Who is the Least Bad Candidate?
Last time around, when it was effectively down to three, I concluded somewhat tentatively that it was Obama. He seemed a little less bad than Hilary Clinton and had one big advantage over McCain—when Obama did bad things, we, people who supported free markets, wouldn't get blamed for them. And I thought there was at least a chance that he would do some good things.
Ex post, I was probably wrong, although it is hard to be sure; we will never know how bad the other two would have been. The one part where I was right was his advantage over McCain. If a Republican president had run an enormous deficit, insisted on his right to treat anyone he could label as a terrorist as outside the normal protections of the law, expanded the Afghan war, and ended up with the same economic results as Obama, it would have been harder to bring the Tea Party movement into existence and elect a considerable number of its candidates in the midterm elections.
We now have another presidential election coming up, and the same question. If we include Ron Paul in the candidate pool, the answer is pretty easy. While I have some reservations about his ability to function as President, given no experience as an executive, his policy positions are closer to mine than I have any reason to expect of a serious candidate. In particular, on two biggies, ending the War on Drugs and shifting to a non-interventionist foreign policy, he is on the right side. It's true that his monetary policy seems to assume that producing money will continue to be a government monopoly (those who know more about it are welcome to correct me if I am mistaken), although he wants to tweak the details a bit, so in that regard, if I correctly understand him, he shares the socialist views of the other candidates. But one can't have everything.
I suspect however that, as most commentators believe, Ron Paul has very little chance of getting nominated, let alone elected. His real function in this election is to force the Republican party—ideally both parties—to shift in a libertarian direction, by demonstrating that there are a lot of votes there, and at the same time to increase public support for policies currently supported by neither party.
Besides, including him makes the choice of least bad candidate an uninteresting one.
I am inclined to eliminate Santorum as well, since he also seems at this point very unlikely to get the nomination. That leaves us, yet again, with a pool of three, this time consisting of Gingrich, Romney, and Obama. Which is least bad?
It is a hard question. If we consider politics purely as a source of entertainment, Gingrich is an easy winner—he would be more fun to argue with than either of the others, and is likely to put on a better show. But the same things that make him interesting also make him frightening. I don't think a candidate who believes that the President and Congress ought to have the power to overrule the Supreme Court, as he apparently does, is exactly what the country needs. And I could imagine him coming up with a lot of other original—and dangerous—ideas. He is obviously smart and articulate, and it is possible that, once in power, his bite would be better than his bark, but I am not sure I want to risk it.
Romney is easier to evaluate. Pretty clearly, he is a liberal Republican currently pretending, for political reasons, to be a conservative Republican. In terms of the policies he would prefer, given the choice, I doubt he would be very different from the current incumbent—perhaps a little worse on military matters. Think of him as Obama light. Which leaves me wondering if perhaps I should again choose Obama as the least bad, at least if the Republicans succeed, as they well may, in taking both houses of Congress.
On the historical evidence, practically the only time the federal government runs a surplus is when one party holds Congress and the other the White House. While it is probably true that Obama is, as one commenter put it, not a Kenyan but a Swede, that his ideal is to make the U.S. into something more like a European welfare state, he is also a Chicago politician, unlikely to let his principles get in the way of his politics. Faced with a congress controlled by the other party, a substantial minority of it in favor of a sharp reduction in government expenditure and regulation, he might well decide that his best strategy is to outflank the Republicans on the right. He has already made a few gestures in that direction, in rhetoric if not yet in substance.
That could, of course, mean being even more willing than they are to reduce liberty in the name of fighting terrorism. But it could also mean trying to reduce government expenditure and regulation wherever doing so is not too politically expensive—most obviously the military, which Romney is quite unlikely to cut, but perhaps in other areas as well. And it is at least possible, although not likely, that if the Republicans do not learn from the lesson Ron Paul is teaching, Obama will, that he will conclude that a shift in a libertarian direction somewhere, perhaps drugs or foreign policy, is a sensible tactic to create a Democratic majority.