There are clear downsides to a long, contentious presidential nominating race. It can harden intra-party divisions, for example, while costing a ton of money that candidates would prefer to spend on the general election.
But they're not all bad. Candidates who persevere through a difficult process tend to be stronger for it -- they've not only sharpened their message, they've also worked through the dirt dug up by their rivals. It's all part of a process that works a bit like a body's immune system -- you're attacked, you survive, and the antibodies will help you survive the next time.
Right about now, it looks like Mitt Romney's immune system hasn't really been tested.
Josh Marshall joked this morning that with all the news coming out now on the Republican nominee, you'd think his only opponents in the primaries were a serial philanderer, a guy with aphasia, and Rick Santorum. To quote Homer Simpson, "It's funny 'cause it's true."
Similarly, Jonathan Bernstein asked the right question yesterday: "How vetted is Mitt Romney?"
Here's how it normally works: Several fully funded, fully staffed campaigns vie for the presidential nomination over a period of some two years, sometimes a little more. Some of those full-service campaigns may come to an end shortly after the Iowa caucuses, but only after having basically run serious races -- think, for example, John Edwards in 2008 or Steve Forbes in 2000.One of the consequences is in opposition research: By the time a candidate secures the nomination, odds are that the most obvious personal attacks have been exposed. It doesn't mean they won't still be used in the general election, or that exposing them early necessarily neutralizes them, but it does mean that party actors should get a general sense of what they're dealing with.
Romney, however, practically ran unopposed. Yes, I realize he had challengers, but they were clownish, underfunded, and understaffed candidates who struggled badly to put Romney through his paces, and never even tried to assemble opposition-research teams. The former Massachusetts governor lost a lot of primaries and caucuses, but that was far more a symptom of his unpopularity and off-putting personality than his rivals' strengths.
And so it falls to President Obama's team to do what Republicans did not: shine a spotlight on scandals, controversies, unanswered questions, and secrets that Romney was supposed to address during the primaries, but which the other GOP candidates were ill-equipped to press.
With all of the recent questions surrounding Romney, Republicans can be forgiven for asking, "Why didn't we know about this months ago?" The answer is, they should have, but Romney's rivals weren't up to the task.