The most-encouraging words I heard during the long, tedious CNN debate Tuesday night were some occasional predictions that we’d just seen our last "undercard" (or "kiddie table" or "JV") debate. That’s presumably not because George Pataki is going to start overcoming the polling thresholds set by the various networks to ensure they are not overwhelmed by petitions to participate by Some Dude who woke up feeling presidential one morning.
No, it’s clearly about time for some winnowing of the presidential field to get it into fighting trim before February 1, when the Iowa Caucuses formally end the Invisible Primary and initiate the voting phase of the proceedings. You could make the case that it’s more seemly to wait for voters themselves to winnow the field. But at least on the Republican side it’s still unnaturally and confusingly large, and various trial balloons that made some sense a year ago have clearly deflated with large and irreparable holes evident everywhere.
Perhaps we should be asking with respect to this or that candidate just two questions: (a) Does said candidate have even a remote prayer of winning, short of some everybody-else-gets-hit-by-a-bus scenario? and (b) Does she or he add anything to the contest, or represent some sort of distinct and significant point of view?
Let’s start with an easy one on the Democratic side: former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, running far, far behind both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders everywhere a poll has been taken. He is not going to be the nominee. And it’s hard to say what sort of distinct point of view in the Democratic Party he uniquely represents, unless you buy the argument that he’s the voice of generational change even though the young-uns vastly prefer the septuagenarian Bernie Sanders. Personally, I think it would be sad for O’Malley’s candidacy to end with his being skunked in Iowa, a state where he did all the right things early on to position himself for a presidential run. But given the viability rules that govern the awarding of precinct delegates (the only result that gets reported) in the Democratic caucuses, a zilch-0 showing on Caucus Night is a real possibility. O’Malley may well have a future in national Democratic politics, but his prospects will not be burnished by weeks of whining about poor media coverage and inventing signs of momentum everyone knows to be made up.
Among Republicans, it’s increasingly apparent that neither Mike Huckabee nor Rick Santorum, competing for the same Christian Right constituency in Iowa, is going to knock the other out and seize his tiny following. I doubt anybody would bet the price of a Pizza Ranch lunch that either of these blast-from-the-past gentlemen is going to get within shouting distance of Ted Cruz, unless the Texan suddenly announces that he and his fiery culture-warrior father have decided to go vegan. Lindsey Graham is not even remotely competitive in his own state, and after Tuesday night’s debate, it does not appear that the GOP needs a candidate to remind everyone that going to war in four or five places is an option. Perhaps John Kasich and Chris Christie should play a game of rock-paper-scissors to winnow another candidate from the race; with both of them pursuing the same voters in the single state of New Hampshire, all they are doing is helping guarantee a plurality for Donald Trump. Carly Fiorina’s utility as an otherwise unqualified candidate whose gender enables her to attack Hillary Clinton even as the men in the field shrink from the task out of fear of looking piggish has clearly come to an end; if there are any inhibitions left about Clinton-bashing, they are hard to find. With his poll numbers diving, it would seem an act of mercy to liberate Dr. Ben Carson to spend all rather than half of his time marketing his new book. And at some point the green eyeshades of the GOP should set some minimum ROI requirements for candidates like Jeb Bush who are taking good capitalist money that might be used to create jobs and wasting it on a campaign that loses ground with each new ad.
There: I’ve reduced the presidential field by six or seven Republican candidates — and one of the three Democrats — without breathing hard. Perhaps it could become a popular mass movement, adopting entertainer Tracey Ullman’s signature plea: Go home! It’s been fun getting to know these people during the Invisible Primary. Having to watch them strut their ugly stuff in the broad daylight of an actual nomination contest is another thing altogether.