'Are the Republican candidates all crazy?'

Texas Governor Rick Perry speaks in Fort Dodge, Iowa, 31 December 2011 Rick Perry has seen his poll ratings suffer after a series of weak performances in national debates

I've lost count of the number of times over the Christmas break that people have asked me some variation of that question. Weird, mad or bonkers, whatever word they used their contemptuous dismissal was the same.

Some will call it bias to even point out that this is a common perception, but it is real, and it is important.

There's no doubt that the scorn was more likely to be expressed by people on the left than the right, and more often by the British than Americans.

Of course there is a long, if not honourable, tradition of regarding those you disagree with as off their rockers. And we Brits have a bit of a record of patronisingly shaking our heads at American quirkiness.

But the perception that there is something wrong with this year's crop of candidates isn't only across the Atlantic or confined by political persuasion.

A leading Republican, who was in Congress for more than 10 years, answered my question: "Who can beat Obama?" with a casual, "a mammal". Then he added sadly: "But they are all reptiles."

Familiar pattern

Most exempt Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman from their scorn. But all the others are widely seen as a little kooky.

Partly, it is because they have indeed said some pretty bizarre things.

Michele Bachmann's claim that the founding fathers worked hard until slavery was eliminated springs to mind. Herman Cain saying Iran couldn't be attacked because it had mountains stood out.

Rick Perry forgetting which government departments he would abolish was not impressive. That the debates at times have seemed like a parade of pygmies says something about the state of the Republican party, and I will return to that.

But part of it is political. Many see the candidates as far out, on the edge. It is easy to see how that happens, particularly for a British audience.

There's no doubt the centre of gravity of American politics has long been several notches to the right of British politics.

Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann speaks at a church in Oskaloosa, Iowa 1 January 2012 Recent polls rank Michele Bachmann in last place in Iowa, the state where she grew up

But the mood of Republican activists, particularly the Tea Party movement, has moved it even further down that path.

After 2008 the Republicans followed a pattern familiar to defeated parties.

Having lost supporters and members from the middle ground, the core who remain were furious with their leaders, and decided the problem was a lack of ideological purity.

That became a more important touchstone than character, skill or electability in a candidate.

Ideological high ground

The admirably democratic primary system, where ordinary party members choose their candidates in an exhausting and exhaustive process, exacerbates this tendency.

It is not just that candidates have to appeal to the base.

They they have to outbid each other by showing they are more hardline. There is no merit in moderation.

The standard way to do down rivals, is by pointing out any deviation that could be seen as liberal or centrist.

This means from the view of a mainstream British Conservative the ideas espoused by the majority of Republican candidates while not crazy, are pretty hardline.

As I write, there's an attack ad playing accusing Newt Gingrich of believing that climate change is a problem and supporting the bail out of the banks.

The common prescription from the candidates for America's economic woes is to cut government spending, cut red tape and lower taxes.

Now that is far from strange or barmy as an economic idea.

But the way candidates are forced to fight each other for the ideological high ground destroys any sense of balance or subtlety.

Ron Paul has at least the honesty to hold views that offend potential supporters as well as opponents.

When a candidate stands out against the narrow zeitgeist, as Newt Gingrich did over immigration, it is regarded as a gaffe.

Ducking the fight

The fact that Iowa votes first has an impact too. Here, evangelical Christian conservatism is a potent force and naturally candidates have spent months stressing their credentials.

Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum at a campaign event in Sioux City, Iowa 1 January 2012 Rick Santorum hopes to unite the evangelical Christian vote as his campaign sees a late surge in Iowa

There is absolutely no equivalent in Britain and the focus in American politics on religious views of matters sexual seems very alien.

Of course, abortion and gay marriage can be issues in the UK but they never loom over elections.

In the last week Rick Perry has announced he is against abortion, even when a woman has been raped and put out an ad claiming Obama was waging war on Christianity.

Ron Paul has been endorsed by a preacher who advocates the death penalty for homosexuality. Michele Bachmann says that under Biblical instruction she would be submissive to her husband, even as president.

Now, of course the Republican candidates don't give a hoot what British lefties might think of their beliefs. But the aura of weirdness is likely to have an impact on independent voters in America.

One of the Tea Party movement's huge strengths was its insistence that to have maximum appeal, economic conservatism shouldn't get tied up in obsessions about sexual behaviour.

Most of the Republican candidates have ignored that sage advice.

But there is something more profound going on here than just the assumption of hardline positions. You can imagine Romney or Gingrich as president. Not so the others. They look like the B-team.

Perhaps that is unfair. Thatcher and Reagan were mocked as lightweights before they assumed office.

But the most serious potential US presidents, from former Florida Governor Jeb Bush to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, have ducked this fight.

Maybe they have good personal reasons. Perhaps they think President Barack Obama will, despite all his problems, win.

But maybe they think that winning the White House in 2012 is not such a desirable treat anyway.

There is a good chance that the economic recovery will be so slow and patchy that the next president won't have an easier time than Mr Obama.

I wonder if there is another factor. Being president of the US sounds like a pretty good job.

But any top political job is less attractive than it used to be.

As Herman Cain learnt, politics is a nasty business. You have to be purer than the pure to run for office and survive.

There are rewards at the top, not least the immense power, but they are fewer and fewer.

Maybe in a party that sees very little merit in government, where the mainstays of the movement have long preached that government is the opposite of the solution, there is precious little appeal for people of talent in spending millions and putting themselves through hell just to become part of the problem.


More on This Story

US Presidential Election 2012


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 99.

