."