The Richardson Letdown

wiseguys billrichardson The Richardson LetdownThere are 18 candidates for president between the two parties, and Bill Richardson might just be the biggest disappointment of all of them.

The New Mexico governor stepped into the Democratic race with low poll numbers but enormous expectations. In his quarter-century in politics and government, he’d assembled a powerful résumé including service as a congressman, cabinet secretary, ambassador to the United Nations and, since 2003, chief executive of a state. He had a formidable diplomatic track record, the ideal credential for an election that will turn, to an unusual degree, on international issues. And his history-making potential as the first major Hispanic candidate for the presidency infused his campaign with an exciting sense of promise.

If anyone had the makings of a dark horse who could threaten the serious-candidate-tier monopoly of Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards, it would be Mr. Richardson. Or so the thinking went.

But the hesitant, confused and jarringly inarticulate man the country has met this year is a far cry from the savvy and confident leader that his résumé might lead one to expect. Mr. Richardson struggles—painfully at times—to express himself in public settings, particularly in debates, where he seems to alternate between reciting elementary platitudes and veering into off-the-cuff remarks that invariably raise serious questions about his intellectual habits.

For instance, in the very first Democratic debate—broadcast on MSNBC in April—Mr. Richardson was asked what Supreme Court justice would serve as the model for his own appointments. Other candidates answered before him, so he certainly had time to generate a thoughtful—or at least safe—response. And yet when it was his turn he cited Byron White—or as Mr. Richardson insisted on calling him in a reference to his brief football career, “Whizzer White.”

It was a revealing moment. White’s court legacy is defined, if anything, by his staunch social conservatism—he authored the dissent in Roe v. Wade and the 1986 ruling that upheld a state’s right to arrest homosexuals for sodomy. And yet Mr. Richardson supports both abortion and gay rights. During the debate, he offered no substantive rationale for naming White as his model, and when confronted days later with an accounting of White’s court tenure, he professed not to have known that “Whizzer” had it in for gay Americans.

And it’s not the only time a public forum has served to call into question Mr. Richardson’s ability to think on his feet. Just two weeks ago he fielded questions at a televised forum aimed at gay voters. Asked if he believes homosexuality is a matter of biology or choice, Mr. Richardson, without hesitating, chose the latter, setting off immediate, loud protests from prominent gay advocates and prompting a “clarification” from the governor, again days later. As with “Whizzer White,” his comment was probably less an example of deliberate unorthodoxy as much as it was an illustration that Mr. Richardson had never really thought much about or studied up on the subject.

Mr. Richardson’s presidential campaign has featured a seemingly unending stream of such little, easy-to-dismiss moments that, considered together, raise the same red flag. Perhaps the most alarming moment from a disastrous appearance on Meet the Press in May, for instance, was Mr. Richardson’s flustered insistence—prompted by an innocuous-seeming question—that he’s a lifelong Red Sox fan … who also likes the Yankees.

But his candidacy has produced more basic concerns as well.

For one, his transparent ploy to win votes on the antiwar left with an empty “plan” for the immediate withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Iraq—an idea dismissed as impractical by seasoned voices on all sides of the war debate—threatens the respect and standing he previously won through his impressive foreign policy work.

Mr. Richardson has moved up to high single and low double digits in Iowa and New Hampshire polling, which is more than the other lower-tier aspirants can say. But that’s a testament to the power of the idea of Bill Richardson—the governor with the million-dollar résumé whose emergence on the national stage was anticipated for years by political watchers.

Because the more Bill Richardson says, the less serious his candidacy seems.