Honestly, and with as little partisan rancor as I can manage, I'll have to admit the Republican field of presidential hopefuls this year is as sorry a lot as I've ever seen from any party in my admittedly short lifetime. Though an affable and fairly intelligent man, Michael Dukakis was something of an embarrassment - and the same goes for Walter Mondale. Yet neither of these two Democrats even came close to rivaling the current crop of GOP front runners in terms of ineptitude and hypocrisy. I weep for the poor party-line conservative, who come what may is going to have to pull the lever next November for a buffoon. To be sure, such is the intensity of the Tea Party's irrational hatred of Barak Obama that they would vote Republican if their candidate was a sock puppet.
However, since a sock puppet would surely be an improvement on the likely GOP nominee, I doubt if many in the traditional moderate center of the entire electorate will do the same. Under the circumstances, Obama could erect minarets around the White House and conduct daily Muslim prayer services - and still not lose the election.
How did we get to this point? Here the story of Richard Lugar, longtime Senator from my home state of Indiana, is instructive:
First elected mayor of Indianapolis in 1967 (my junior year in high school), Dick Lugar's subsequent career in politics has been a textbook example of the kind of successes a smart, principled man can accomplish. He lost his first try at the U.S. Senate to the veteran Democrat, Vance Hartke, in 1974, but won on his second try in 1976, and has been a U.S. Senator ever since. In the 2006 election, he captured an amazing 87% of all votes cast and Democrats didn't even bother to field a candidate against him. Along the way he's amassed a pile of awards from both conservative and liberal leaning groups. Humble in victory and gracious in defeat, universally admired by his colleagues on both sides of the aisle, his record in office has not ever been tarnished by a single act of hypocrisy. A lifetime Methodist and married to the same woman for over 50 years, Mr. Luger has raised 4 fine sons and can proudly claim 13 grandchildren.
Steve, if you didn't know first hand it was true, you would be inclined to believe the Wikipedia article on Dick Lugar to be some kind of fictional account of the Perfect Senator. And by the way, despite the fact that I disagree in principle with many of this man's conservative viewpoints, I've voted for him myself every time I've had the chance. My gosh, the guy even helped establish "The Richard Lugar Center for Renewable Energy", an improbable extension of Indiana and Purdue Universities, which includes funding and participation from academia, the alternative energy industry, and (amazingly) some of the biggest Indiana users of fossil fuels (Like Duke energy for instance.).
For the sake of conservatives, indeed, for the cause of conservatism itself, if would be nice if the Dick Lugar story was headed for a happy ending. But alas, such is not the case - and here's where the story gets weird. Organized under the banner, "Hoosiers for a Conservative Senate", Indiana Tea Parties have united in strong opposition to Richard Lugar's candidacy and are backing a comparative unknown, one Richard Mourdock - the current Indiana State Treasurer. For heaven's sake, why?
I'll tell you why. Richard Lugar is the kind of man who is capable of changing his mind but not his principles. This is also a man who knows the importance of tact, strategy and compromise. In negotiations, someone like Mr. Lugar will always come away with most of the loaf, where the typical blind ideologue will come away with none at all. However, Indiana Tea Partiers don't want an intelligent human being to represent the state, just a glorified sock puppet.
Now I'm not saying voters have no right to organize and promote whoever they feel best represents them. In most ways, that's what politics is all about. But I honestly think that as a nation we're headed down a disastrous road when we start sending empty suits to Washington. To me, this voids the whole idea of representative democracy. Government, it seems to me, works best when communities elect their best and brightest to lead them - and have faith that the difficult decisions those people make are the right ones in the long run.
Now don't worry, I doubt if Dick Lugar is going to lose this round. Hoosiers, even the Republican ones, aren't that stupid. But unfortunately, the same dynamic which is going to keep Mr. Lugar in office isn't going to work on the national level - and especially in the race for Presidency. Here's why:
The Tea Party constitutes only a fraction of the Republican base, and a relatively small one at that. But they are by far the best organized and financed faction. Thus, while it may be true a Republican can win the Presidency without the strong support of the Tea Party, it is increasingly obvious that you cannot win the party's nomination without it. And, just as in Indiana, the Tea Party demands ideological purity. In fact, you get the impression intelligence and overall competence are pretty much of secondary importance, if that. Let one of the candidates publicly disagree some extreme point of social or scientific dogma, and there goes his or her chances. In short, the Tea Party isn't interested in electing anyone who thinks for themselves.
On the local level, this counter-productive insistence on rigid, ideological purity can be overcome by a man with the credentials of a Richard Lugar. But on the national level, the Republican Party just plain doesn't as yet have a candidate of such overwhelming accomplishment and character that he or she can overcome the money and influence of the Tea Party. Someone like Chris Christie might have had a shot. But you know, as soon as it came out in the debates that Chris Christie endorsed the consensus view on climate change, you might just as well have written him off. The Tea Party doesn't believe in climate change and won't back a person who does. That's just for starters.
What it boils down to is the sane, rational, principled, potential Republican candidates (and there are many) are sitting this one out. Which leaves us with a truly odd collection of damaged goods. The only person in the whole bunch with a glimmer of intelligence, John Huntsman, consistently runs dead last in the polls. The consistent front runner is Mitt Romney: a man with such little regard for his own convictions that he's willing to change them at the drop of a hat. Each week it seems one or another of the others bubbles to the surface to claim the lead. This week it is the tireless retread, Newt Gingrich. Last month it was Herman Cain. Before that, Rick Perry was the flavor of the month.
Mitt Romney will continue to poll at or near the top because, week in and week out, he continues to garner support of whatever is left of the moderate faction of the GOP - and this is only by default: these people just have nowhere else to go. The real action has been on the fringe. Yet so far every time one of them has made a run at Romney, sooner or later, they've said something which enrages the Tea Party and whoops, there goes the egg money.
In closing, let me say I'm not all that bothered by whatever special interests (read: cynical, self serving, private groups) are working behind the scenes. After all, special interests have always been the name of the game and Democrats can claim no independence from them. What really bothers me is that the GOP seems to have been high jacked by the politics of rage: a naive, simplistic, media driven rage that spends all of its time apportioning blame and none of its time looking for solutions. It is a rage utterly resistant to facts or evidence. Conservative writer David Frum (who I've often quoted before) has a fairly thoughtful article on this very phenomenon: "When Did The GOP Lose Touch With Reality?".
Then again, maybe as a people we've become just too darn lazy to think for ourselves.