The 2016 Republican presidential contest has barely begun and it has already grown alternately tiresome and old or just downright scary. As a Democrat, I might be pleased, but as an American, I am deeply troubled. I just want it to end.
A part of the GOP problem is the plague of too many candidates, 17 at last count, with many of them competing for headlines by making outrageous statements targeting Hispanics, Muslims, President Obama, Hillary Clinton, or each other. They apparently feel the need to do so not only because Donald Trump—being the master of outrage—continues to draw the most media attention, but because, as Trump's poll numbers demonstrate, a significant body of Republican voters feed off of the anger and insult that is being dished out.
Instead of a serious policy debate, we are forced to endure a campaign based on xenophobia, personality attacks, and crude taunts.
In the past week, alone: Trump continued his rant against "illegals"; Ted Cruz called his party's legislative leader "a liar" on the floor of the Senate; Scott Walker was slightly more refined accusing his party’s leaders of making "false promises”; Mike Huckabee charged that with the Iran deal, Obama was marching Israelis into the ovens; and Marco Rubio criticized Trump saying that America didn't need another president with "no class", because we already have a president with "no class".
Now there are, to be sure, thoughtful candidates on the Republican side who have ideas worth examining. But the policies they are proposing have been drowned out by the excessive news coverage given to the demeaning verbal antics of their erstwhile challengers.
We've not yet had the first GOP candidate debate and the race up to that event has itself fed the problem of rhetorical excess. Since there are so many Republican contestants, Fox News, host of the first debate, has arbitrarily decided that they will only invite the candidates who rank in the top 10 in average poll ratings. This has left those with lower poll numbers to feel that they needed to use insults or outrageous stunts to draw the press attention they will need to lift them into the top 10.
While the media can be blamed for covering the candidates' bad behavior and Fox can be faulted for creating this "reality show-like" competition for "who can say the nastiest things", the core problem lies with the base of what has become today's Republican Party.
This isn't a new development since we've seen it play out in the past few election cycles. It began in 2008 when the combination of the reverberating shock of the economic downturn, the dawning realization that America had lost lives, treasure and prestige in two failed wars, and the prospect (followed by the reality) of the election of a black president, caused a substantial number of middle class, middle aged whites to become unmoored. In their bewilderment, they fell prey to the demagoguery of the likes of Sarah Palin, and later of Michele Bachmann, a rejuvenated Newt Gingrich, and Herman Cain. All of these factors and personalities gave rise to the Tea Party and its companion "Birther Movement".
Back then responsible Republicans warned that a monster was being created that would first attack the president and Democrats but would ultimately turn on the GOP and devour it, as well. The party paid no heed to these warnings and, believing that they could ride this insurgency to victory, they fed the beast of anger and frustration. The warnings proved true. In statewide elections moderate Republicans (remember them?) were defeated by the "Tea Party" and the establishment of the GOP found itself losing control of its base.
This drama played out on stage during the many debates that shaped the 2012 Republican primary contest. Smart and thoughtful candidates like Jon Huntsman were drowned out by the circus-like antics of those who played to the base instincts of the majority. While Mitt Romney ultimately won the right to represent his party—his money and the support of the establishment proved too much for the insurgents—what happened to Romney along the way proved fatal to his chances of winning the White House.
It has been argued that if Mitt Romney had run in 2012 as the moderate Republican governor of Massachusetts he might have won the presidency. The problem, however, was that a moderate, never could have won the Republican primary. In the end, the Romney who emerged from the primaries had been so battered and bruised and his party's brand had been so tarnished that he could not win the general election.
All signs point to the fact that the same tragicomedy will be playing out this year. In all likelihood, the results will be the much the same. As my brother John Zogby is fond of saying, America needs a third party—the Republican Party of old—party in which George H.W. Bush and James Baker could be at home. But, alas, in the era of Donald Trump, the Tea Party, the evangelical right, and the ideological billionaires who are all too eager to fund their antics, we will not see sanity on the right side of the aisle this year or the foreseeable future.