For GOP voters, a $10,000 question

Here's another $10,000 wager for which Mitt Romney won't find many takers: We bet the public is disappointed with the choices for president of the United States in 2012. That's a pretty remarkable circumstance given that the general election is still nearly a year away.

For those who missed Saturday's Republican debate, the moment observers were left talking about was the size of Mr. Romney's proposed bet to Rick Perry if the Texas governor could prove that he rewrote his book to reflect a changed position on Massachusetts health care reform. Mr. Perry declined the wager, but a lot of viewers were left with the impression that Mr. Romney could throw around big bucks like the millionaire former management consultant he is — a point quickly mocked by Democrats (as well as some of his fellow GOP candidates) on social media to show the candidate is out of touch with mainstream America.


It should have been a minor gaffe (Mr. Romney later explained that it was more on par with "I bet you a million dollars" type of overstatement rather than a sincere desire to lay down a wager), but considering how many flubs the Republican candidates have been making this fall, it just seemed to underscore how unprepared for prime time the field looks to be.

Admittedly, Democratic candidates have had their share of self-destructive moments over the years. Who can forget Howard Dean's screaming implosion in 2004 or those photos of John Kerry windsurfing that same year? Or Gary Hart suggesting reporters follow him around to see if he's a womanizer (as he did 1987 right before the public found out about Donna Rice)?

But none of them compete for sheer volume and breadth of blunder as that which the Republicans have presented in recent months, much of it from one-time front-runners like Mr. Perry and Herman Cain, who was forced to drop out of the field in the wake of sexual harassment and adultery charges. (And please don't leave out from the mix Michele Bachmann and her frequent misstatements, including confusing the birthplace of John Wayne, the actor, with that of fellow Iowan John Wayne Gacy, the serial killer).

That former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is now positioned as the front-runner in the field just three weeks before the Iowa caucuses is either a sign that GOP voters don't care about nagging details like getting the facts straight or have simply grown accustomed to the harsh reality of their circumstance. Does anyone walk the planet more capable of making an outrageous and misguided comment at a moment's notice than Mr. Gingrich?

Gaffe-mania hasn't always been a barrier to higher office — Joe Biden, we're talking about you — but that doesn't make the Washington establishment any less dumbfounded at Mr. Gingrich's sudden political resurrection. When a hyper-partisan talk radio commentator like Sean Hannity has to actually remind his loyal listeners (and Fox News viewers) that the Republican candidates are still better than the incumbent Democrat, you know it's gotten bad.

By most any standard, President Barack Obama's approval ratings have fallen off the charts. Voters think he hasn't done enough to improve the economy, and many think he doesn't deserve a second term. Conventional wisdom has it that incumbent presidents can't win re-election when the economy is faltering and unemployment is high.

But as Mr. Obama himself noted during an interview with 60 Minutes broadcast Sunday evening, he doesn't have to beat the Almighty; voters will judge him against the alternatives. And on that score, the president is doing surprisingly well. One recent poll even showed him more popular than Mr. Romney or Mr. Gingrich in South Carolina, a GOP-leaning state he lost in 2008.

Still, it's far too early to predict what will happen in 2012. And perhaps in the age of the Internet, candidates are more likely to look ridiculous because they are held accountable for their remarks in a way that was simply not possible a generation ago. As the GOP field is whittled down to a few, the sideshow quality may lessen and be replaced by more carefully choreographed campaign appearances, written remarks and focus-group-tested TV commercials.

If to err is human, then at least voters can be assured that there aren't any androids on the Republican ballot, and that even extends to their most robotic of candidates. Mr. Romney may be super-rich, but he's not yet been completely superseded in this race. The odds are good he'll be regarded as back on top of the GOP field soon, but we wouldn't necessarily bet large sums on it.