July 3, 2014 at 1:00 am

Brightest aren't on your election ballot

This fall, voters will be underwhelmed by the quality of candidates seeking office. (Max Ortiz / The Detroit News)

I’m in the middle of the candidate endorsement process, sorting through questionnaires and interviewing candidates to help voters make the best choices in the Aug. 5 primary.

I’ve also moderated a couple of congressional debates recently.

Here are two phrases that do NOT come to mind as I evaluate the options voters face: “best and brightest” and “cream of the crop.”

With a few exceptions, the mediocrity of the candidate field is stunning.

It reinforces the truism that anyone can run for political office. Sadly, anyone can also win. Incumbents often are no more impressive than those seeking to replace them.

We’re conditioned to think that it takes something special to be a political leader. That these elite clubs — Congress and the Legislature — are peopled by individuals with exceptional talent and perhaps even wisdom.

The reality is that if these questionnaires were job applications — and in a sense they are — I can’t think of any job for which I’d hire most of these candidates.

And yet winners of the elections will move into positions that ultimately come with as much power as a corporate CEO. Few could ever climb their way into a private sector C-suite, but they’ll be playing the tune the corporate execs will have to dance to.

Perhaps 1 in 10 of the candidates who returned questionnaires rise to the level where we’re entirely confident of their competence. And that talented tenth may not even get elected.

Many of the hopefuls show an appalling lack of understanding about both the scope and limits of the Constitution. They offer solutions that would trample the Bill of Rights. Many of the candidates can’t spell. Some can barely write.

At a congressional debate, one candidate said he wanted to go to Washington to “teach the Republicans a lesson” — and then later boasted about his ability to forge bipartisan alliances.

In their answers, the candidates rail against Big Business, pander to the basest populist instincts and pledge not to put “boots on the ground” anywhere, for any reason. I’m not sure why we even buy our troops boots anymore, since they’ll never touch the ground. You get so tired of hearing such triteness it makes you want to scream.

In too many of the races, if we were really being honest, we’d advise voters to go into the booth and flip a coin. One choice is as lousy as the other.

The hope is that we’ll pick a candidate who will rise to the position, who will grow in stature, maturity and pragmatism.

But it’s a crap shoot.

I suspect the truly best of us are eschewing politics because it has become such a rotten, offensive business to run for office. A decent person would find it hard to endure the underhandedness of a political campaign. An accomplished person couldn’t bear to say the ridiculous things that must be said to woo voters.

Maybe it has always been this way. And still the Republic survives. But you spend a few weeks exploring the minds of the people who would lead us, and you have to believe that survival truly is a miracle.

nfinley@detroitnews.com
(313)222-2064
Follow Nolan Finley at detroitnews.com/finley, on Twitter at @nolanfinleydn, and watch him at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays on “MiWeek” on Detroit Public TV, Channel 56.