Step inside the GOP clown car! Listening in as Scott Walker, Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz and others send dog-whistles to the right-wing base

It might be a deep pool of GOP candidates, but are they ever swimming in the shallow end

Published June 6, 2015 1:15PM (EDT)

  (AP/Reuters/Rogelio V. Solis/Charlie Neibergall/Gerald Herbert/J. Scott Applewhite)
(AP/Reuters/Rogelio V. Solis/Charlie Neibergall/Gerald Herbert/J. Scott Applewhite)

A couple of weeks ago, Jeb Bush, a GOP 2016 front-runner, gave America a brief tutorial on why he should never be president, spouting off a series of outmoded, fact-free responses. But it was actually a model tutorial on why no GOP contender should be president, as follow-up events underscored.

It began with Bush telling Fox's Megyn Kelly that he'd still invade Iraq, even “knowing what we do now,” to which Laura Ingraham replied, “There has to be something wrong with you." Bush then fumbled Sean Hannity's attempt to help clean up the mess, saying "I interpreted the question wrong, I guess,” then admitting, “I don't know what that decision would have been." Then in a Nevada town hall meeting he tried to turn the tables, saying that folks like Kelly even daring to ask the question “does a disservice” to the troops who “sacrificed a lot,” adding that “What we ought to be focusing on is what are the lessons learned.” Which, of course, was the reason behind Kelly's question in the first place. Finally, in Arizona the next day, Bush broke down and confessed, “Knowing what we know now, I would have not engaged.”

Taking four long, painful days spouting shibboleths and fighting family ghosts to reluctantly, resentfully answer the simplest of questions gave America the clearest possible picture of why Jeb Bush would be a disaster as president. But in that, he's no different than anyone else in GOP race—whether announced or not.

We saw that quite clearly the following week, when Chris Christie's vulgar anti-press rant was leaked (“we don’t give a s--t about this or any of you”), and the gay-bashing Mike Huckabee rushed to the defense of child molester Josh Duggar on Facebook (“Josh’s actions when he was an underage teen are as he described them himself, 'inexcusable,' but that doesn’t mean 'unforgivable'”).

Some in the press corps defended Christie, saying that being “rude” was he whole point of the event, and it was supposed to be off the record. True, but this is New Jersey, and Christie has long made a habit of blurring such lines with leaks when it suited him, as well as an arrogant taunting of the press. It's pretty much reap-what-you-sow time for him. When it suits him, Christie's vulgarity and indiscriminate hostility is something he touts. As for Huckabee, his past involves pardoning a man who went on to kill four police officers, so the actions of both read as typical, rather than aberrations. (The ick factor with Huckabee may now be off the charts—but in a crowd this packed with clowns, it's hard to tell what impact that's had.)

The pattern should be clear: It's a crowded GOP field in which everyone's fatal flaws are exposed for all to see, and the media works overtime to minimize them, or outright pretend they don't even exist. And the first tier of candidates comes off as poorly as the third and fourth.

Indeed, there's no real quality difference between the top tier and the third or fourth. For example, Rick Santorum—a fourth-tier candidate at 1.3 percent in a recent Real Clear Politics polling average (current version here)—acted eerily like second-tier Mike Huckabee defending a child molester back in 2012, when he blasted the Freeh report on the Penn State coverup of Jerry Sandusky's decades of molestation. Find any sort of outrageous act one with one candidate, and you will find echoes among others in this field.

It might seem ludicrous to pay attention to the bottom of the GOP field, since, as the Washington Post noted, "Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign has more support than Lindsay Graham, Bobby Jindal, Carly Fiorina and John Kasich combined." On the other hand, what sets Sanders apart is precisely that he differs in deeply substantive ways both from Hillary Clinton and from the rest of the Washington consensus. What sets the third- and fourth-tier GOP candidates apart is... virtually nothing. Kasich, for example, is supposedly sane and pragmatic. He accepted Medicaid expansion, after all. But just after Christie and Huckabee's performances, Kasich stepped up and proved himself as an out-of-touch moral nonentity.

