You gotta love Tommy Thompson - he's simply not nasty enough for the Republican presidential field.
When other candidates answer questions about cutting government, they improbably propose eliminating a long list of agencies, from Education to Labor to the IRS. Tommy, in the second debate, could only think of a subsection of Health and Human Services that stockpiles medicine for disasters.
The people who work on the program do a great job, he hastened to add, but their work could be streamlined. Later, an aide further clarified that Thompson didn't mean he would actually cut the stockpile program, just manage it more efficiently. So much for ending big government.
The presidential debate format shows how weird our political culture is, as the Republican candidates try to sound like Ronald Reagan. They might as well put on white suits and take a shot at impersonating Elvis for all the good it does them.
The Democratic field looks considerably younger, stronger and livelier, and is not burdened by association with this disastrous administration. Still, the lingering habit of Republican-lite politics lends an air of phoniness.
Who wants to hear Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards talking about their "faith journeys," as they did this week in a conference organized by liberal evangelicals?
Why watch the candidates outdo each other in a pop quiz by Wolf Blitzer on how fast they'd send a Hellfire missile to kill Osama bin Laden, even if it means innocent civilians die.
The "outsider" candidates - Democrats Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel, Republicans Ron Paul and, of course, Tommy - always have the clearest, boldest positions. It might be for single-payer health care (Kucinich), immediate withdrawal from Iraq (the first three), or understanding that anti-American sentiment is not just envy but resentment of our imperialist foreign policy (Paul).
And don't forget Thompson's response in the last debate to the question of how he would use ex-President Bush. "I certainly wouldn't send him to the United Nations," our good old guv chortled.
At least for the duration of this extra-long primary season, politics is enlivened by a dose of truth thanks to these "hopeless" candidates who don't poll-test every answer.
Meanwhile, campaign coverage continues to enable a kind of cognitive dissonance about the rest of the pack. At the Democrats' recent debate in New Hampshire, CNN senior political correspondent Candy Crowley hurried to put the candidates' comments in the context of their respective poll numbers.
Hillary Clinton was staying "above the fray," said Crowley, because she is the frontrunner. Edwards was trying to "draw blood" to move ahead of Clinton and Obama in the polls. While certainly true, this sort of coverage encourages cynicism in both the viewers and the candidates themselves.
If we are all "insiders" who understand that the candidates say what they say not because they really believe it, but because it's a tactical response to their poll standings, we risk outsmarting ourselves.
Thus, we tolerate the public piety because we know liberal candidates need religious votes. We accept the "universal health care" plans that somehow fix the system without fundamentally changing how we fund it. We wink and think we know that the candidates are really on our side, despite what they say, because they say those things to get elected.
But how do we know?
We shouldn't be surprised when politicians vote to authorize the Iraq war when it's a popular if terrible idea, then apologize when it becomes a debacle (Edwards) or claim they didn't know then what they know now (Clinton).
There's a reason why the "loser" candidates are so popular. Remember Al Sharpton, and the straight-talking John McCain of old? Journalists loved them. No one really likes being lied to, or listening to a candidate talk eternally without saying anything. Still, the people who cover the races continue to enable boring, hypocritical campaigns.
Tommy may not be in the race much longer. He looks uncomfortable. His excuse for his blunder on a gay rights question - that he was in a big hurry to run to the bathroom - hardly seems like the kind of political jockeying that will move him into the lead.
But God bless him and the other also-rans. They keep us from falling asleep, and occasionally even force the frontrunners to be more honest.