The competition for the batshit bump in the GOP presidential contest is in full swing. With less than 10 days before the first debate, the fringe candidates (basically everyone not named Trump, Bush or Walker) are ratcheting up the crazy in hopes of boosting their poll numbers. Organized by Fox News, the main stage, prime-time debate will involve only the candidates polling in the top 10. According to the most recent numbers, Trump, Bush and Walker are leading the way, with everyone else competing closely for the remaining slots -- and to avoid the afternoon kiddie table debate.
The increasingly bizarre behavior of the Republican candidates makes a lot more sense when considered against the backdrop of the Fox News debate. In politics or life, incentive structures govern behavior. People pursue desired outcomes and try to avoid others – the system in which they operate determines the best strategy. Much of human behavior is rational when viewed in this context.
Currently, the GOP candidates are motivated by one goal: improve their position as much as possible in order to secure a spot in the first debate – to miss that debate is to run the risk of dropping out of the conversation altogether. Big names and accomplished politicians like Lindsay Graham, Rick Santorum and Bobby Jindal all run that risk. The question, then, is what’s the best way for GOP candidates to get a bump in the polls? The answer, it seems, is to say something totally unhinged and force the media to talk about you (Trump is an absolute master at this). The other option, which is closely related, is to become a one-issue candidate, preferably a far-right issue that less desperate candidates are unwilling to touch.
Virtually all of the bubble candidates have chosen one of these two options. The most recent batshit bump went to Mike Huckabee, who literally accused the president of the United States of initiating a Holocaust: “This president’s foreign policy is the most feckless in American history. It is so naïve that he would trust the Iranians. By doing so, he will take the Israelis and march them to the door of the oven.” Obviously this is a very stupid and inflammatory thing to say, but it plays well with certain evangelical Christians and Israeli hardliners, and thus temporarily boosts his poll numbers. (Side note: even the less insane point Huckabee makes is utterly wrong. A deal like this gets done precisely because one side doesn’t trust the other – that’s why verification measures are put in place.)
The remaining candidates have adopted their own attention-seeking strategies. Ted Cruz is the anti-establishment guy. To prove his independence once again, Cruz called Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, a “liar” on the Senate floor last weekend. Was that unbecoming of a United States Senator? You bet. But Cruz has to do something to maintain his maverick outsider status. Plus, it got him some much-needed media coverage. Bobby Jindal’s approach is to self-identify as a bold theocrat. He’s passionately hated in his home state because of this, but he’s hoping to be rewarded by religious lunatics in the primary states (to absolutely no one’s surprise, it’s not working).
Rick Perry, surprisingly, has been the sane candidate. His plan is to dominate the not-Trump niche by donning smart guy glasses and calling Trump a McCarthy-esque cancer – he won’t win the race, but this has kept him in the game. Rick Santorum, another theocrat, is just a less interesting version of Mike Huckabee; he’s pandering to the same constituency but with less success. Finally, there’s Lindsey Graham, who (bless his heart) wants to be seen as the tough hawkish guy. He’s beating the war drums on Iran as loudly as he can, but no one’s listening and no one cares.
At any rate, it’s clear that Republicans have a problem. What’s currently happening is an amplification of the Fox News effect. Fox, along with talk radio, has transformed the Republican Party into a reality TV production. As a consequence, the candidates can’t afford to talk about anything that matters – there’s no place for seriousness in reality TV. In a race to be noticed, the desperate children have the upper hand. It’s no accident that Trump leads the polls and in media attention – he starred in a reality show for years and knows exactly what moves the needle. No one can touch Trump on this front.
What’s particularly interesting about the Republican race right now is how perfectly it captures the party’s broader problem. Everything wrong with the GOP – structurally, financially and politically – is distilled in this shameless scramble for a spot on Fox’s debate platform. No one can talk honestly or practically about policy without fear of losing ground to the demagogues, who garner most of the precious airtime on conservative media.
This is why the Republican Party has become a punch line; it’s why they’ve basically ceded the business of governance to the Democrats, who, despite their own issues, are still capable of being adults.
If the present race is any indication, this won’t change anytime soon.