After Cuyahoga Country Judge John O’Donnell acquitted Cleveland Police Officer Michael Brelo of killing Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams, when he mounted the hood of their car and fired 15 shots through its windshield, calling his use of force “a constitutionally reasonable response,” ABC's Jonathan Karl asked Kasich, “Was justice served in this verdict?” Kasich refused to answer, instead praising Cleveland for not breaking out in a riot, and calling it “a model,” ignoring everything wrong with the city, which publicly agreed to a sweeping DOJ consent decree shortly after the verdict came down.

“Well, look, the verdict is the verdict, John,” Kasich responded, dodging the question of justice entirely. “What I will say is that I think the people of Cleveland handled this; I mean, they should be so proud of themselves and we should look at Cleveland as a model.” There's no sign of justice anywhere on Cleveland's horizon. Many believe that things didn't get worse because no one expected justice to begin with, and prosecutors have since asked an appeals court to correct three “egregious” errors of law in the judge's ruling, so they do not "contaminate future rulings in the trial court and the entire Court of Common Pleas." But not to worry, Kasich assures us, Cleveland's “a model.”

Or consider Bobby Jindal, polling just above 1 percent. He did make a rather extreme fool of himself a few months back, hyperventilating about nonexistent “no go zones” in Britain and elsewhere in Europe. But this is really just an offshoot of what the Atlantic called “The Sophisticated Bigotry of Bobby Jindal,” which Peter Beinart described thus:

If Bobby Jindal runs for president, he will likely campaign on two major themes. The first, which he outlined last February at the Reagan Library and last May at Liberty University, is that Christians are at war with a liberal elite that is trampling religious liberty and secularizing American culture. The second, which he laid out this month at London’s Henry Jackson Society, is that “non-assimilationist Muslims” are endangering America and Europe.

Unfortunately for Jindal, these two arguments contradict each other.

And, unfortunately for the GOP, Jindal is anything but alone. The whole party is caught in the grip of this ludicrous contradiction (and all the governors—Walker, Christie, even Kasich—would rather not talk too much about their economic records). The contradiction is obvious: Christians who refuse to compromise with secular Western culture are heroes, whereas Muslims who refuse to compromise are demons. That's not necessarily a contradiction, though: it could be just plain old-fashioned bigotry. In which case, the “arguments” aren't really arguments, they're camouflage. As Beinart himself later concludes, “The only principle he’s really defending is anti-Muslim bigotry.” Jindal just makes this contradiction a bit clearer than most—at the same time that he's trying to distract from the financial disaster he's created as Louisiana governor.

Jindal is a fourth-tier candidate, locked in a three-way tie for 12th place, with 1.3 percent, along with Graham and Fiorina in that RCP poll average, which doesn't include Donald Trump. But there were a couple of first-tier candidates tied at 13.2 percent with similarly disastrous budget situations (Scott Walker), as well as ones who strike similar appeals to Christian victimhood (Marco Rubio). Walker's doing much better in the polls than any other GOP governor—nearby rivals Mike Pence and Rick Snyder have both recently dropped, while John Kasich appears to be in the sub-1-percent range, at least for now. Christie at 5.4 percent defines the third tier, the only other governor who really registers so far.

But Walker's record as governor is abysmal. He faces a $2.2 billion budget deficit, as Wisconsin blogger Jimmy Anderson explains:

Since Walker took over, revenues have consistently come in less than expected due to a combination of below average job and wage growth, a sluggish state economy, and his arguably reckless $2 billion in tax cuts. Estimates now put our state budget at a $2.2 billion deficit.

And he's paired with Jindal in the “let's destroy our state universities!” derby:

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, both potential 2016 presidential candidates, are pushing to slash hundreds of millions of dollars from higher education – about $300 million over the next two years in Wisconsin and $141.3 million next year in Louisiana.

