Was the GOP circus just an amusing diversion for political junkies and a spectacle-hungry media? We would laugh off the last nine months of the Republican presidential race at our peril. Here are five reasons why it has mattered, and what it means for 2012 and perhaps the future of American politics.
1. American Idol Meets the Survivor: The Base Leads, The Leaders Obey
When Perry's "Oops," Bachmann's 'vaccines-cause-retardation,' and Cain's 9-9-9 mantra are long forgotten, what will stand out from this year's debate marathon is the bloodlust of the Republican spectators. Many of us watched in disbelief and embarrassment as members of the audience whooped it up for executions, booed a gay soldier stationed in Iraq, and cheered the idea of letting an uninsured man die.
These outbursts did more than reveal the extremism in some sectors of the Republican base. They disciplined the candidates. Perry's plunge, after all, came not after he fondled a bottle of maple syrup nor after he couldn't remember that he was going to eliminate the agency responsible for America's nuclear arsenal. It began at the moment he proposed a sane and humane approach to immigration. Like ancient Romans in the Coliseum, Republican voters held the candidates' fate in their trigger-happy hands, and the servile performers gave them what they craved.
2. Pledge-A-Palooza: Signed, Sealed, and Delivered--To the Far Right
Emboldened by the 2010 midterms, rightwing Republican interest groups realized they didn't have to settle for the dogwhistling of the past. George W. Bush, after all, was allowed to talk about a "culture of life" and be evasive about overturning Roe v. Wade, so as not to alienate independents. Today, the fringiest elements of the antiabortion and antigay movements have put their increasingly bizarre conditions in writing and hold the GOP candidates hostage. Taking a page from Grover Norquist, groups such as the Susan B. Anthony List, the National Organization of Marriage, the Family Leader, and others have all issued pledges. Gingrich and Bachmann have pledged to build a double border fence. The former adulterer Gingrich and alleged adulterer Cain signed the Family Leader's pledge to defend and uphold the Institution of Marriage -- by being faithful to their spouses, supporting "robust childbearing and reproduction," and outlawing gay marriage. Romney tried to buck the trend and refused to sign the Family Leader and SBA List pledges. Yet when Perry briefly took the lead, Romney signed NOM's antigay marriage pledge and promised Mike Huckabee he would appoint judges to overturn Roe v. Wade and would push for state constitutional amendments banning all abortions and possibly even birth control.
Just as Norquist does with his no-tax pledge, the antigay and antiabortion special interests now wield a cudgel to punish the eventual Republican nominee for any deviation from orthodoxy.
3. Purity over Reality: The Collapse of Mainstream Conservatism
The 2010 midterms wiped out all but a handful of long-beleaguered Republican moderates. 2011 will be remembered as the year that what passes for sober, serious, mainstream conservatism went on life support with long odds for recovery.
Consider the fate of the two actual candidates who might have carried the mantle for serious conservatism. Tim Pawlenty at one time seemed the likely conservative alternative to Romney. But Pawlenty was polite at the debates when the audience craved rage and resentment; he proved insufficiently orthodox -- an apology for supporting cap-and-trade isn't as satisfying as effusive global warming denialism. With so many colorful true believers in the field, why should the base settle? Jon Huntsman, viewed by no less a conservative eminence than George Will to be the "most conservative" candidate in the field, had refused to pander to the radical rightwing base and gone nowhere with Republican voters.
4. Anyone-But-Romney: The Irrelevance of the GOP Establishment
A delicious irony is at the heart of the establishment's Anyone-But-Romney head-hunting: Romney is the perfect candidate for Wall Street and the conservative establishment. He has the kind of private sector experience they admire -- funneling fabulous wealth to the "job-creators" and issuing pink slips to their American workers. As governor, Romney achieved a feat conservative Republicans had been touting for years: an individual mandate for health insurance, combined with a market-based reform of health care. But the GOP's capitulation to Tea Party irrationalism turned those assets into liabilities.
The first step toward their own demise was taken when Republican elites signed on with the base that Romney was unacceptable. That they believed an architect of Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy (Mitch Daniels) and a Northeastern union-basher (Chris Christie) could win a general election testify to the magical thinking that prevails even within the lonely reality-based corner of the GOP. Still, either of these men would have elevated the contest and alleviated the prevailing circus atmosphere. Christie's blunt ways also might have spared the nation the ugliness and the ignorance that went unchecked at the debates -- he is a particularly eloquent critic of the anti-Muslim xenophobia infecting the Republican base.
If Christie and Daniels, and others like them, could have put an end to the circus with their gravitas, the circus kept reminding them that their own rightwing conservatism wasn't pure enough for the base. The result? A weakened conservatism and an empowered far Right.
5. Unidirectional Flip-Flopping: The Right Secures Title to the Opportunists
Romney and Gingrich have survived only by being amiable clowns in the rightwing circus. Compared to the inauthentic rightwing converts (Pawlenty, and now Huntsman?) and the delirious real McCoys (Bachmann, Perry, Paul et. al.), it's not surprising that the two authentic opportunists in the field have prevailed. Decades of changeability inured them to the pain and discomfort of the ideological gymnastics required to please Republican voters. In a party where the leaders cravenly follow whatever odd enthusiasm floats up from the base (think personhood amendments), those with the weakest core values turned out to be the best performers.
On November 6, 2012, American voters will be offered a Republican nominee who denies the reality of global warming; a self-proclaimed fiscal conservative who will not raise taxes on the wealthy by a single dollar; a so-called constitutional conservative who proposes to rewrite our 228-year-old founding document to endow fertilized eggs with human rights, deny equal civil rights to our fellow gay citizens, and take birthright citizenship away from living Americans. That the likely nominee -- Romney or Gingrich -- does not agree with a single point of this will be irrelevant. This year's bizarre primary race has dragged the Republican Party further to the Right than was previously imaginable and solidified the dominance of the far Right -- most notably the antiabortion and antigay special interests -- over the rest of the party.
The GOP's circus has enormously increased Obama's chance of reelection. Unfortunately that desirable result has come at the price of devastating a once-great American institution: the Republican Party.