“An invitation to a circus,” President George W. Bush’s ex-press secretary sagely sniffed.
And his theme quickly became news, as The New York Times headlined: “G.O.P. Strategists Fret Over ‘Circus’ of Trump Debate.”
But lost in this Grand Old Party family wailing is the unfortunate truth that, in many ways, the 2012 Republican presidential challengers have been so lacking — compared to the candidates in many past GOP contests — that their debates had long ago taken on the aura of a circus.
Week after week, we focused on the center ring, awaiting the arrival of the tiny clown car — and then, one by one, out they’d come, striding into the spotlight, ready to do their well-rehearsed thing.
Soon we’d be laughing in spite of ourselves — at onetime co-frontrunner Rick Perry’s famous “Oops!” routine, or once co-frontrunner Herman Cain’s palsy-walsy greeting of his good old CNN buddy, “Blitz!”
While strutting their stuff, someone would inevitably step firmly onto an upturned rake. Such a hoot.
Not all were laugh riots, of course. The most perpetual of the frontrunners, Mitt Romney, a political Ken Doll, specialized in having to explain why he seemed to have flip-flopped on issue after issue — which became funny in a perverse sort of way. Of course he always dodged the real truth: he had to flip-flop like that because he once wooed liberals in Massachusetts, and thus had to show flexibility on issues like abortion. But now he must pitch his woo at a Republican national base that has shifted further to the right than ever before. So he has, too. Meanwhile, voters wonder whether Romney has the core of his convictions.
And finally there was the newest frontrunner, Newt Gingrich, the only Macy’s parade balloon in the race, who not only looks like a cartoon caricature of himself but has a resume that lives up to his countenance.
Newt is the Tiffany candidate of a lackluster field, which fits just fine since he’s proud to have a half-million dollar line of credit with that elite bauble merchant. His resume includes three wives and overlapping relationships, while attacking the once married Bill Clinton for his transgressions; and ethics transgressions that cost Gingrich his House speakership. Gingrich’s specialty is to win over his audiences by feeding them red meat, in the form of railing at the liberal news media.
Gingrich, Perry and Romney all made pilgrimages to visit The Donald, whose support they seemed to cravenly crave.
But while Gingrich and Perry said they would participate in a Trump-hosted debate, Romney opted instead to show he has some steel after all — and announced Tuesday he won’t attend. Back in the pack, with chances for success ranging from slim to none, are two who also opted out of the debate — Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman — plus Rick Santorum, who said yes to the Trump debate, and Michele Bachmann, who is still thinking about it.
Watching the GOP circus this year, I find myself yearning for years past, when the Old Party was genuinely Grand and its presidential field was genuinely impressive. Such as 1980, when Ronald Reagan won the Republican nomination in a field of certified GOP luminaries: future President George H.W. Bush, Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker, future Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, former Treasury Secretary and Texas Gov. John Connally, and Rep. John Anderson.
That 1980 Republican field was a veritable Circus Maximus of gladiators. By contrast, the party’s 2012 cast of candidates is, a Circus Minimus, at best.
Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service.