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Larry Beinhart's Body Politic: Love of the Loons 

click to enlarge DION OGUST
  • Dion Ogust

The Republicans are rolling out the clown car again, just like they did in 2012. But this time, they're stuffing even more clowns in as it rumbles and tumbles down the byways that wind through the primary states on the way toward the party's nomination of a presidential candidate.

The biggest clown of all jumped right into the lead.

We could mock, and we will, but first, let us look a little deeper and take a longer view.

Back in 1980, the witty, snarky Gore Vidal wrote: "Reagan has no chance of being elected president. It is true that the United States is turning into Paraguay, but not at that speed." Reagan was, of course, elected in a landslide and re-elected in an even bigger one in 1984.

By 1988, it looked like the pendulum was going to swing back. The stock market crash of 1987 was called Black Monday. It was, and remains, the biggest one-day plunge in Wall Street history (22.6 percent). The Savings & Loan Crisis, the biggest set of bank failures since the Great Depression, was already underway. (Two of Vice President George H.W. Bush's sons were involved in shady deals that were part of banks collapsing—Neil in Colorado, Jeb in Florida. The investigations that named them were politely held until after the election.) Reagan's people believed in the laughably named Laffer Curve (as they still do). Tax cuts are supposed to create such a frenzy of new business that even at lower rates, more revenue is generated. It didn't happen. But the deficit tripled.

And then there was Iran-Contra.

Try to imagine that we just found out that Obama had been secretly sending missiles to Iran. Reagan had been. He denied it—until there was too much evidence. He went on television and said, "A few months ago, I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that's true, but the facts and evidence tell me it is not."

That's an astonishing statement if you examine it. It's an admission by the President of the United States that he preferred to live in a bubble of pleasant myths rather than face difficult facts, and that he was capable of doing so. By then, he had a significant track record of confusing movie scenes with actual history, even claiming that he'd been present at the liberation of a concentration camp when he'd spent all of World War II safely at home in Hollywood.

The Contras were right-wing counterrevolutionaries in Nicaragua. It had been made specifically against the law to support them. Reagan's people took the money from the secret Iran deal and used it to get around the law.

The Republican contenders were George H.W. Bush, Senator Bob Dole, and Congressman Jack Kemp.

Pat Moynihan, the esteemed Democratic senator from New York, took a look at the three of them, and said, "If we can't beat these guys, we need to find another country."

George H.W. Bush won the `88 election. Another landslide.

In 1992, Bush the Elder did not win re-election. The Democrat, Bill Clinton won. In 1996 he won re-election against Senator Bob Dole.

In 2000, after eight years of peace and prosperity, Clinton's vice president, Al Gore, should have coasted to victory. Especially since his opponent was George W. Bush. President Reagan's son, Ronald Prescott Reagan, summed Bush up this way: "He's probably the least qualified person ever to be nominated by a major party. What is his accomplishment? That he's no longer an obnoxious drunk?"

As we know, to the deep regret of many of us, George W. Bush won. Then won re-election in 2004.

In 2008, Barack Obama beat John McCain.

In 2012, the race for the Republican nomination was wide open. The clowns, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, Michelle Bachmann, Herman Cain, and more, piled into the clown car. When it came to a stop, Mitt Romney emerged as the candidate.

If you look across this 30-year arc, something very strange emerges. The sane, sober, qualified Republican candidates—Romney, McCain, Dole—all lost. The ones who were "misunderestimated" (W.'s famous malapropism), the clowns—Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush—won.

The clincher for this argument is George H.W. Bush.

During the primaries for his first nomination he was widely regarded as a "wimp," for no particular reason except exhibiting signs of rationality. So he staged a confrontation in which he stormed out of a TV interview. This eliminated the "wimp factor," and he won the primaries. (That's true, that's the real sequence of events.) Still, it looked like he would lose the election. So he attacked the Democrat as "soft on crime committed by scary, scary black people," making it very clear that if Dukakis was elected, black people would be released from their prisons to murder and rape.

As president, Bush was remarkably sane and sensible.

His Gulf War was legal, with Arab states aligning against another Arab state. Foreseeing what would happen if Saddam was ousted, he stopped when he reached the legal objective, the liberation of Kuwait, and to top it off, he got other people to pay for it. Reagan's Voodoo Economics continued to not work. The deficit kept growing, laughing at the Laffer Curve (as should we all). So Bush raised taxes. Nobody ever says it, but big tax cuts are followed by a boom, bubble, bust, and a recession, which ends when taxes are raised. They are never raised for that reason. They are raised because deficits ensue. But they do mark the moment when the economy resumes its health, and so it did.

Those are precisely the reasons that Bush lost the support of his base, and, as a consequence, his re-election.

Why? We get a hint from Reagan's Iran-Contra moment. Republicans—not RHINOs, but the base, the enthusiasts, the foot soldiers—can only be truly enthused by reality deniers. When they get even a whiff, as with George H. W. Bush, that their guy actually recognizes facts and might act on them—like that tax cuts don't work, that torture doesn't work, that some sort of compromise is necessary to deal with our immigration problems, that government has useful functions, that contraception prevents abortion—they lose their enthusiasm, enough that their candidate can't quite win.

So, if you're a Republican, and you want a candidate who can win, push for someone who lives in the fantasy world that you see advertised on Fox News. 

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