And so now we enter the mopey phase of the GOP presidential contest. The gloom takes many forms, but foremost is the fear that the field taking shape might be the one we're stuck with.
It's like that feeling you get when you're starving and you go into a restaurant. At first everything on the menu looks great, until you have to make your choice and you realize there's nothing you actually want to eat.
There isn't a German word for this sensation, but one that comes close is futterneid — the envy one feels when somebody orders a better meal than yours. That's not perfectly apt, but it does capture the despair that the best dishes aren't on the menu.
Another source of dread can be found in the worry that the good candidates will be vanquished, or at least diminished, by the bad and the ugly ones. This is Washington Post columnist George Will's worry. "If pessimism is not creeping on little cat's feet into Republicans' thinking about their 2012 presidential prospects," the putative dean of intellectual conservatism warns, "that is another reason for pessimism."
Will, who's smitten with Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, says only five GOP contenders are White House-worthy. The other four are Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi and three ex-governors — Utah's Jon Huntsman (who resigned as U.S. ambassador to China), Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota.
Will's sharp pen here is reminiscent of Jesus' "winnowing fork," which he used to "gather his wheat into the barn," leaving the chaff to burn with "unquenchable fire." Those Will would chuck into the flames are the "careless, delusional, egomaniacal, spotlight-chasing candidates to whom the sensible American majority would never entrust a lemonade stand, much less nuclear weapons." His exhibits A and B are Newt Gingrich and Mike Huckabee. Will's case wasn't hurt by the fact that both had a bad week.
Some Gingrich aides signaled that he would announce an exploratory committee; others said he wouldn't. The brilliant but tragically undisciplined former House speaker compromised with a website that would explore the idea of an exploratory committee. Or something.
Meanwhile, Huckabee thought the climate was ripe for a dissertation on Barack Obama's "Kenyan" childhood. Except Obama didn't grow up in Kenya, and the more Huckabee tried to explain, the worse it got. Oh, and Huckabee began the week by tongue-lashing Oscar-winning actress Natalie Portman for being pregnant out of wedlock.
Will, who is not prone to overstatement, nonetheless exaggerates his case. But you can only exaggerate the truth, and the indisputable fact is that Gingrich, Huckabee and several potential contenders are deeply flawed.
Each candidate has strengths and weaknesses, but one common problem, as my National Review colleague Jim Geraghty notes, is the growing phenomenon of the pundit-candidate. Gingrich and Huckabee (also Sarah Palin, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and radio host Herman Cain to name a few) have created cottage industries for themselves as commentators. That helps with name ID (and book sales), but it also overexposes and diminishes them by forcing them to comment at length on subjects where silence would be golden. Huckabee's bizarre pandering to so-called birthers and to the Natalie Portman-haters' caucus is a perfect example of the problem.
Still, Huckabee and Gingrich's bouts of verbal incontinence notwithstanding, conservatives are united on the core economic and policy issues. That consensus will undoubtedly manifest itself in the primaries.
And isn't that what primaries are for? Let the voters use their own winnowing forks. It's not like the GOP has a history of nominating irresponsible firebrands. And the two nominees who were so labeled by the political establishment — Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan — are the soul of the GOP today, for "tea partyers" and establishmentarians alike.
Ultimately the election will largely be a referendum on Obama and the economy. The desire to order off-menu will abate over time. And Republicans will surely stomach the nominee, if for no other reason than they're ravenous to make Obama a one-termer. And, as the Irish say, hunger is the best sauce.