November 21, 2011 [LINK / comment]

GOP candidates bash each others' brains in

I have made a conscious effort to pay as little attention as possible to the "debates" between the Republican presidential candidates this fall. With the general election still nearly twelve months away, it is just plain ridiculous for any serious candidate to be campaigning this early. From a Republican perspective, the extended campaign season is extremely dangerous, as the rivals sling mud at one another, providing lots of rhetorical ammunition for the Obama campaign next year. It boggles the mind to think that a president with approval ratings below forty percent stands a very good chance of re-election next year. It is almost unheard-of that an incumbent could get re-elected with unemployment hovering around the nine percent rate. So what's wrong with the Republicans???

Clearly, much of the problem stems from the media feeding frenzy that drive television news coverage and gives an incentive for states to schedule their primaries earlier and earlier with each election cycle. You can't blame the Republicans for that. It's a built-in systemic defect that plagues both parties.

But there is another aspect of this campaign which the "debates" have highlighted: the increasingly low-brow level of discourse that has come to prevail in the party. We've been through several campaigns dominated by dumbed-down slogans such as "Drill here! Drill now!" The idea that economic policy might involve anything more than adjusting the tax rate seems to have eluded many people's thought process. I say this with full realization that my own involvement in the Republican Party has not exactly been helped by my academic career, and therefore almost anything I say on the matter has to be taken with a grain of salt. (Sigh...)

But you can at least take it from Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker, who responded to a Newsweek essay by Paul Begala, "The Stupid Party." Parker speaks of the "Palinization of the GOP, in which the least informed earns the loudest applause." Darn tootin'! More seriously, Parker observes that whereas the extremely erudite William F. Buckley "tried to rid the GOP of fringe elements, notably the John Birch Society, today's conservatives have let them back in. The 2010 Conservative Political Action Conference was co-sponsored by the Birchers." Yikes.

This phenomenon would explain why many Republicans seem nonplussed by Herman Cain's "brain freeze" on Libya. He got started on the right track, correctly stating that President Obama had been supporting the insurgent faction, but soon he got lost in a fatigue-induced fog, trying to recall talking points that Henry Kissinger had apparently been coaching him on. I know what it's like to lecture when I'm dead tired, so I can sympathize with Cain to a certain extent. But there are many other incidents with Cain that make one wonder whether he is really a serious candidate. On ABC's This Week, George Will expressed strong doubt about that, and I agree. Cain seems quite intelligent and sincere, but his lack of experience in politics (and world affairs) are crippling handicaps for him. Whether all those accusations of past sexual misconduct are based in fact remains to be seen...

Obviously, Gov. Rick Perry is a perfect example of this "Palinization" syndrome. As a candidate he is very popular with the GOP Base, but he has quickly proven himself to lack the basic competence to address serious questions in a public forum. His repeated brain freezes and gaffes make you wonder how he ever got elected governor. He made light of himself on David Letterman, but he's not going anywhere, and there are a lot of wealthy campaign donors out there who want their money back. Ironically, even though Perry has positioned himself as a moderate on the issue of illegal immigration, a risky stance, he declared a couple months ago that U.S. military intervention might be required to deal with the problem of narco gang violence in Mexico. See BBC. Such a suggestion is absolutely ludicrous.

Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum, each in their own way, illustrate the pitfalls of campaigns that stress emotional commitment and downplay intellectual engagement. Bachmann is a lawyer by training, and is evidently bright, but her law degree is from a religious school that was once affiliated with Oral Roberts University, and is reputed to be weak academically. Her early debate performances were very compelling, but too many of her statements were outside the mainstream. Santorum seems hopelessly lost, a tragic figurehead for the Bushite social conservative faction that makes lots of noise, but attracts fewer voters with every election cycle.

I really wish Jon Huntsman (Utah) and Gary Johnson (New Mexico) would be taken more seriously. Huntsman is too moderate for me on many key issues, such as health care, but I deeply admire his frank, unapologetic appeal to independent-minded voters and his criticism of GOP ideological dogma on tax cuts, etc. As Kathleen Parker noted, "Huntsman committed blasphemy when he told ABC's Jake Tapper that he trusts scientists on global warming." (To me, it's clear that atmospheric changes are taking place, but not at all clear what's causing it.) Johnson is a Libertarian without the reputation for saying kooky things that Ron Paul has. He has the added benefit of having been a governor. I was not even aware of Johnson before Facebook friend Nick Sorrentino brought him to my attention; clearly Facebook has many good uses. smile Johnson may decide to run as an independent, or else on the Libertarian ticket.

So that leaves us with Newt Gingrich versus Mitt Romney. They are both intelligent, experienced, and articulate, and both are deeply flawed. In their race to round up Republican voters, they are forced to pander to The Base, coming across as quite cynical in the process. I favor Gingrich in terms of the issues, but his personal history and general grouchy attitude -- like Bob Dole in 1996? -- cast big doubts on his ability to sustain a long campaign and defeat Barack Obama. Romney has a good a chance as any candidate to win, and I happen to agree with his rationale for mandatory health insurance being appropriate for Massachusetts but not the country as a whole. It's a logical application of the Tenth Amendment, but it may be too subtle, especially for some of the low-brow voters in the Republican ranks. It will be easy for Obama to play the demagogue on this, calling Romney hypocritical for not supporting his (Obama's) health care law. I hope the American people are smart enough to make the distinction, if Romney ends up with the nomination, but I wouldn't bet on it.

In sum, I'm not very enthusiastic about any of the Republicans running for president, and I'm afraid the party's recent troubles will result in this country continuing in the statist direction that President Obama has begun. When will a true leader emerge to challenge people's thinking and tell them what they don't want to hear? Too bad New Jersey's Chris Christie just doesn't have the "fire in the belly."