On April 4, Barack Obama officially launched his reelection campaign with a video, “It Begins with Us,” which, in a nod to the “hope and change” days of 2008, features Americans from all walks of life talking about the need to reelect him. Obama's announcement was not a surprise to anyone, but it does lead one's eyes to wander over to the other side of the political aisle with a more perplexing question in mind: who will be the Republican nominee for President in 2012? Right now the answer is unclear. There are at least ten contenders who are considering running, but most are afraid to dip their toes into the water and actually declare. Some of the potential nominees, however, have recently become more vocal about entering the campaign. So far, they have not been inspiring.
First, there is Newt Gingrich, who was Speaker of the House throughout much of the 1990s. Recently, Gingrich has written profound academic insights about the President such as: “What if he is so outside our comprehension [that he can be understood] only if you understand Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior?”
Not to be outdone by Gingrich, Mike Huckabee, former governor of Arkansas and favorite of the Christian right, said that he would “love to know more” about Obama's apparently suspect U.S. birth certificate and that “[Obama's] perspective as growing up in Kenya…is very different than ours because he probably grew up hearing that the British were a bunch of imperialists.”
Then there is Governor Haley Barbour (R-MS), who recently said of segregation in the South, “I just don't remember it as being that bad.”
Finally and most recently, Donald Trump has thrown his hat into the ring. His only stated policy position so far is that the President should show his birth certificate to the American people. “If you go back to my first grade, my kindergarten, people remember me,” Trump said on The View. “Nobody remembers [Obama].”
Of course, complaining about the inadequacies of presidential candidates is a tired occupation. Year in and year out, Americans don't vote for the ideal candidate for the White House: think George Bush, John Kerry, Al Gore and Bob Dole, among others. After all, Roosevelts and Lincolns are a rare breed, and a lot of democracy is just muddling through with the best leader on offer. But at few points in our history has one of our political parties been so thoroughly corroded by manipulative populists of this ilk. (The candidate list above doesn't even mention Sarah Palin or her protege, Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R-MN).) What is it about America or the Republican Party in 2011 that allows these people to command the stage?
There are a couple of possibilities. First, a lot of people on the right are nervous about their economic situations, and angry at the idea that their earnings are going to be redistributed by a government which has given them little reason to trust it for the past 10 years. Many of the these people are also concerned by a culture which they perceive to be getting more base, vulgar and valueless.The quickest and easiest way to gain these peoples' support is to conflate their economic and social concerns into a hurricane of horribleness that has Barack Obama at its center. To wit: “The country's being run into the ground by an atheistic socialist from Kenya and/or Indonesia who hates the West.” (I think I might be paraphrasing an actual Huckabee statement here.)
Second, in the past 50 years, internal reforms and modern technology have democratized the nominating process. Decisions about the presidential nominee used to be made in back rooms by party elders who had known the candidates personally, often for years. Now these choices are heavily influenced by average citizens committed enough to show up at caucuses and listen to potential candidates whom they've never met speak for an hour. The old system had its disadvantages—nepotism and chauvinism, for starters—but it also provided a method for weeding out the crazies, because if you were too unhinged to work with on a day-to-day basis, you weren't going to get nominated. The process allowed old city bosses like Richard Daley Sr. to thrive, but it also produced Harry Truman. Today, if you stir people up enough, you get a microphone and a voice, no matter how nuts you might be.
Third and relatedly, the modern media also plays a pernicious role. Every politically conscious person, regardless of party affiliation, agrees about the dangers of the media, but most people have no idea how to fix the problem. In the past ten years, everything has become a sound byte, and when voters judge nominees by three seconds of screen time they often make bad choices. Plus, in an age where nothing is off limits, a candidate's dirty laundry is bound to be aired.
Combine these three circumstances—the Right's present jumpiness, long-term structural changes in the nominating process and the sound-bite, tell-all reality in which we exist—and you get Huckabee, Palin, Trump, Gingrich, Barbour and Bachmann. Extremists or provocateurs dominate the arena and reasonable or sensitive people stay away. A major national party with meaningful beliefs, however deeply they might be buried, turns into a circus parade.
For me, the most poignant example of the circus effect is Governor Mitch Daniels (R-IN), a stellar state governor who is considering running for President. Daniels is sixty-one, dresses quietly, speaks softly and refuses to use Twitter because he is “too boring.” In other words, he is a normal person who happens to be a brilliant administrator. Daniels recently gave a speech in which he urged Republicans to forget social issues and focus on America's only current “survival level threat,” the fiscal situation. He was roundly castigated by the Republican base, and, though he refused to take back his comments, his enthusiasm for running seems to have waned. Plus, Daniels had already publicly expressed concern about putting his family through the ordeal of a presidential campaign. In our current environment, what normal person wouldn't be worried?