I will admit that I didn’t watch last week’s Republican debates. I didn’t really need any more comedy on my TV schedule; viewing the Food Network’s never-ending parade of wannabe chefs on “Chopped” and the spin-offs of that show (my wife’s obsession) gives me all the chuckles I need.
But, being something of a political junkie, I caught up on the highlights through the various clips that were provided on the post-debate coverage that all the major cable networks provided, and I’m confident that I didn’t miss anything of substance, since there was precious little substance to see anyway.
For those who might be a little less informed, here’s the current lineup of announced candidates. There are seventeen in all, and Fox News, which broadcast the debates, divided the gaggle into two groups. The ten who had averaged at least three percent in the most recent national polls were on the prime-time stage, and the other seven, with less that that meager amount of popularity, were provided a forum earlier in the afternoon.
Of the seventeen, the most well-known are Donald Trump and Jeb Bush. The former is famous for being rich and is something of a TV celebrity, with a succession of trophy wives and girlfriends that rival Hugh Hefner’s and an ego that exceeds just about anyone’s. Mr. Bush is famous for being a Bush, to wit: the younger son of the former president and the younger brother of the other former president.
Some of the other candidates with name recognition are Chris Christie, the current governor of New Jersey, who has been something of a controversial figure for a variety of reasons (e.g., “bridgegate” and hugging President Obama after Hurricane Sandy); Ted Cruz, the senator from Texas, who tried to singularly filibuster against extending the federal debt limit a few years ago and is otherwise considered a maverick within his party; Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin, who has been warring with his state’s labor unions (and survived a recall election) ever since he took office; Marco Rubio, the Florida senator, who is youthful and Hispanic, but may be best remembered for grabbing for a sip of water in his State of the Union response a few years ago; Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, who is also a former Baptist pastor and, more recently, hosted a political talk show on Fox News; John Kasich, the governor of Ohio, who, unlike most of his rivals for the nomination, has not entirely condemned Obamacare; Rand Paul, the Kentucky senator who, like his father Ron (who ran in ’08 and ’12) claims allegiance to the libertarian ideology; and, Rick Perry, the former Texas governor who infamously forgot one of the three federal agencies he would close down in a 2012 debate.
In addition to those ten, there are six other men and one woman (Carly Fiorini, who was the CEO at Hewlett-Packard before she ran a losing campaign for governor of California several years ago) all vying for the Republican presidential nomination. I recall a similarly crowded field of candidates running for president of our class in my junior year of high school. Then the thought was that everyone was trying to improve their résumés for college applications. No such reason seems apparent for the ridiculously large number of candidates for the nation’s highest elected office.
Instead, the large field probably represents the entirely accurate assumption that the party lacks a clear front runner, which is another way of saying the party lacks an heir apparent or an individual who is obviously qualified above anyone else. And, perhaps it also indicates that the Democrats are perceived as being beatable, with presumed nominee Hillary Clinton attackable for a variety of flaws in her character, if not her résumé.
But all of that conjecture aside, what must be troubling to the party insiders at this early point in the race is that the only candidate with any kind of a strong groundswell of rank-and-file support is the least electable of the bunch.
That would be Mr. Trump, who is this year’s version of Herman Cain and Michelle Bachmann, with a little Sarah Palin thrown in for good measure. Trump, in other words, is a joke, or at least he would be if he weren’t so confident in himself. But to the power brokers in the party, he’s an embarrassment, not so much because he lacks any gravitas, let alone a legitimate résumé, but because he says things that appeal to the worst instincts of the party’s base and only rises in the polls when he does.
We’re very early in the process, and the field of candidates will gradually constrict as those who are really only “testing the water” find little support in the polls or in their fund-raising efforts. Ultimately, the race will narrow to Bush, Walker, Rubio, and maybe a couple of others (Cruz, Kasich, maybe Christie), with Bush emerging as the one to take on Ms. Clinton, in what would be a sad reminder of how limited our democracy is in producing quality candidates.
In the meantime, the Republicans promise to be a lot more fun to watch than the Democrats, with only 73-year old Bernie Sanders even nudging Ms. Clinton into a serious race for the nomination (unless Vice-President Biden gets in: the guess here is he won’t).
The far-more interesting race would be Clinton against Rubio, since that would at least give the country the option to go with youth and inexperience over seniority and résumé (something it has done four times in the last six elections: Bill Clinton over George H.W. Bush and then Bob Dole; and Barack Obama over John McCain and then Mitt Romney). But the GOP always nominates grizzled old veterans who have “won the right” by “serving in the trenches,” as the clichés go. So, look for Jeb to get the nod after all the other clowns have had their say.
And then it will be fun to watch him distance himself from his brother while Hillary tries to recall the glory years of her husband.