The Spectacle Blog

May the best candidate win

By on 5.5.08 | 4:36PM

A whole lot of blog posts, here and elsewhere, assert that Democrats in Indiana and North Carolina should think carefully before voting for Barack Obama due to his Reverend Wright and Bill Ayres problems -- general election attacks on those issues may make him unelectable, this reasoning goes (strangely it seldom includes the fact that come a general election plenty of Clinton baggage will be aired too).

Electability is one factor to weigh as a primary voter. Another is which candidate would be a better president, a metric that shockingly few commentators discuss. I understand the focus on electability, of course, but I must say it isn't an ideal way to choose presidents insofar as both parties may wind up nominating people who are relatively more likely to win the most powerful office in the world, and relatively less likely to perform well once inaugurated.

That's why I find Rush Limbaugh's "Operation Chaos" so objectionable. Were he to assert that Sen. Clinton or Sen. Obama will make a better president I'd not object to his working to secure that person the Democratic nomination, even if he preferred John McCain to either. But his stunt so far suggests that it's worth the risk of ending up with the poorer potential president on the Democratic side to marginally increase the chance that a Republican wins in the fall.

This seems insane to me, partly because electability is so uncertain a quantity -- who actually knows whether Sen. Clinton or Sen. Obama is better on that metric -- and largely because there's a significant chance that the Democratic nominee will win regardless of who the candidate is. My own risk-averse approach would be to hope that the best Democrat wins the nomination not because I want a Democrat in the White House, but because I want two candidates squaring off either of whom will serve the country best if elected.

Perhaps the flawed incentives at play here are inevitable in a two party system conceived as ours is, but the country would be better off if at least the social norms around electing a president changed, so that everyone was rooting for the best potential president to emerge on the other side rather than the easiest potential electoral opponent. One step toward that better nation -- impossible though it is to achieve fully -- might be for the commentariat to focus a bit less obsessively on which candidate is most electable in a general election, and a bit more on which candidate would make the best president.

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