How did the Republican Presidential Field Become Such a Mess?

Would it be going too far if I called the entire Republican presidential field of candidates over the last 2 election cycles a national embarrassment? Maybe, but it’s not far off.

Let’s start with the last election.

The only candidate in 2012 who had a plausible shot at beating President Obama was Mitt Romney, but he fit in with the rest of the Republican field about as well as a boy scout at a biker rally. He was strictly a business oriented Republican and a pragmatist, not a culture warrior, and most Republicans didn’t care for him. In fact, one might say he was barely tolerated by red state voters who held their collective noses as they cast their ballots. They were voting more as a rebuke of President Obama than an endorsement of then candidate Romney.

The fact that the Republican standard bearer was so undesirable to his own party speaks volumes about how the Republicans perceived the political environment at the time. Specifically, it demonstrated that the brighter bulbs in the party who had an eye on the Whitehouse had long since concluded that running against President Obama was dead end. You only get one real chance at the Whitehouse, so why waste it?

This collective realization from nearly all the A-listers led to a power vacuum at the national level for the Republicans and set the stage for the zombie-like B-listers to wander haplessly into the void. And in they came. Candidates that ordinarily wouldn’t capture the attention of a newsroom intern were suddenly relevant and that’s why 2012 turned out to be such a disaster for the party. The patients were attempting to run the asylum.

Along with the lukewarmly-received Romney there was Ron Paul – a smart, articulate politico but also a fringe candidate with impractical views. Newt Gingrich was on his third wife which is generally a bad thing when you’re aspiring to represent the party of religion and family values, and he had a reputation from his time in congress as an angry partisan. Next there was Rick Santorum who couldn’t even get re-elected to Congress from his own state. Michele Bachmann was demagogue and nakedly ambitious. Her laughable attempt at a rogue State of the Union rebuttal was a debacle and helped seal her fate. Herman Cain was not a politician and it showed. Mike Huckabee was a creationist, and the others were even less notable than the those already mentioned. None was a serious threat to Obama.

Even the Republican electorate knew the field was stuffed with punchlines and they struggled throughout the primary season to find a suitable leader. No one wanted to settle for Romney and he had to wait his turn on the sidelines like the last kid to be picked in gym class. Polls showed voters scrutinizing literally every other candidate in the field before settling on him. A dubious honor with an unhappy and predicable ending.

Fast forward to 2015.

Now that the brass ring is up for grabs for the first time in 8 years, it should come as no surprise that the prospective candidates who grudgingly sat out the 2012 cycle are frothing at the opportunity to stake their claim. Pundits have said that the large number of GOP hopefuls is a result of the Citizens United ruling, allowing candidates to be propped up by a wealthy few, but they are only half right. The other reason is because Republican demagoguery is all the rage among the voters. If the Republican’s 2012 race (and Sarah Palin who came before them) showed the extremists on the right one thing, it was that bomb throwing is a tasty treat for primary voters.

All of these environmental changes culminated, at least momentarily, in the rise of Donald Trump. Trump is nothing less than the pinnacle of bombast, and both the public and the media have responded with open arms, although for different reasons than Trump would care to admit. The stupider, the more offensive, and the more in-your-face Trump has become, the larger his poll numbers. This has had 2 effects.

First, it’s contributed to the further decline of the stature of the Republican political machine as civility and reasonableness have been replaced by unapologetic hubris. This has also given rise to a whole slew of new candidate behaviors that would not have been tolerated in years past. Mike Huckabee, for instance, has been tripping all over himself of late to say outrageous things just to win a soundbite in the daily news cycle. It’s kind of sad to watch, but not unexpected as candidates fall all over themselves to trump Trump.

Second, it’s become nearly impossible for the better candidates to break through the noise, leaving the Republicans wondering for a second presidential election in a row if they’re going to be forced once again to field a settled-for as their party’s choice. Everyone expects Trump to fall, but no one knows when.

The Republicans have a huge right-wing problem and it’s left them a laughing stock instead of an ideological rival. A quick glance at a bell curve reminds us that the Republicans have no chance of winning from the far right. They need the center, period – but bomb-throwers don’t live in the center. So they are left with a shattered reputation and unelectable candidates who can only pretend to compete effectively as malarkey can only get you so far.

And that’s how the Republican party presidential field became such a mess.

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