Also, like most governors who've never served in Washington, he has zilch in the way of foreign policy experience. Which helps explain why Islamic State terrorists instinctively reminded him of schoolteachers. “I want a commander in chief who will do everything in their power to ensure that the threat from radical Islamic terrorists does not wash up on American soil,” he told a crowd at the Conservative Political Action Conference. “If I can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the world.”

He later tried to “clarify,” but much like Bush, he didn't seem to fully grasp the extent of his folly.  To start with, as Salon's Joan Walsh explained:

From the left, you can be disgusted by Walker comparing legal protests by labor unions and their supporters to the barbaric, blood-thirsty terrorism of ISIS. From the right, you can be appalled that Walker is clueless enough to suggest that standing up to peaceful protesters is remotely comparable to fighting a multi-national terror threat. Many people probably have both reactions; I know I did.

Walker struck back at the first take, but seemed utterly oblivious to the second. As the Wisconsin State Journal explained:

Walker immediately sought to clarify his comments as he shuttled between media interviews after the speech. His political nonprofit group also issued a statement.

“Let me be perfectly clear: I’m just pointing out the closest thing I have to handling this difficult situation is the 100,000 protesters I had to deal with,” Walker told reporters. Asked if he regretted the statement, he said, “No.”

“You all will misconstrue things the way you see fit,” he said. “That’s the closest thing I have in terms of handling a difficult situation, not that there’s any parallel between the two.”

Aside from blaming others for "miscontruing" things in a straightforward manner, Walker's response actually deepens the second concern, even if you buy into it completely. If there's no parallel, then why bring it up? Because you have nothing better. Because you have zero relevant experience. Which is precisely the problem. What's more, this was not a mistake on Walker's part, it was part of a pattern. The very next part of the Wisconsin State Journal story made this clear:

Marquette Law School political science professor Charles Franklin said Walker “may have crossed the line” by linking international affairs and union protests. “But it’s not a brand new thing for him to connect toughness in Act 10 and toughness in international affairs.”

Walker has also previously cited President Ronald Reagan’s firing of striking air traffic controllers as one of the most powerful foreign policy decisions he made, Franklin said.

So Walker's equation of fighting unions with fighting foreign enemies is a feature, not a bug, further underscored by his childishly self-conscious invocation of the Ronald Reagan mythos, which Jud Lounsbury explored here recently as another systematic feature of Walker's modus operandi. Naturally, Walker forgets—and the press does, too—that when faced with real terrorists who blew up the Marine barracks in Lebanon, killing 241 American service members, Reagan responded first by pulling back, then pulling out, turning tail, and coincidentally, invading Grenada two days after the bombing, to help sooth American machismo. No matter, it's the Reagan mythos we're talking about here, history be damned. (A good 2016 campaign slogan, come to think of it.)

Walker's first-tier rival, Marco Rubio, hews much closer to Jindal's rhetoric on the social issues side. While the media played up the idea that Rubio might attend a friend's gay wedding, they left out the matter of timing: a quarter after hell freezes over. In reality Rubio's hostility to gay rights is profound. He recently used gay rights as part of a slippery-slope argument that ended with “a real and present danger” as reported by Right Wing Watch:

“We are at the water’s edge of the argument that mainstream Christian teaching is hate speech because today we’ve reached the point in our society where if you do not support same-sex marriage, you are labeled a homophobe and a hater,” Rubio said. “So what’s the next step after that? After they’re done going after individuals, the next step is to argue that the teachings of mainstream Christianity, the catechism of the Catholic Church, is hate speech. That’s a real and present danger.”

Prior to the Civil War, the Bible was the No. 1 source of Confederate arguments supporting slavery, yet Christianity somehow managed to survive Lincoln's hateful Emancipation Proclamation. So Rubio's hysterics would be laughable, were they not so widely shared. He's a top-tier candidate, and similar views have been expressed by Huckabee (“We are moving rapidly towards the criminalization of Christianity”), Cruz (“the greatest threats we’ve ever seen” to religious liberty, also “a real risk” that pastors will be jailed for preaching “traditional marriage”), Carson (gay marriage is a Marxist plot to impose a “New World Order”), Santorum (“you can be persecuted and maybe even prosecuted”) and Jindal (“The left no longer wants to debate. They simply want to silence us.”)—all offering slightly different variations on the same paranoid theme.

