It’s been disheartening to see how this year’s Republican presidential candidates have behaved in response to dropping poll numbers. The campaign started out so optimistic with each candidate eager to make an impression on the viewing public. They all spoke out proudly about their conservative principles and how they would apply those principles, if elected, to strengthen the country and lead us back to prosperity.
In a race where just about every candidate at one time or another has been considered a front-runner, each rise to the top has been graceful. Yet, each descent back to the pack has been startlingly undignified.
I understand that Politics is a contact sport, and sometimes the gloves have to come off if you hope to win… But there’s something very wrong when we see Republicans abruptly shelve their conservative principles to lash out at their competitors and critics with demagoguery and left-wing spin.
When Rick Perry’s entrance into the race quickly whittled away Michele Bachmann’s social conservative support, she dug in deep. Nailing him on his effort to mandate the HPV vaccine in Texas, she scored some points by raising legitimate concerns on his use of executive power. But with her poll numbers suffering, she took it to the next level and cast Perry as a man whose bad judgement could have inflicted mental retardation on unsuspecting teenage girls. It was disgraceful fear-mongering, indicative of the left, and her campaign never recovered from it.
When women from Herman Cain’s past kept emerging with allegations that he engaged in inappropriate behavior, his support began to slide. His odd handling of the accusations caused it to slide even faster. In an effort to stop the bleeding, Cain ultimately used the race card to try and swat away his critics. After spending months speaking the conservative language of personal responsibility, the power of the individual, and the pursuit happiness, he was suddenly embracing the same disgraceful defense strategy that Obama supporters routinely use. Cain, who admirably defended the Tea Party and other Obama critics against charges of racism, ended up trying to race-bait his way out of the media scrutiny. Not good.
Ron Paul essentially went the same route by attributing fellow candidates’ reasoning for tough talk against Iran to a personal hate for Muslims. He’s also accused them of not caring about the lives of U.S. soldiers if they support hawkish policies. That’s the kind of rhetoric we’d expect from anti-war groups like Code Pink… not a serious candidate running for the presidency. It’s one thing to disagree strongly with someone’s policy ideas. It’s entirely different to demagogue their motivations by insisting that they stem from bigotry or callousness.
After stumbling out of the starting gate at the beginning of his campaign, it took a slow and steady strategy of consistently good debate performances and eloquent speeches to finally get people to recognize Newt Gingrich as a serious candidate. He became the strong, conservative alternative to Mitt Romney and took the coveted front-runner position. But as attack-ads from the Romney and Paul camps began chopping away at his momentum, he resorted to assaulting Bain Capital (Romney’s old investment firm) for engaging in free enterprise, and vilifying Romney for his wealth. In perhaps the most surprising change in direction of any of the candidates, Gingrich seemed to take a chapter right out of the Occupy Wallstreet playbook by demonizing the concept of economic freedom. And he wasn’t alone…
Rick Perry went after Bain Capital as well, taking a break from promoting Capitalism and free market principles to lambast Romney for participating in them. He then joined the chorus with John Huntsman and other candidates to harp on Romney’s blatantly taken-out-of-context comment, “I like to be able to fire people.” It’s been painful to watch fellow Republicans latch onto such a ridiculously cheap and disingenuous talking point. It’s the kind of thing we’d expect to come from the DNC, not Republican competitors.
The current front-runner and presumed Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, has been just as guilty of the same tactics. Rick Perry’s initial acceleration to the top of the pack knocked Romney down to a distant second in the polls for some time. To claw his way back to the top, Romney shamelessly demagogued Perry’s position that Social Security was a broken system. Borrowing from the Democrats successful lynching of Paul Ryan’s entitlement reform plan, he did his best to stoke fear in seniors by suggesting repeatedly that a Perry presidency would result in them losing their Social Security benefits. When Newt Gingrich was in the front-runner spotlight, Romney attacked free-market capitalism by lambasting the former Speaker for private contract work he did for Freddie Mac. The criticism had nothing to do with the kind of work he did for them, but rather just the mere fact that he accepted compensation for his service.
All of this reflects very poorly on the Republican party. How can the party platform be successfully sold to voters when the candidates embrace its core principles while building their campaign war-chests, but quickly abandon them in moments of weakness and desperation? To sign on to the same false narratives that the administration has been peddling for the last three years is a huge mistake, and it will only make unseating Obama more difficult.
On a personal level, I find it disappointing that several candidates may have permanently tarnished their reputations by crumbling under campaign pressure and succumbing to the anything to win campaign mentality. Some of these guys don’t even resemble themselves from a few months ago. Perry entered the race with an almost iconic presence about him, a strong record of success, and a bold and genuine commitment to small government. He could have been one the party’s strongest voices over the long term. Now he’s largely been reduced to a sophomoric, self-deprecating lug with no coherent vision. Newt Gingrich had spent years building a strong post-Speaker career that kept him relevant in politics and made him a strong, influential voice for conservatism. His passion for eloquently communicating ideas was respected by many. Now, he’s flailing around the political spectrum aimlessly, hitting opponents from both the left and the right with inconsistent messages, and regressing back into the antagonistic caricature that plagued him during his final days in congress.
I don’t expect candidates to go down without a fight, but I do expect them to remain true to the ideals they claim to embrace. There shouldn’t be shame in losing, but there should be shame in losing what they stand for. Sadly, I’m afraid we’ll see plenty more of the last-ditch lunacy before we’re down to one candidate.
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