Spinning the Clown Car

Even as most Republicans wring their hands over the vast size of their presidential field, and Fox News plots to kill a bunch of them off by denying them spots on the televised debate stage, at least one gabber, Edward Morrissey (the Hot Air blogger who also has a perch at The Week), has decided to pretend it’s a good thing. Prepare yourself for a spit-bath of spin:

After the dramatic events in George W. Bush’s second term and the economic plans of Barack Obama, the grassroots of the party organized to redefine the conservative agenda. The Tea Party movement succeeded not just in winning Republican control of the House, but also in a tidal wave that transformed state legislatures and the ranks of governors across the country. Despite the loss in the presidential race of 2012, the GOP has moved to its best position at the state level since before the Great Depression….

In 2011-12, though, the movement didn’t have the time to produce a viable presidential candidates. The “clown car” dynamic of 2012 was driven primarily by a lack of credible alternatives to the GOP’s traditional, recycled, “next in line” candidate, Mitt Romney. The alternatives ranged from ’90s throwbacks like Newt Gingrich to long shots more in touch with the grassroots like Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain, none of whom could sustain a viable challenge.

This time, the field has a plethora of credible candidates — sitting senators and two-term governors who won election in the post-Bush GOP environment. It’s no longer a clown car, but an open market of fresh and viable players who will give the GOP what it has needed since the end of the Bush administration: a legitimate market test for the direction of the party.

He goes on and on, and repeats the usual stuff–a bit odd now that there are three rivals officially in the field–about the Democratic coronation of HRC. But the basic ideas are (1) looky looky at the luxuriant talent the Irresistable Upsurge on the Right has promoted! and (2) wow, can’t wait to hear all the new, cool ideas this veritable All-Star Cast will debate and refine on the campaign trail!

On the first point, you’d think the “post-Bush GOP environment” wouldn’t have produced a presidential field with so many relics of the Bush era, wouldn’t you? There’s an actual Bush, of course, hoovering up a lot of the money–a guy who last won office in 2002. There are two refugees from the “clown car” Morrissey admits 2012 wound up becoming, the Ricks (Santorum–who last won office in 2000–and Perry, an actual Bush’s successor in Texas). There’s three largely forgotten governors from the 2000s, George Pataki, Bobby Ehrlich and Jim Gilmore. There’s Mike Huckabee, who last won a general election in 2002. There’s 1990s whiz kid, Bobby Jindal; only one of his five campaigns occurred in after Bush left office. There’s John Kasich, who first went to Washington in 1982, and ran for president in 2000. There’s Linsday Graham, who’s been in Congress since 1994 and in the Senate since 2002. And then there’s Ben Carson, who’s never run for office, and Carly Fiorina, who got trounced in her one campaign in 2010.

That leaves Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio and Chris Christie as arguably representatives of the post-Bush GOP. I guess five out of eighteen ain’t bad, but Morrisey’s argument that the volume of the field is a tribute to the amazin’ bench the party has built since W. left town is just not right.

But it’s an argument that’s pretty sound compared to the other one: that the huge field is giving Republican primary voters a vast array of choices when it comes to “ideas.”

I guess there could be some freewheeling debate. There’s a 17-on-one debate between Jeb Bush and everybody else on Common Core (they all agree on massively voucherizing public education, so that’s not worth talking about). There’s also a 17-on-one debate on foreign policy and national security issues between Rand Paul and everyone else on Middle Eastern policy, though they do all agree on boosting defense spending. Another 17-to-one debate could be held between Mike Huckabee and everybody else on trade and entitlement reform. I suppose the candidates could debate which of them abandoned the old party position favoring comprehensive immigration reform the earliest and the most adamantly, along with exactly what they want undocumented people to do before they are deported. Maybe they can debate Marco Rubio’s idea of ballooning budget deficits by adding some family-friendly tax credits to the big upper-income and corporate tax cuts they all agree on. And there’s always an opportunity for a rousing debate between those who favor prohibiting 100% of abortions, and those way, way over on the other end of the spectrum who favor prohibiting 99.5% of abortions.

If you listen to what the candidates are actually arguing about, on the rare occasions they aren’t just throwing red meat at crowds by attacking Obama and Hillary Clinton, it’s mostly competitive boasting, disagreements over strategy and tactics, and different claims about their electability. For the most part, “electability” is defined as “how I will win without compromising my conservative principles.” “Conservative principles” are defined as the product of 200 rigid litmus tests covering most issues.

So for the most part for today’s Republicans having a big candidate field provides more of an echo chamber than any kind of stimulating, mind-expanding debate. And that’s why limiting participation in debates is the one fresh, exciting new idea that is sure to win–and save–the day.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.