A month prior to his “real and present danger” comments, in late April, Rubio called it “ridiculous and absurd" to believe gays have a constitutional right to marry, in an interview with David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network:

It doesn’t exist. There is no federal constitutional right to same-sex marriage. There isn't such a right. You have to have a ridiculous reading of the U.S. Constitution to reach the conclusion that people have a right to marry someone of the same sex.

Attacking the Supreme Court is another common theme among GOP hopefuls as well. Huckabee, ensconced in the second tier, tied with Cruz at 8.6 percent, registered a slightly different, but related take, when he appeared on Fox with Chris Wallace recently: the Supreme Court isn't really supreme, because #God, inveighing against “judicial supremacy” and whining about people being forced “to bow down and fall on their faces and worship that law.” Michael Stone at Patheos provided the blow-by-blow account, with commentary. It was a deeply embarrassing performance, in which Huckabee demonstrated “a distinct failure to grasp the most simple facts about the checks and balances of power between the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government.” Here are a couple of Huckabee's zingers:

(1) “The Supreme Court is not the supreme branch. And for God’s sake, it’s not the Supreme Being.”

Earth to Huckabee: The Supreme Court is in the Constitution. God is not.

(2) “Judicial review is exactly what we have lived under; we have not lived under judicial supremacy. The Supreme Court can’t make a law; the legislature has to make it, the executive has to sign it and enforce it. The notion that the Supreme Court comes up with a ruling and that automatically subjects the two other branches to following it defies everything there is to equal branches of government.”

Earth to Huckabee: The South tried this in response to Brown vs. Board of Education.

Of course, the whole subtext here is moral outrage over LGBT issues, which has to taken with a mountain of salt following Huckabee's embrace of the child-molesting Josh Duggar. Ain't family values grand?

Then there's Ben Carson at 7.8 percent. He burst onto the conservative media circus scene with a keynote speech at The National Prayer Breakfast in 2013, hitting conservative highlights like supporting a flat tax and attacking Obamacare—real Biblical stuff, right? Media Matters did a critical overview of the ensuing right-wing frenzy in which the idea of him running for president was first born.

But, as Oliver Willis of Media Matters explained last year, there's less to Carson than meets the eye: “Retired neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson is trading on his medical reputation to ride a wave of media hype, but upon closer examination, many of his views are contradictory or emulate the uninformed chatter of a right-wing radio shock jock.” Willis went on to list some things your should know about Carson, including: Carson said Obamacare was "slavery, in a way." But back in 2009,  Carson said "the entire concept of for profits for the insurance companies makes absolutely no sense," and then argued that "the first thing we need to do is get rid of for profit insurance companies." Carson also compared marriage equality advocates to pedophiles, and described marriage equality as "extra rights." Carson also praised Russia's Vladimir Putin in a column for describing America as "godless," saying "there may be some validity to his claim."

In late April, Carson called for impeaching justices if they back gay marriage. Then, in early May, Carson argued that the federal government doesn't need to recognize a gay marriage Supreme Court ruling. “First of all, we have to understand how the Constitution works, the president is required to carry out the laws of the land, the laws of the land come from the legislative branch,” he said. “So if the legislative branch creates a law or changes a law, the executive branch has a responsibility to carry it out. It doesn’t say they have the responsibility to carry out a judicial law.”

As with Huckabee, Carson might want to reconsider the history of Brown vs. Board of Education. A Republican president, Dwight Eisenhower, sent federal troops into Little Rock, Arkansas, over this very issue. He took the opposite view.

