The GOP’s Long Love Affair With Schmucks

Why Republicans fall in love with inexperienced, no-hope candidates every four years.

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Conservative Republicans have finally called it quits with short-term former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (she lasted just two-and-a-half years in that position before quitting). The final straw, it seems, is the 2008 vice-presidential candidate’s recent speech at the “Iowa Freedom Summit” that has charitably been called “an interminable ramble,” “an extended stream-of-consciousness complaint,” and simply “bizarro.”

So America’s most-famous snowbilly is out of the running for the 2016 Republican nomination. But what about all the other manifestly unqualified novices, jackasses, and publicity hounds that surface every four years when the GOP starts fishing for someone/anyone that can beat whatever sad sack of chum the Democrats toss in the water?

Unlike the Democrats, who never stray far from career politicians when selecting a presidential candidate, Republicans always seem to be looking for some sort of otherworldly savior to waltz in and take the country by storm. Someone unsullied by, you know, much (if any) actual experience in holding office, winning elections, and governing on a daily basis. Though GOP voters typically end up selecting major-state governors (Reagan, Bush II) or long-serving, partly mummified senators (Dole, McCain), they spend a hell of a lot time in primary season dancing with some pretty strange suitors.

Perhaps it’s the analogue to the longstanding and still-potent jibe that Republicans don’t really want to govern. They disdain the political process to such a degree that it takes them forever to pull the switch for a politician. Even the 2012 nominee Mitt Romney was touted more for his supposed business acumen as a turnaround specialist at Bain Capital than he was for his record as governor of Massachusetts. I’d argue, too, that Romney’s refusal to stand for reelection as governor in 2006 mirrored his party’s damaging dislike of politics. If you want to be president but can’t be bothered to actually learn how to govern, well good luck with that.

In the past, Republicans have coalesced around such obvious joke candidates as businessman Herman Cain, whose main achievements involved management stints at two of the nation’s most grotesque fast-food chains (Burger King and Godfather’s Pizza), and Alan Keyes, whose resume includes a brief stint as a Reagan appointee to the reviled-by-conservatives United Nations, hosting an ironically titled MSNBC show (Alan Keyes Is Making Sense), and a historic loss to one Barack Obama in the 2004 Illinois Senate race.

That Cain and Keyes are black is no accident. While the GOP struggles to crack double digits in terms of votes from African Americans, the party’s overwhelmingly white membership seems to have an unending appetite for high-profile, successful black men whose very presence on a debate stage softens charges of hostility and indifference to issues about race. This helps explain why The Weekly Standard is officially “Taking Ben Carson Seriously,” as Fred Barnes’ recent cover story puts it.

Even as sycophantic and try-hard a journalist as Fred Barnes admits that Carson has absolutely zero qualifications for and no shot at becoming the Republican nominee. At best, the retired brain surgeon might make a possible surgeon general (of course, a Republican administration truly devoted to shrinking the size, scope, and spending of government would eliminate such a useless position). But Barnes is game to make the case for Carson, employing what George W. Bush once famously chided as the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” Carson, after all, “has substantial name identification,” avers Barnes. “He can raise money. His poverty-to-prominence story is compelling. He has a grassroots following. He is fluent on national issues.”

But wait, there’s more! Barnes quotes from an advertorial Carson ran at the right-wing fever-swamp site NewsMax and on DirecTV: “‘You ask him a question and he knows how to answer,’ country musician Ricky Skaggs says on the show. ‘From all indications,’ the narrator says, ‘the sky’s the limit for Dr. Carson.’” He knows how to answer! The sky’s the limit! You can practically see Mike Huckabee shaking his head like LBJ when he supposedly learned that Walter Cronkite had pronounced the Vietnam War a lost cause. When you’ve lost Ricky Skaggs…

It’s not just latter-day incarnations of Booker T. Washington that captivate the Republican soul during primary season. Back in the mid-1990s, journalist and Watergate apologist Pat Buchanan took a break from defending Nixon and Nazi war criminals to actually win the 1996 New Hampshire primary and three other states over eventual nominee Bob Dole. That same year, publishing magnate Steve Forbes won primaries in Arizona and Delaware while pushing a flat tax and gifting material to Saturday Night Live.

A decade ago, during a little-remembered and best-forgotten lapse in judgement, various Republican apparatchiks pushed to amend the sacred text of the Constitution so that foreign-born Arnold Schwarzenegger might become president. Blame it on medical marijuana, maybe, or the fact that the Gubernator’s absolute incompetency in his public and private life had yet to reveal itself fully.

In the current climate, Donald Trump is haunting the Republican banquet like Banquo’s ghost, ghastly evidence that something’s not quite right. At the same Iowa Freedom Summit event where Palin fatally beclowned herself, the Donald hinted that he is considering a 2016 presidential run. Just like he considered a bid in 2000 as an independent candidate and one in 2012 as a Republican. And possibly running for governor of New York. Despite a long record of patently stupid statements related to virtually every topic in politics (being an Obama birther is really the least of it), Trump has an all-access pass to Republican-friendly events and TV shows on Fox News. His Twitter feed is clogged with bizarre accusations such as this one claiming Barack Obama was going to declare martial law in New York City during Winter Storm Iola.

Sure, Trump might have shown expert negotiating skills when he hustled Merv Griffin while unloading an Atlantic City casino back in the day, but it’s mind-boggling that one of just two major parties lets Trump open his yap at its confabs. Compared to Trump, former Hewlett-Packard CEO, California senatorial loser (in 2010, to Barbara Boxer), and going-nowhere-slow candidate Carly Fiorina comes across like Margaret Thatcher.

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As it happens, the Republican Party has a deep field of serious candidates. You may not like any of them in part or whole (I’ve got more than a few reservations myself), but the GOP is loaded for bear this time around in a way that must make Democrats worry. Team Blue has Hillary Clinton, who has yet to commit publicly to running, doubtlessly mindful not just of the indignities she will suffer not simply as the spouse of Bill but as a central part of the Obama administration’s massively failed foreign-policy team. The indifferent-to-hostile reception of her 2014 memoir Hard Choices no doubt weighs on her. And beyond Hillary? There’s Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden, and… not much else.

On the GOP side, there is a fistful of governors ranging from Chris Christie to Bobby Jindal to Jeb Bush to Scott Walker. There are young, energetic senators such as Marco Rubio and Rand Paul, who either have considerable legislative experience at the state level or have already demonstrated seriousness of purpose by sponsoring important legislation. (Texas gadfly Ted Cruz has neither and is far more like Donald Trump or Sarah Palin than a serious candidate.)

If history is any guide, Republicans will prevaricate as long as possible and make goo-goo eyes at candidates who have no meaningful experience and no real shot at winning the presidency. That’s their right. It’s a free country after all. But the longer they wait to get serious about vetting their party’s candidates for president, the more they will lose support among the independent voters who will decide the 2016 election. And if they lose them, they will only have themselves to blame, regardless of who the Democrats put up to run.