‘Top tier’ not a mark of presidential potential

Anyone who knows me knows I really want Joe Biden to be president. Anyone who follows politics even a little bit knows that he isn’t doing so great in the polls.

Naturally, this frustrates me. But I’m not frustrated simply because he isn’t raising much money or gaining much support in the polls. I’m frustrated because Joe Biden, Bill Richardson, Chris Dodd, and yes, even Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel and all the second-tier Republicans, aren’t even being given a chance.

Let’s look at the Democrats who are being given a chance and why they are being given a chance. Does anyone think that Hillary would have any shot at the White House if she were just another senator first elected in 2000, a la Debbie Stabenow? No one can convincingly make such a case. So the question becomes, does the fact that she was married to Bill Clinton when he was president make her better suited for the job than another second-term senator? This is certainly debatable.

Barack Obama was unheard of until he gave one speech in Boston in July 2004. It was one very powerful speech. If John Kerry had not picked him to give that keynote, Barack Obama would not be running for president today. John Edwards was John Kerry’s running mate in 2004. If John Kerry had not picked him to be his vice presidential nominee, Edwards would likely still be running this time, but would he be in the top tier? I highly doubt it. The reasons that Obama and Edwards are top-tier candidates have nothing to do with the kinds of presidents they would make, but are rather attributable to the past decisions of John Kerry to give them the spotlight.

While the reasons the top-tier candidates are the top-tier candidates are frustrating, they are easily explainable. When these candidates announce, they are the most well-known, so their early poll numbers are highest. The punditocracy handicaps the race, saying these candidates with the high poll numbers deriving solely from name recognition are the ones to beat, which drives the money to them. People don’t want to donate to a loser. At the end of every quarter, surprise surprise, they have raised the most money, so the punditocracy talks them up more. And their poll numbers go up more. And they raise more money. And on and on until Tommy Thompson and Jim Gilmore (just wait, there will be more) don’t have enough money or support to keep going.

This realization that more than half the field wasn’t being given a fair shot to present themselves to the American people hit home at the freshman bazaar. I was wearing a Joe Biden T-shirt, trying to get people to sign up for the nascent Yale for Biden group. A common reply was one of unfamiliarity with my candidate, which is perfectly understandable. But all too often, someone admittedly unfamiliar with Joe Biden would walk two feet away and sign up for Yale for Obama, whose leaders were screaming, “He’s young and he’s hot, and so are you!” Way to vote on the important issues, class of 2011. (Note: I actually like Barack Obama quite a bit, I just don’t think he’d make the best president out of all the candidates running.)

In a perfect world, presidential elections would be publicly financed, and the media would focus on informing voters where the candidates stand on the issues, not where they stand in the polls or whose verbal jab was most damaging. But for now, individual voters should take the initiative in deciding which candidate they believe would be the best president and support that candidate. Look at Joe Biden and his plan to end the war in Iraq without trading a dictator for chaos. Look at Bill Richardson and his impressive tenures as secretary of energy and governor of New Mexico. Look at Connecticut’s very own Chris Dodd, who just recently fought honorably to have habeas corpus restored to all. If you support ending war as an instrument of national policy (his words, not mine), look at Dennis Kucinich. If you want a president who stares into cameras and throws rocks in ponds, look at Mike Gravel.

Alexis de Tocqueville wrote of presidential selection: “The people are bound to make hasty judgments and seize on the most prominent characteristics. This is why charlatans of every sort so well understand the secret of pleasing them, whereas for the most part their real friends fail in this.”

I fear he’s right.

Matthew Ellison is a sophomore in Branford College.

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