The last of our standard-issue social conservatives is Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. Although Cruz is a second-tier candidate, at 8.6 percent in the recent RCP average, he represents the peak of overinflated Tea Party power. Right Wing Watch called him “The Tea Party's Doomsday Prophet” in a multifaceted look at the implications, not the least of which was the conspiratorial side:

The Tea Party can count on Cruz to advertise its conspiracy theories on nearly any issue. During the debate over expanding background checks for those purchasing firearms, Cruz brazenly argued that gun reform laws would lead to higher crime rates and a national gun registry, even though he later admitted that the bill did not provide for such a registry. He also dismissed families who lost loved ones in the Newtown massacre as “political props.”

Cruz similarly used the debate over a constitutional amendment to overturn the 2010 Citizens United decision to warn that the government planned to stifle the speech of pastors and throw media personalities in jail. He insists that the Obama administration is targeting conservative groups and media outlets, which he says should lead to Attorney General Eric Holder’s impeachment.

Rand Paul, in the second tier at 9.2 percent, and Rick Santorum, in the fourth at 2.3 percent, are both worth taking note of for their varying degrees of unorthodoxy: Paul as a sometimes libertarian (sorry women, not for you!), and culture warrior Santorum as a born-again working class poseur.

Paul's a contrarian of sorts—most notably, he's contrary to himself, as Bob Cesca recently noted here at Salon. Cesca highlighted Rand Paul's flip-flops on armed intervention (opposed/supporting), using drones against civilians (opposed/supporting/opposed?), ending aid to Israel (proposing/denying he ever proposed it), banning many forms of birth control (introducing a constitutional amendment to do so/denying that any Republian politician wants to do so), and questioning the Civil Rights Act title concerned with private businesses (opposing/denying he ever opposed it).

As the last three examples underscore, Paul's problem is not just that he flip-flops, but that he's in deep denial about it, in service to his own “principled” self-delusion.

Santorum is relatively boring by comparison. The only reason anyone knows his name is that he was the last non-Romney around to peak momentarily in the 2012 cycle, and he did so at just the right time. But his broader appeal is questionable, at best. The people of Pennsylvania voted against him overwhelmingly, by a 17-point margin, in his attempt to get re-elected to the Senate in 2006. Right Wing Watch clearly had him pegged back in March, when they called him “A Religious Right Crusader Masquerading As A 'Blue Collar' Conservative” concluding their roundup of his views with a video, “Satan is Systematically Destroying America,” in which Santorum said there was no political war in America, no cultural war, only a spiritual war. And the reason was obvious: "If you were Satan, who would you attack? There is no one else to go after."

Boy, the Pope dodged a bullet on that one! Santorum, a Catholic, must think he's playing on the other side. With all his talk about helping the poor, Pope Francis is obviously just out to steal Santorum's working-class thunder.

Another wannabe against-the-grain GOP candidate is Carly Fiorina. There's actually a three-fold rationale for her candidacy. The business leader rationale doesn't look very good after Romney's run last time, even if Fiorina's record—both as a business leader and in politics—weren't a record of failure. That leaves two interrelated arguments: first, that her candidacy would refute the perception of a GOP war on women, and second, relatedly, that she can go head-to-head with Hillary Clinton without aggravating all the open sores from the GOP's war on women.

These last two rationales are intensely supported by the media. As Eric Boehlert of Media Matters recently tweeted:

NYT when Hillary polls at 60% in Iowa: she's struggling

NYT when Fiorina polls at 2% in Iowa: voters are "swooning" #journalism

But it doesn't take long to discover that where Fiorina's candidacy is concerned, there's just no there there. In particular, Alexandrea Boguhn of Media Matters wrote a detailed response to the idea that a Fiorina candidacy could rebut the war on women. Most fundamentally, Boguhn pointed out—citing a 2012 report from People For The American Way—the "War On Women" is about policies that harm women, not simply about women in political office. Utterly ignoring this, many of Fiorina's policy positions have been harmful to women. For example, she opposed policies to shrink the gender pay gap, opposed minimum wage increases that would benefit millions of working women, and opposed access to reproductive health services. At the same time, the GOP has been intensifying its war on women, and Carly Fiorina has done nothing to stop it, nothing to oppose it.

