NEW YORK – Watching the GOP rock-show pyrotechnics shoot up at the prospect of Chris Christie running for president, keen observers may have noticed a remarkable transformation taking place in American politics.
Republicans have injected so much ginned-up lab-tested indignation into their campaigns that their nomination contest looks more like a professional wrestling road show than a civic debate about America’s future.
Who has the best platform? Meh. Republicans just want to see who has the best smack down lines. Economic ideas? Boring. Tea Party activists just want to watch the candidates use the Constitution to put Barack Obama in a sleeper hold again, and again, and again. “Obamacare!” Crowd goes wild. Cue pyrotechnics.
Is it any wonder that Republican voters have cheered, screamed, and thrown beer cups each time a new act walks out on the stage?
The more each candidate plays to the bloodlust of the crowd, the more they rally them to their side. Then the next performer walks on stage, and the crowd goes wild for them, too.
While Christie may not running — officially — he is certainly playing to the arena mob whose lust for spectacle are key to winning the GOP championship belt.
But even a heavyweight like Christie will not last.
Remember when Michele Bachmann was the arena favorite? “Tipping the scales at three do-nothing terms in Congress, self-appointed leader of the leaderless Tea Party movement, able to mangle American history and geography while injecting religion into the public square — fierce, forceful, untruthful — MMMMichele “FEMA Will Get You” Bachmann!” (Crowd goes wild. Cue pyrotechnics.)
Then came Rick Perry. “Weighing in as the longest reigning Governor of a state with out-of-control wildfires, self-made millionaire while in office, able to bash government spending while taking Federal money at the same time — authentic, fearless, invincible — RRRRRRick “Up From Nothing” Perry!” (Crowd goes wild. Cue pyrotechnics.)
Then came Ron Paul. “He’s a doctor who’s indifferent to human suffering, able to take over social media with a click of a button, champion of selfish pseudo-intellectuals everywhere — anti-war, anti-taxes, anti-19th-thru-21st-Centuries — RRRRon “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Gold” Paul!” (Crowd goes wild. Cue pyrotechnics.)
Then came Herman Cain. “Wealthy CEO of a pizza empire, never compromised by the stink of public service, able to push jingoistic tax schemes with one hand, while pounding Muslims in the face with the other hand — outspoken, loud, CAPITALIST — HHHHerman “999” Cain!” (Crowd goes wild. Cue pyrotechnics.)
Then came Chris Christie. “Governor of NJ who smacked down a voter for asking about his children’s private school, able to use state vehicles or personal engagements while talking tough about austerity — big, bold, brash — CCChris “I Vetoed Snooki” Christie!” (Crowd goes wild. Cue pyrotechnics.)
I mean, forget the televised debates. The Republican field should just take the plunge and stage a last-candidate-standing nomination — “30 minutes in Hell” cage match for the top spot on the ticket, billions in illicit campaign funds from Koch industries, and a prime time show on FOX if they ultimately fail to win the general election.
Every candidate gets to bring one non-lethal weapon of choice plus the official Texas Board of Education edition of the US Constitution into the match. Eight (or nine) go in, one comes out. Nomination — done.
Forget the primaries and the caucuses. Get the whole thing done by January and the GOP can route the proceeds from reruns on FOX directly back into the campaign. Cha, ching.
The problem, of course, is that 4% of the Republican base — let’s call them “Jon Huntsman” — still believe that the Republican Party should nominate a person with ideas, experience, and the will to use his or her skills to do something other than generate mouth-breathing TV spectacle for months on end.
Mitt Romney used to think like Huntsman, but even those days are over.
After several bloody primetime matches with Rick Perry, Romney now understands that the key to the nomination is not to tell audiences about the virtues of good investment and management, but to just reach for the nearest folding chair to thwack the other guy on the head. He may not have pecs like Duane Johnson, but Romney’s got a future in the ring, yes sir.
It would all be fun and games except for one tiny, albeit significant fact: the GOP Candidatemania approach to the 2012 nomination threatens to derail America’s economic future for some time to come at that. This country needs a real debate about the economy based on facts, not an arena spectacle.
The problem is not just what is happening between the Republican candidates and their base, but the tone, habits, and expectations their long contest is wiring into the overall machinery of our national election.
Given that the GOP contest will keep rolling unfettered by a Democratic counterpart for another year, the big arena spectacle of Republican politics already threatens to set the tone until November 2012.
Even if Barack Obama wants to turn the 2012 election into a reasonable debate of facts & ideas, by the time he steps on stage and starts fighting a national campaign in earnest, it might be too late. By then, the national stage will already look and feel more like a wrestling canvas than a campaign dais to most voters.
By June 2012, voters may be so eager to see who wins in a Republican vs. Barack Obama cage match that even a well-run White House campaign to inform the voters about slow, but steady economic progress may just fall on deaf ears.
If the challenge a year ago was to convince the public that Obama’s policies prevented a recession from becoming a depression, the challenge a year from now will be to convince the public that actual talk of economic policy has a place in the election.
How do you talk economic policy to a crowd expecting you to unleash a sleeper hold?
Imagine a capacity crowd on their feet for four hours of acrobatic sweat and blood wrestling. Now, imagine that same audience being asked to sit down immediately after that show and listen to a presentation by the board of directors of an economic think tank wishing to share with them an informative presentation on the benefits of direct federal intervention versus revenue cuts on the near and long-term economic prospects for the manufacturing and service sectors. It may seem like an exaggeration, but this scenario is a disaster waiting to happen if the Obama campaign does not step up in the near term to reset the tone and priorities of the national campaign debate.
Does anybody win if the national election debate remains a Candidatemania clear through to the end?
The cable networks win. Republican candidates looking for book deals and media gigs by pretending to be serious candidates — they win. Exxon Mobil wins. The Tea Party wins. Koch Industries wins.
If only that 4% of non-wrestling fans left in the Republican Party had the guts to shame the media into covering more reasonable campaigns — maybe things would change.
If only the Democratic National Committee would join forces with the White House and wage a national campaign to save our election debate from arena mob destruction — maybe that would be a start.
None of that seems to be happening.
Besides, the big money on the Right is backing cynicism — because there is a lot of money to be made by right-wing media, industry, and entrenched wealth if cynicism wins.
So, without a viable alternative being pushed aggressively from the Right or the Left, the Republican Candidatemania rolls into another town and another arena for yet another week.
And the crowd goes wild. And the clock, keeps, ticking.