    Are the Republican candidates all crazy? Are BBC staff all left-wing liberals?

  • rate this

    Comment number 98.

    "Are the Republican candidates all crazy?"

    Nah. They're all brilliant. They know how to work the uninformed and brainwashed American voter.

  • Comment number 97.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 96.

    On behalf of pygymies I would like to strongly reject being compared to the parties debating in the Republican primaries. It is a very great dishonour for us a a race to be compared with such debaters!

  • rate this

    Comment number 95.

    Mark Mardell wrote:

    "When a candidate stands out against the narrow zeitgeist, as Newt Gingrich did over immigration, it is regarded as a gaffe."

    Most people in all countries, including America, and your country, believe in controlled immigration. It's dishonest and unprofessional when journalists mention "immigration" as the issue when in fact the issue is obviously **illegal** immigration.

  • rate this

    Comment number 94.

    Politicians tell you anything you want to hear, until they get into power, and can do the bidding of their financial masters.

    They say insane things because the average person is barely coherent.

  • rate this

    Comment number 93.

    Mark Mardell wrote:

    "And we Brits have a bit of a record of patronisingly shaking our heads at American quirkiness."

    And yet somehow your kind is supposed to be more worldly, more tolerant, more respectful and more open to the ways of other cultures than Americans are. At least that is what you like to tell us. Isn't it?

  • rate this

    Comment number 92.

    I am abhorred by the way American politics has evolved, the "moral religious right" being as disdainful as as anything coming out of the Middle East!
    I do not wish my life to be ruled by anybodies religion!

  • rate this

    Comment number 91.

    Mark Mardell wrote:

    "Now, of course the Republican candidates don't give a hoot what British lefties might think of their beliefs. But the aura of weirdness is likely to have an impact on independent voters in America."

    So you as a British leftie somehow knows what is considered weird by American independents?

  • rate this

    Comment number 90.

    ALL of our candidates are crazy. Right now, as a free American, I am still not sure if I should vote in the next election, because I cannot find a SINGLE candidate who is worthy of my vote.

    Americans need a candidate who will bring jobs back from overseas by removing tax breaks given to corporations who outsource, drop the tax breaks for the super-rich, and make Soc. Sec/welfare sustainable.

  • rate this

    Comment number 89.

    'Are the Republican candidates all crazy?'

    Of course they are ....... but we're even crazier to be even remotely interested in a USA election at this stage.

    Would anyone be seriously interested in the candidate selection process for a UK election, even if they were all mega-rich, megalomaniacs performing for the cameras like trained chimpanzees?

  • rate this

    Comment number 88.

    How to frame the ideological spectrum of US politics in terms the British would understand.

    The British National Party is the twin of the US Republicans.
    (I'm NOT exaggerating)

    Your Tories are the ideological twins of the US Democrats.

    As for Labor and the Liberals, they'd be the extreme left, politically homeless sans party and the target of ritual condemnation by "serious" politicians.

  • rate this

    Comment number 87.

    The New Deal worked as a stimulus for a generation of still self sufficient, proud people who were embarrassed to be on any type of govt. support, and who went to work starting their own enterprises when they got on their feet...won't work for the self-entitled, 'Otherwise-Occupied' generation of today. Also, Seal Team 6 killed Bin Ladin, just as they would have done under any other President.

  • rate this

    Comment number 86.

    It's very simple why Republicans hate Obama more than 100 Hilarys. Obama is a black Democrat from a big northern city. Southerners used to be overwhelmingly Democrats. They jumped ship over race. But if you are black, from outside the south, a Democrat, and not Jesus, forget it. Forget that he killed Bin Laden and wants to bring back New Deal prosperity. Too bad the birth certificate is real.

  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    Apologies, Republican revolution was in '94.

  • rate this

    Comment number 84.

    Clinton was forced to balance the budget by the Rep. Congress swept in in '96 - one of the only things I can credit the Rep's with. Bush then blew the surplus. Also, although the premise for the Iraq war was flimsy (still, ask thousands of Kurds gassed by Hussein if they would like to breathe again?) the end was not engineered by Obama's policies - he was merely holding the pen at the right time.

  • rate this

    Comment number 83.

    Ron Paul may not be crazy (in fact he seems a man of integrity) but as you can see from comments here and elsewhere, he has a lot of support from people who go on the attack very quickly. It's a very worrying Stalinesque "cult of personality" infatuation and arguing with them often feels like arguing with Scientologists. Not to mention his broad support on certain nuisance-causing image boards.

  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    I have watched the Repub. party be co-opted by the far out right, and the Dem. party led with a bull ring by the nonsensical far left. Almost voted Obama, but his anti-personal responsibility policies killed my vote the first time and will again. USA's strength has always been our relatively free approach to making your living and living your life....why euros and others came here, perhaps?...

  • rate this

    Comment number 81.

    The primary system has driven both parties toward the extremes and the media also drives the trend. Since the Reps have a race for the nomination, it's showing there worst, but the Congressional candidates for both parties show it as well. This leads to gridlock with a divided government or bad legislation if one party dominates. Moderation is not dead in the USA, but it is in poor shape.

  • rate this

    Comment number 80.

    I am a fairly moderate Republican and I think Obama has done a very poor job and does not deserve re-election (despite the fact that I voted for him as I disliked McCain). Most of the current R candidates are bad choices. Perry is nearly barking, Bachman thinks the Pope the antiChrist. I hope Huntsman or Romney get the nod. both are Mormons, costing the them Protestant votes.


Page 1 of 5


More US & Canada stories



BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.