Tuesday, July 24, 2007

You Call These Candidates?

I've been trying to figure something out since this whole overheated, overlong campaign season started. It's starting to make my head hurt.

It's about the GOP. Ever since the late 70s, they've been intensely focused on priming their political pump with a rich flow of potential candidates. To this end, they've been hand-picking preachers and PTA presidents, packing school boards, sending people off for elite candidate training courses, hooking them up with money people, and generally doing far more to cultivate their native leadership talent than the Democrats even thought about doing until Paul Wellstone came along. This aggressive candidate-building infrastructure has been a core source of the GOP's power for about 30 years now. They take it very seriously -- and they're very, very good at it.

Which is why my head begins to hurt when I look at that sorry passel of White Christian Males parading across the stage at the GOP debates. All those years, all that money, that whole infrastructure -- and this is the very best their party can offer us now? I mean, really? Rudy Giuliani, with his nasty divorces and a record that makes him one of the most despised men in New York? Unctious, officious Mormon good-boy Mitt Romney?

And Fred Thompson? FRED THOMPSON? In what universe is this man a serious presidential candidate? I mean, Reagan was an actor, too -- but he also had some serious chops as a union president before becoming a two-term governor of California. And then, only then, was he considered presidential material. Thompson's skipped right over all of that. His backers think he's got what it takes to go straight from a totally fictitious DA's office to the very real White House.

It's time to 911 the DEA. Whatever it is they're smoking, we've got to keep it away from the voters.

How did it come to this? How did the whole GOP candidate-grooming juggernaut end up broken down by the side of the road, hissing and groaning, throwing off sparks and oozing out noxious effluent like these three front-runners?

In my most paranoid moments -- or when my head starts aching so badly that I reach for the Vicodin -- it's tempting to think that somehow, Bush and Dick set it up this way. After all, the president is the de facto head of the party -- and the Bush clan has spent much of the past decade believing that little brother Jebbie would step right up as the new oligarch, keeping it all in the family from 2008 through 2016. (Bush, Sr. has made several comments in the past year that suggest he's given up on this hope. The man is nothing if not a realist.) But for most of the past seven years, the Bush family's domination may have discouraged the party from cultivating anyone who might pose a threat to those plans. And that may, in fact, be part of the reason for this leadership vacuum.

After the second Vicodin, when the visions get darker and the tinfoil hat fits just a little tighter, I'm tempted to think that the big money behind this administration never expected there to be a 2008 election at all. No point in raising up candidates -- and hopes -- for a non-event. Wannabe candidates would just cause trouble when the tanks roll, and might even bring in agitators to disrupt the coronation. They're just the kind of trouble the new empire can do without. While it's quite possible Cheney thinks this way -- and it's very clear that the fundamentalist right thinks this way -- I'm dubious that this goal is widely shared outside those overheated precincts.

But there's a third explanation that's far more reasonable and logical -- and probably the closest one to the truth as well.

The real problem is that for the past 30 years, the GOP's candidate selection processes have very deliberately weeded out moderate candidates in favor of far-right demagogues. Moderates who did get themselves elected -- usually over considerable party resistance-- found themselves cut off at the knees at every turn. Thirty years of these purity crusades have virtually eliminated the party's centrist wing. We've often noted what this has meant for the way things get done in Congress; but the fact is that the GOP's current embarrassment of candidates is a direct result of the party's fondness for hunting RINOs into extinction.

And now, they're paying the price. Four years ago, if you'd asked a GOP strategist who the front-runners would be going into 2008, you might have gotten a earful about Tom DeLay, Bill Frist, Rick Santorum, and Sam Brownback. These were the guys who'd followed the far-right script to the letter, and were emerging as the party's leading lights as a result. John McCain would have figured prominently, too -- war hero, straight talker. Right.

But it all changed so fast. The Abramoff scandal. Terry Schiavo. Mark Foley. And, yes, the war. Three of those 2004 golden boys are now completely out of Congress; and Sam Brownback's campaign is going nowhere fast. McCain, in the end, really was simply too old and out of touch. Something terrible has happened. And the GOP can't even find words for it, because they're still in complete denial that anything's gone wrong at all.

What happened? Several things. First, they've lost the corporate kingmakers. The Democrats' incredible fundraising numbers tell you all you need to know on that score. Right-wing candidates who had no problem getting votes and money four years ago are now coming up empty-handed. The big money isn't interested in their moral crusades. They just know that America, with its falling dollar and evaporating middle class and overwhelming medical costs is no longer a place they like doing business. They want change -- and are willing to pay to get it.

Second, they've lost the voters, who are overwhelmingly disgusted with their intrusive moralizing and hypocrisy. And, lest we forget, the war. The oh-so-carefully culled GOP farm teams have, finally, yielded a pack of candidates that absolutely nobody wants, save the true-believing 25%. And this time, they're not going to be enough to win an election on.

Third, after 30 years of aggressive moderate-bashing, it's doubtful that the GOP even has any sharp, shrewd, reality-based candidates left. (Who'd have thought they -- and we -- would ever miss Barry Goldwater?) But even if such a creature had survived the RINO hunts, they'd be proving how smart they are by sitting this one out. If they ran, and won, what would they win? The honor of being the next GOP president in charge of the GOP's war? The glory that comes with raising taxes to cover the bills? The joy of explaining to the religious right, once more with feeling, that they're not going to get their stem-cell bans and prayer-in-school bills?

No, all a GOP candidate stands to win this time around is full inheritance rights on Bush's failures. A Democratic president will be expected to make a fresh start; a Republican can only deliver more of the same. Any sensible candidate would look at those prospects, and decide to spend the next four years playing golf instead.

So. The money is gone. The voters are gone. The moderates are gone -- and the crazies who pushed them out have been summarily rejected by the money and the voters. Which means that the GOP has come up totally empty-handed this time around.

However: nature abhors a vacuum. And political vacuums -- for all of history -- have always, always, sucked in the worst sort of rank opportunists, forcing the absurd, the corrupt, and the unqualified to the front of the stage. Enter, then, Mitt and Rudy and Fred.

Three guys who would have had zero chance, who wouldn't have even made it through the money primaries, in any other year. They know they don't have a hope in hell of winning, what with the party blowing to bits under their feet even as it keeps rushing forward; but they're gonna take the ride anyway, because it comes with lots of ego candy and exposure and the chance to make connections. For 18 glorious months, they'll get to pretend that they deserve to be taken seriously. The thought that their careers may very well die a horrible death in the coming party crack-up either doesn't occur to them, or doesn't bother them. It's a ride they never expected to take in the first place, so who cares? They'll dine out for the rest of their lives on the fact that they were once a front-runner. For a certain kind of egomaniac, that's reason enough.

The GOP's candidates are a joke because the party itself has become a joke -- a painful, rueful joke on the American people. That the True Believers remaining in the party can delude themselves that these men are in any way qualified candidates (OK, Mitt's qualified; he's just not electable) is a final testament to just how completely estranged from reality they really are.

The rest of us, who are in on the joke, owe it to the country to keep pointing and laughing, never letting the GOP forge what a farce its ticket really is. And we can take even more pleasure in the fact that they brought the whole thing entirely on themselves.