Dear Grand Old Elephant,
Since your first significant appearances in 1874 as mascot for the Republican Party, you've come to symbolize a long list of positive attributes. You have a long memory, prefer fair dealing, show unmatched strength in defense of your herd, and always present a formidable and steady opponent for the Democratic Party, whether its platform is depicted as a tiger, fox, donkey, or other fearsome creature. Whatever the threat, you've stomped it flat plenty of times.
But we're worried about you lately. The current GOP primary is making you look like a circus animal. We're not sure if you have a television or Internet connection, but the primary race has been one sideshow after another so far.
We're not sure if it's just a coincidence, but ever since Sarah Palin, the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee and former governor of Alaska, finally said she'd decided not to run, things have gotten pretty wild. News reporters turned their attention to the declared candidates. When they started shaking trees, all manner of fruit and nuts started falling down. The polls have been all over the place as your party's voters narrow in on their choice. And it seems that every week there's some new poll showing a new challenger to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's consistent string of top showings.
A few strong contenders have lost significant promise after peaking, and one of them has dropped out completely. Herman Cain, the former pizza magnate and one-time Georgia senatorial candidate, captivated people with his extremely simple plan for the economy and his candid admission that foreign policy was not his strong suit. Ron Paul, the longtime Texas congressman, keeps winning now and then, and his supporters are passionate, but he's not considered a serious choice for the nomination by a wide segment of the party establishment.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry had been charging ahead, but after a series of bizarre gaffes, including one cringe-worthy New Hampshire speech that went viral and caused some pundits to speculate that he was intoxicated, he hasn't returned to the top. Yet he went nuclear this week in a bid to regain standing ahead of the Iowa caucus by releasing a controversial new TV ad aimed at religious conservatives and bedecked with red meat for the base.
Lately, former Speaker of the U.S. House Newt Gingrich is presenting the most credible challenge yet to Romney, who doesn't excite the party's base anymore than John McCain did in 2008. But with ascension to the top tier comes a brighter spotlight. And despite the absolute genius of Gingrich's ability to position himself as anti-establishment after a lucrative career in the establishment, the proclaimed leader of the last Republican revolution, in 1994, has been raising eyebrows with his criticism of child labor laws and his struggle to explain lucrative political consulting with an array of scandalized business interests. And many political pundits wonder at his ability to run a nationwide campaign with so few "boots on the ground" in states beyond the early contests.
But to cap it all off, celebrity businessman and reality show ringleader Donald Trump this past week announced he plans to moderate a debate at the end of December, to which only three candidates have committed thus far. Trump trumped up his debate by launching a media tour that featured plenty of bashing of critics who lament that this election has become more about hawking brands than leading the most powerful nation in the free world. Trump has said that if he doesn't see the “right” candidate, he'd consider jumping into the race as an independent. Yep, you heard right, a moderator for an upcoming debate has threatened to declare his candidacy. Even as we write this, the Trump debate sideshow is spinning out new developments.
But Trump's mention of the “right” candidate has us thinking. We're a little concerned it's a hint that Sarah Palin might be regretting her decision not to run. Adding to our concern is the apparent fact that each of the struggling challengers to Romney seems to have something small in common with Palin. It's as if her formidable media persona had been divided up and handed out piecemeal to other candidates who aren't named Romney or Huntsman and who have recently enjoyed short-lived favor in GOP polls.
Cain, before imploding under the weight of scandalous headlines and Pokemon quotes, exuded a very relatable “you betcha” attitude and wielded very simple solutions to the nation's problems; Ron Paul consistently rails against the status quo and calls for a wholesale reduction in the size and scope of the federal government (though, admittedly, he's been at it a lot longer than Palin); Rick Perry looks good on camera and has Texan swagger (a small substitute for Alaskan swagger); Michelle Bachmann has strong appeal among religious conservatives. And essentially all of them encourage the economic fantasy that the United States can actually achieve “energy independence,” as Palin has commonly done.
In a recent media appearance, Palin threw a bone to former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick "Google Problem" Santorum by praising his "ideological consistency." But he's never been among the leaders, and a recent Gallup poll concludes that 62 percent of Republican voters consider him unacceptable as a nominee.
This fractured field of slightly possible, but ultimately unserious campaigns have attracted the ire of more traditional conservatives, including George Will, who recently called Cain an “entrepreneurial charlatan” for holding a book tour and running a campaign at the same time. It's gotten so bad that election watchers are now debating how likely it is that a deadlock between the party establishment and a fragmented rank-and-file will result in a brokered convention and a nominee who isn't running in the primary.
We're not sure what that would even look like because it's exceedingly rare, but it would probably involve you standing on a ball while someone juggles things on fire. People who know better than The Concerned think it could result in the nominee being someone who didn't run in the primary.
We're afraid this primary indicates the GOP has simply avoided dealing with the intra-party conflict that's grown in recent election cycles between two strains of American conservativism: let's call them, as example, the Millers versus the Murkowskis.
This presidential primary is functioning to bypass that elephant in the room by diffusing the main embodiment of one side of the conflict, Palin, across four other candidates.
Maybe the conflict will go away. Maybe not. But one thing's for certain, people expect an elephant of the GOP, and they're getting a clown car. The nation deserves better.