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Beware the clowns

Those in the reality-based community may laugh, but in Republican presidential politics, extremism is virtue

August 6, 2015 2:00AM ET

Is the way to watch the Republican debates tonight to set out a bowl of popcorn in the expectation that this conglomeration of candidates will produce truly memorable Comedy Central moments?

As Bill Schneider at Reuters put it, “Is 2016 the year of the Republican clown car?”

Dana Milbank of The Washington Post was quick to answer, “Clown car.” Politico’s Roger Simon said the “clown car has become a clown van.”

Sen. Ted Cruz is frying bacon on a rifle barrel. Sen. Lindsey Graham put his cellphone in a blender. Former Fox News host and ex-Gov. Mike Huckabee is running as the candidate of “Bubbaville.” Gov. Chris Christie is doing a Tony Soprano imitation, but fatter. Gov. Scott Walker claims that it’s God’s plan for him to run for president.

The biggest clown of all has jumped into the lead.

But before we chortle and view it all as fodder for the new host of “The Daily Show,” we should take a longer and deeper look at Republican presidential politics.

In 1980 the very witty Gore Vidal said, “[Ronald] Reagan has no chance of being elected president. It is true that the United States is turning into Paraguay but not at that speed.”

Reagan was elected twice.

By 1988, it was time for a change. The stock market crashed in 1987, “Black Monday,” the largest one day decline, still, in Wall Street history. The savings and loan crisis, the biggest set of bank failures since the Great Depression, was underway. Reagan’s tax cuts were supposed to generate more government revenue, even with the lower rates. Instead, the deficit tripled.

Also, there was Iran-Contra.

Imagine if Barack Obama had been secretly selling missiles to Iran. The evidence against Reagan mounted until he had to go on television and say, “A few months ago, I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true, but the facts and evidence tell me it is not.”

That’s astonishing. The president admitted not merely that he preferred to live in his imaginary world but also that he was capable of doing so.

The money from selling arms to Iran was used for another illegal purpose: funding right-wing paramilitaries in Nicaragua.

Pat Moynihan, the highly esteemed Democratic senator from New York, took a look at the contenders for the GOP nomination and said, “If we can’t beat these guys, we need to find another country.”

Yet the Republican, George H.W. Bush, won.

In 1992, however, he lost to Bill Clinton. Clinton won re-election against the very well-respected Bob Dole.

After eight years of peace and prosperity, Clinton’s vice president, Al Gore, should have coasted to victory. Ronald Reagan’s son Ron Reagan summed up Gore’s opponent, George W. Bush, this way: “He’s probably the least qualified person ever to be nominated by a major party … What is his accomplishment? That he’s no longer an obnoxious drunk?” 

If you’re a Republican and you want a candidate who can win, push for someone who lives in the fantasy world that you just saw advertised on Fox News.

Yet Bush won and then won re-election.

In 2008, Obama beat John McCain, a war hero, long-serving senator and statesman.

The Republican race of 2012 brought out the clowns: Gov. Rick Perry, who couldn’t remember the three federal agencies he would instantly shut down if elected. Rep. Michelle Bachman, who thought that America’s Founding Fathers abolished slavery, while the reality is that many of them owned slaves and that collectively they formalized slaves’ head count in the Constitution. Businessman Herman Cain, who said, “The more toppings a man has on his pizza … the more manly he is” and if he gets vegetables, it’s “a sissy pizza.” Sen. Rick Santorum, who was against contraception because “it’s a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.” Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, a devout hypocritarian, who declared, “I think one of the great problems we have in the Republican Party is that we don’t encourage you to be nasty.” And more.

But when the trolley trundled to a stop, the dignified Mitt Romney, a successful former governor of a blue state and an even more successful businessman, stepped out. And lost.

These 30 years reveal of very strange pattern.

Sane, sober, qualified Republican candidates Romney, McCain and Dole all lost. The misunderestimated Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush were winners.

George H.W. Bush is the proof of the pudding, because he ran as two different characters. In order to win the nomination in1988, he had to prove that he wasn’t a “wimp.” He did so by walking out of a TV interview. This may seem a strange way for a guy who won the Distinguished Flying Cross and flew 58 combat missions in World War II to prove his manhood to the electorate, but it is credited with having done the trick. To win the election, he attacked the Democrat as being soft on crime, specifically black criminals, and it carried him to victory.

As president, George H.W. Bush proved remarkably sane and sensible. He made sure his Gulf War was legal. He managed to have Arab states align against another Arab state to get the Israelis to keep their mouths shut, to stop when Iraq was kicked out of Kuwait and, to top it all off, got other countries to pay for it. The economic policies he inherited from Reagan continued to increase the deficit and had driven the country into a recession, so Bush raised taxes. At which point the economy reversed direction.

That lost the support of his base and, as a consequence, cost him re-election.


We get a hint from Reagan’s Iran-Contra confession. True Republicans — not RINOs but the base, the enthusiasts, the foot soldiers — can be truly enthused only by reality deniers. When they get even a whiff that their guy recognizes facts and might act on them (such as that tax cuts don’t work, that torture doesn’t work, that compromise is necessary, that government has useful functions, that contraception prevents abortion, that climate change is scientific fact), they lose their enthusiasm. Then their candidate loses.

So if you’re a Republican and you want a candidate who can win, push for someone who lives in the fantasy world that you just saw advertised on Fox News.

As for the rest of us, beware the clowns. 

Larry Beinhart is the author of “Wag the Dog” (originally published as “American Hero”), which was made into a motion picture of the same name, starring Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro and Anne Heche. He is also the author of “Salvation Boulevard,” also made into a motion picture, and “Foreign Exchange.” 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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