After Super Tuesday (February 5th) in 2008, there were three Presidential candidates who had a serious chance of winning: Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John McCain. Who should progressives have supported? Clinton, the feminist and healthcare advocate? Obama, the community organizer and inspirational orator? Or even, thinking outside the Democratic box, the “maverick” Republican, McCain?

Which card should you pick in a game of three-card monte?

If you have to ask a question like that, you’ve already lost.

It is now painfully clear to many progressives that once the three front-runners had emerged, there were no good choices available in the 2008 Presidential race. Responses to that insight (other than sheer demoralization) have tended to focus on the stance progressives should take toward the Democratic Party. Some have favored efforts to reform it from within; others have advocated third-party challenges to replace it. My recent post “A prosthetic spine for the Democratic Party” proposes a novel way of combining these apparently incompatible options.

But the fundamental mistake in progressive politics, which allowed the corporate world to deal us a game of three-candidate monte, is only incidentally related to the Democratic Party. We are waiting until after campaigns have already achieved traction – and often, as in the case of the Obama campaign, until after we have already committed enormous financial and other resources – to do our homework on the character and likely behavior of the candidates.

Due diligence must come first. We must be proactive, not reactive, in candidate selection. Progressives have to find a way to drive the candidate-selection process from the very beginning, and take it out of the hands of the insiders, or there will not be any good choices available.

Spectacularly erratic behavior emerging after a winning progressive campaign is not limited to the Democratic Party, as anyone familiar with Green Party candidate Audie Bock can attest. Bock was elected to the California state assembly 16th district seat in 1999, defeating Democratic insider candidate Elihu Harris, who had been considered a likely contender for speaker of the assembly. As the highest Green elected official in the nation at the time, Bock promptly accepted tobacco and oil company PAC money, and left the Green Party to become an independent. During her single legislative term, her antics included appearing on the floor of the assembly wearing purple pajamas and Bugs Bunny slippers to protest delay in passing a state budget.

The Green Party seldom wins elections. This time it did. And, yes, I voted for Audie Bock.

Be careful what you wish for.

In “A prosthetic spine for the Democratic Party”, I proposed that the Green Party alter its strategy, so as to become more like a progressive counterpart to the Tea Party. But there are certain aspects of these parties’ track records that we most definitely do not want to emulate. We do not need another Audie Bock. Nor do we need progressive counterparts to Christine O’Donnell, Sharron Angle, and Carl Paladino. We must show more due diligence in candidate selection than the major parties have evinced – not less.

Parties make nominations, and broad popular movements sway voters, but individuals hold public offices. We have neglected the biographical aspect. We need to let the decision as to who we can trust drive the electoral process – not the other way around, which leads to Obama-style fiascoes.

For best results, we need to do intensive research on individual candidates before we invest in supporting them, and, if possible, before any candidate has achieved traction in the race under consideration. Such candidate research would resemble the “opposition research” that campaigns do in order to discredit opposing candidates, where they go over everything the candidate has ever said or done. But we would not be looking for negative (or positive) sound bites to sway public opinion; we would be trying to make a highly informed decision as to whether this is someone we can trust. A single flaw generally should not discredit a candidate; indeed, the superficial perfection of an Elena Kagan should itself be seen as suspicious. If possible, we should actually solicit the involvement of professional experts in the relevant aspects of human character – clinical psychologists, profilers, even biographers.

Such elaborate scrutiny might be thought impractical for one of two reasons. The sheer expenditure of resources might be thought disproportionate and extravagant. Or, more fundamentally, it might be thought to be pointless, because we could not hope to make a candidate electorally viable who had not already achieved traction; why evaluate in depth when we have no choice but to take what we are given?

These objections may explain why in-depth candidate research is not already standard. But after having drawn the Obama card in a game of three-candidate monte, we can no longer afford to see them as compelling. What could we conceivably save by skimping on candidate research, that would be worth the risk of another Obama? And if we are to have any realistic hope of influencing the electoral process at all, we must assume that an early progressive consensus can make a candidate viable. Some amount of prior name recognition is likely to be indispensable, but that requirement still allows much more latitude of choice than we will have if we wait until Super Tuesday.