'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.


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