There is nothing quite like the race for the presidency, for the most powerful office in the world, to guarantee one the giggles. Yes, the 2016 presidential nominating process has begun and it guarantees to be just as entertaining as 2012.
As a man of the political left, I take more delight in the foibles of Republican candidates. But, I don’t think it is just me. What does anyone make of Dr. Ben Carson’s claim that homosexuality is “absolutely” a choice and, when asked for evidence to support his claim, Carson said, “Because a lot of people who go into prison go into prison straight -- and when they come out, they're gay. So, did something happen while they were in there? Ask yourself that question.” Let’s not linger over that question, although Carson’s comment did make me wonder if he keeps on his bed stand a picture of the “hot convict” Jeremy Meeks whose mug shot went viral and landed him a modeling contract.
Dr. Carson, who is this year’s answer to Herman Cain, without the bad pizza, has quite a following among Tea Party types – he polled fourth in the latest Iowa poll of potential GOP voters – in part because he also has no background in electoral politics. This shows in both men’s style of speech. There is a frankness that is admirable, neither Cain then nor Carson now, indulges the kind of hyper-cautious, calibrated speech we have come to expect of politicians and, what is more, both men reduce all complex problems to simple, easily digestible truisms and bromides: America is the greatest nation on earth; There is nothing the people can’t achieve if government would only get out of the way; The liberal media can’t be trusted; &c.
Of course, politicians learn to be cautious because most Americans really do not wish to have a president who says really stupid things like suggesting the sexual behavior of incarcerated people explains the origins of homosexuality. Carson tried to walk his comments back, but they were so obviously candid, and his apology so obviously strained, it is not hard to know that the problem here is not a bad choice of words, but an anti-gay animus that is as ugly as it is obvious.
Another would-be president is Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. Now, we know he is a public liar of the highest order after he took office, slashed taxes on rich people and corporations, and then used the resulting budget deficit as a reason to go after organized labor, which was akin to voting to cut local taxes that support your emergency crews and first responders, then starting a fire in one’s house and complaining that the fire department was not quick enough to save the structure. In London last month, Mr. Walker was asked if he believes in evolution and instead of lying, he punted. The British interviewer expressed some dismay, but Walker insisted he was not going to answer what he subsequently labeled “gotcha” questions. (I am wonder if 4th grade science students can use that excuse at exam time?)
To be clear, when asked if one believes in evolution, the correct answer is “no.” Evolution is a scientific theory, not an article of faith and it is only the latter that requires belief. Evolution and other scientific theories are demonstrated, not believed, and are only supplanted in the face of contrary data or a theory that is accept to be better at analyzing and interpreting the data. A religious belief is relatively immune to such fluctuations in data and their interpretation. That said, I do not think this is the reason Sen. Walker punted on that question. I suspect he was concerned about fundamentalist voters in Iowa who believe the theory of evolution challenges their reading of the Bible. I do not think Gov. Walker is himself a man who thinks that the world came into existence in six twenty-four hour days only a few thousand years ago. I think his reticence sprang from a political, not a scientific or religious, calculation.
The cartoonish quality of a Republican nominating process is at its best when the party’s surrogates take to the airwaves. They are distinguishable mostly by their shamelessness. One of the memes I have heard from several Republican strategists is that this election cycle, the GOP has a robust stable of candidates, as opposed to 2012 when, as one such talking head put it, the race consisted of “Mitt Romney and a bunch of Lilliputians.” If memory serves, Newt Gingrich, a reasonably successful Speaker of the House and gifted spokeman for a worldview I do not share but which is hardly the stuff of fantasy, was a candidate in 2012. So, too, was the four-term Governor of Texas, Rick Perry. So, too, was two-term Sen. Rick Santorum, a many with whom my disagreements are many but who nonetheless won election twice in a blue state. What do Walker, or Sen. Rand Paul, or Sen. Marco Rubio have on these guys?
On the Democratic side, the humor is dark humor, as the nation is becoming reacquainted with all the things about the Clintons that we did not like, the penchant for secrecy, the sense that they get to play by different rules, the Manichaean worldview that divides people, and especially the press, into friends or enemies. I will write about Mrs. Clinton’s candidacy another day but I hope the senior leaders of the party are thinking long and hard about the prospect of a Clinton candidacy. She has stumbled, and stumbled badly, even before getting to the starting gate.
This election silliness is to me what catnip is for a cat, I just can’t get enough of it. I have seen the movie “Game Change” more than a dozen times, almost never from start to finish after the first viewing, but when it goes on to HBO, I just can’t help myself from tuning in for a bit. Make no mistake, this coming election will be very consequential and all of us need to get past the fun stuff and look to the future of our democracy with intellectual rigor and with a healthy skepticism about the claims the candidates make. But, every once in awhile, it is fun just to watch and to laugh.