With all the above in mind, consider this statement from Fiorina, talking about Clinton in a recent interview:

"Because I am a woman, there are many things she can't say. She can't play the gender card. She can't talk about being the first woman president. She can't talk about the war on women.”

How is there an ounce of substance in what Fiorina just said? It's all spin, nothing else. Anti-women policies aren't anti-women when they're delivered by a woman? Is that really her argument? It seems so. So much for the last of the counter-intuitive GOP wannabes.

Perhaps the biggest embarrasment from the 2012 campaign, Rick Perry, has outdone himself this time by running with a felony indictment hanging over his head. But that doesn't mean he can't play a useful role—though unintentionally, of course. He recently offered a simple explanation for his abysmal performance last time around: “I wasn't healthy,” he said. But he also conceded that he hadn't adequately prepared for a presidential run—and that's where things get interesting:

"The other was in preparation and just spending the time on all the issues that are important to a person that's gonna stand up and answer their questions there," Perry said. "And it's across the board: economics, domestic policy, monetary policy, foreign policy."

Note that he's not talking about not preparing to be president. He talking about not preparing to run for president. That's the GOP concept of government in a nutshell: There is no job there; there's only the job interview. That may not be a lot to say about Perry, given his past performance and low standing in the polls, but it does speak volumes about the party he's part of—and the press corps that won't see anything deeply problematic with what Perry said.

We could end there, and it's a nice, clean end point. But there's one last candidate whose many years of getting a pass from the media just has to be called out as he puts himself forward. That's right, it's John McCain's sidekick, Senator Lindsey Graham, who's always eager to have someone else go overseas to fight. It doesn't really matter why.

As Media Matters noted early this year, Graham appealed to the GOP establishment, reflected at Fox News, as the ideal Benghazi candidate—but that's a mighty small niche, as his poll numbers reflect. However, the reason we're even talking about him is that there's something much more deeply problematic about Graham: He has stretched the truth about his military service—always a big no-no, unless you're a Republican.

This is not just about Graham; it reflects on our entire political culture, and the profound double standard used in judging conservative Republicans as beyond serious questioning on military matters. In February 1998, the Hill published a story, “Graham's Gulf War Claim Disputed By Military Experts.” It began like this:

One of the newest members of the House committee that will decide whether President Clinton should be impeached for lying under oath has himself claimed that he was a Gulf War veteran -- a claim disputed by military experts.

Despite repeated statements that he served in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, Rep. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) was actually living out of harm's way at home in South Carolina, where he was processing wills and other paperwork for the Air Force during the entire course of the conflict.

On his official website, Graham describes himself as "an Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm veteran." Other biographies he has written read similarly.

Graham pushed back in a letter to the editor the following month, but editors were not impressed, saying:

[W]hen read direct quotes from the biography that Graham admits he wrote (without revealing his identity), a broad spectrum of military experts concluded that he was claiming to be in the Persian Gulf, which he wasn't.

Back in 2002, when Graham first ran for the Senate, Joe Conason's Journal reminded folks of this story. But there are very few other news sources likely to do so. It only takes a whisper to call a Democrat's patriotism into question. But even well-reported exposure of fibs regarding military service won't harm a Republican. Why? Because the majority of the political media wills it so. And because having one more clown in the car is always useful for defending the GOP orthodoxy against Rand Paul's sporadic attacks. For all his flaws, those attacks do sting, I guess. Even a lightweight faker like Lindsey Graham is welcome to help pile on and shut the lingering questions down.

There's your deep GOP bench, which Fox News and Weekly Standard contributor Fred Barnes is so enamored of.

Quite a final commentary on the GOP's 2016 clown car—and the willfully blind political media that enables them.


By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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