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Unpacking the Clown Car of Early GOP Presidential Hopefuls

I have too much self-preservation instinct to crash the Iowa Freedom Summit convened by Citizens United (the organization that lends its name to the SCOTUS decision upholding the right of corporate people to spend unlimited political money) and funded by the Koch Brothers. So I weaseled out by sending my Republican cousin Ray Sixkiller.

When I heard Sarah Palin would speak, I looked forward to razzing my cousin about it. He beat that back by reading me some reactions to Palin’s speech:

Calling Gov. Palin’s speech bizarre and disjointed would be charitable.

Long and incoherent.

Terrible. Didn’t make any sense.

Palin was a sad story Saturday. With every speech she gives, she gets worse and worse. If one were playing a political cliché drinking game, no one would have been sober after the first 15 minutes of an interminable ramble. It was really painful.

“What do you care about the lamestream media, Ray?”

“Those were all Republican quotes, from the Washington Examiner. We’re getting our act together this time!”

Cousin Ray was really down for the last two election cycles because they had the same losing dynamic. In 2008, the Republican primary clown car disgorged every not-McCain until McCain was driven so far to the right he could never get out of the ditch for the general election.

The 2012 cycle repeated the same for the not-Romneys. The former Massachusetts Governor was particularly subjected to humiliation because every other candidate led in polls at one time or another and some of them were objectively not fit to carry Romney’s briefcase.

In 2008, the clown car was packed with bozos like Tom “stop the Mexicans” Tancredo, Alan “carpetbagger” Keyes, and Fred Thompson, whose claims to fame are playing the FBI honcho who sent Val Kilmer to find his Lakota roots in Thunderheart and setting the world straight on the myths about reverse mortgages.

But there were also GOP candidates in 2008 that had some cred before they imploded, like former governors Mitt Romney, Tommy Thompson, Jim Gilmore, and Mike Huckabee. And there was future Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, who would destroy the Kansas economy with Reaganomics. Even Rudy Giuliani was a serious candidate until he wasn’t.

None of the obvious bozos threatened in polls to trounce McCain in 2008. Romney was not so lucky in 2012.

Cousin Ray is a Dwight Eisenhower Republican, and he likes to remind me that Richard Nixon, while he was a disaster for the country, was damn good for Indians. But I think the last GOP president that Ray liked was Gerald Ford. This year, he’s optimistic.

“Look at the quality of the candidates who skipped the Kochfest,” Ray crowed. “Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney, Bobby Jindal, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio. There’s five serious guys who didn’t step into the herding chute for the clown car.” He referred to the history of radical right Iowans braving blizzards to hand caucus victories to candidates unpalatable to ordinary conservatives, let alone the great middle that swings U.S. elections.

Rick Santorum? Seriously?

Ray is of the opinion that a robust Republican debate in the primaries can avoid a Hillary Clinton coronation. I think he may be right, but I’m skeptical that the Republicans can keep the debate on the rails. How can Republicans be sanguine about the primaries when the runaway crowd pleaser in Iowa was Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who can be counted on to blow up anything he can’t dominate?

One guy big enough to straddle the mainstream and the Tea Party is New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. From audience reaction, Cousin Ray reported, “the GOP just might be willing to buy a bridge from that guy, even if it’s missing an exit lane.”

“There were lots of serious people in Iowa,” Ray pointed out. He brought up Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who attacked unions in a state that was so pro-labor when I lived there that most people literally would not cross a picket line to drink free beer when the brewery workers were on strike.

Dr. Ben Carson was a surprise favorite. His major claim to fame is being rude to President Obama in Obama’s presence, but the Freedom Summit crowd loved people with the guts to call out “the Muslim” in the White House. Carson’s appeal in Iowa was based on his claim to be “not a politician” as he applies for the highest political job in the land.

Cousin Ray’s response to my remark that people like that have about as much respect for political science as they have for climate science was to agree---with a caveat. “If Carson can’t handle the science of governing then he can’t handle the science of running. He’s going nowhere.”

Ray might be right, but Carson reminds me of the pizza guy who was proud of not knowing anything about Uzbekistan but led the polls for a time in 2012. Which reminds me of a guy who wants to drive the clown car so badly he’s willing to buy it, The Donald Trump.

Trump was caught on video rejecting the question, “What’s your favorite county in Iowa?” He could easily have escaped having his ignorance of Iowa outed by telling the truth that naming any county would offend people in all the other counties. Instead, he managed to display both his arrogance and his disdain for the process in one answer: “This isn’t a history course.”

I poked Cousin Ray with the remark that if George W. Bush had passed a history course, the United States would not have invaded Iraq the second time. He did not rise to the bait.

“Did you hear about Carly Fiorina? She pointed out that she has as many frequent flyer miles as Hillary Clinton with more accomplishments. The audience loved it,” Ray said.

“Accomplishments?,” I asked. “Would that be running Hewlett-Packard so far into the ground that the board paid her $40 million to go away, or the ‘demon sheep’ ad she ran against Barbara Boxer?”

“Enjoy it while you can,” Cousin Ray grumbled. “This ain’t 2012. Even Rick Perry cleaned up his act. He sounds like a different person.”

I had to admit that’s true. Perry now wears glasses and writes crib notes on his shirt cuffs. No more “Oops.”

That’s not the only thing Cousin Ray’s correct about. (I won’t say “right” because he’s sensitive about that.) Americans fought a revolution to end coronations in North America and royalty is still a powerful negative meme. Ray is correct that even if the Republican field were just limited to the five major candidates who had the good sense to skip the Iowa Freedom Summit, it could no longer be dismissed as “the clown car.”

Sec. Clinton’s best bet is if she gets at least one serious Democratic primary opponent who can do more than play Washington General to her Harlem Globetrotter. Funny things happen on the way to U.S. coronations.

Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.