Wrap your head around this farcical factoid: On the eve of the third Republican presidential debate, 55 percent of the party’s registered voters support the candidates who have zero experience in public service.
We’re talking about the candidates — Ben Carson, Donald Trump, Carly Fiorina — who’ve never served in any elective office, not even school board or local sheriff. Who’ve never served in any appointive office, not even as a zoning commissioner in the boonies. And yet, I repeat, 55 percent of rank-and-file Republicans are willing to entrust someone in that trio with the responsibility of helming a multi-trillion dollar enterprise — and toting the nuclear football.
Granted, the grassroots Republicans are furious that their elected leaders have failed to thwart the president they hate. But only a shrink can arguably explain how their fury has led them to this lamentable amateur hour. In the latest national poll, a chuckleheaded retired neurosurgeon sits at number one with 26 percent; a mogul-vulgarian who demeans women and Latinos is second with 22 percent; and a failed CEO who bailed with a golden parachute is tied for fourth at 7 percent. Worse yet, if Ben Carson, the aforementioned doc, were to win the nomination, 48 percent of grassroots Republicans would “enthusiastically” support him — the highest score of any hypothetical nominee.
Ben Carson, frontrunner. This boggles the mind — or my mind, anyway, because I hew to the apparently old-fashioned belief that the leader of the free world should be at least minimally qualified.
Perhaps, in tonight’s debate, Carson can demonstrate for the first time that he knows the difference between the budget deficit and the debt ceiling — a test that he recently flunked. Perhaps he can make amends for the second debate, when he said that the current U.S. Air Force is the smallest since 1940 — ignorant of the fact that the U.S. Air Force wasn’t created until 1947. Perhaps, as part of his brief against gun control, he’ll stop blaming German Jews for failing to arm themselves against Hitler — “an imbecilic historical analogy,” says conservative Peter Wehner, who served three Republican presidents, and proof of Carson’s “staggering ignorance when it comes to the unique malevolence of Hitler’s Germany.”
Carson is also topping the charts in Iowa, which votes first for some enduringly inexplicable reason, in part because the conservative Christians who dominate the Republican caucus are sssoooothed by his ssssssoft rhetorical intonations. Excuse me, but I had no idea that a voice box was a qualification for the world’s top job. Apparently that’s deemed to be more important than foreign policy experience, because 42 percent of Iowa Republicans have told the Des Moines Register/Bloomberg pollster that they’re fine with the fact that Carson has no such experience at all. Frankly, if these voters are so mesmerized by a soft voice, they should just stay home and bond with the low talker on “Seinfeld.”
Carson belongs at the kiddie table instead of, say, Lindsey Graham. Whatever faults Graham may have, it’s downright bizarre that a 12-year red-state senator and military lawyer can’t get a cup of coffee from this Republican electorate. His Monday lament on Morning Joe was a cry for help and a primal scream: “On our side, you’ve got [Carson], who tried to kill someone at 14, and [Trump] is crazy as hell. How am I losing to these people?”
But to fully appreciate the current contours of the Republican race, let’s put it in historical perspective. I’m hard pressed to identify another early primary season when three unqualified amateurs pulled 55 percent. It is true, of course, that past Republicans have nominated guys with no elective experience — William Howard Taft in 1908, Herbert Hoover in 1928, Wendell Willkie in 1940, and Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 — but Taft had been a U.S. solicitor general and secretary of war; Hoover had been secretary of commerce, and during World War I his American Relief Administration fed 10 million people a day; and Eisenhower, most famously, had helmed the largest and most complex war machine in history. Even Willkie, a corporate lawyer, was already well known, having spent seven years in the public eye as a critic of the New Deal.
Today’s Republicans are entering uncharted territory. Four years ago at this time, pizza mogul Herman Cain was wowing the faithful with his up-by-the-bootstraps personal arc, and with his proud admission that he didn’t know a blessed thing about foreign locales like “Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan.” But now Republicans have three amateurs, one of whom is a guy who thinks that $1 million (a loan he got from his dad) is a “small” amount. Presumably, in tonight’s debate, Trump will refrain from bringing that up when he laments the income gap between rich and poor.
The perils of a sustained amateur hour should be obvious. Political analyst Jonathan Rauch says “it’s healthy for the political system to be permeable to newcomers and disrupters, right? Up to a point. By now, Republicans ought to be realizing that their infatuation with inexperience is descending into self-parody. And it is self-defeating …. Being fresh is one thing. Half-baked is another.”
But I’ll cede the last words to Wehner, the aforementioned Republican who worked for Ronald Reagan and both Bushs:
“Politics isn’t meant to be a catharsis. Yet for many of my fellow conservatives, raging against the system — the much-maligned ‘establishment’ — is just that. I get that it may be emotionally satisfying to cheer on careless rhetoric, to portray every political difference as a ‘give me liberty or give me death’ moment, and to imply that America under Barack Obama is like Germany under Adolf Hitler. But it is also intellectually discrediting, politically self-defeating and unworthy of those who are citizens of a great republic.”