By any normal measure, 2012 should be a political year in which Republicans are fairly flocking to run for president. The economy remains weaker than at any time since the 1930s. Corporate profits have recovered smartly, but the economic indices that measure the lives of ordinary Americans -- unemployment rates, wage levels, consumer confidence -- remain obdurately dismal. President Barack Obama has not laid out any plausible new plans to extend the recovery from Wall Street to Main Street. When Election Day rolls around next November, unemployment is almost certain to be higher than the level at which incumbent presidents can usually win re-election.
The GOP presidential field is more notable for who's not running than for who is. Yet the shrinking Republican presidential field is more notable for who's not running -- Mike Huckabee, Mitch Daniels, Haley Barbour, John Thune, Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, and, lest we forget, the Donald -- than for who is. Each of the non-entrants has reasons for not taking the plunge, many of them compelling. But a larger general barrier looms for any sentient Republican contemplating a candidacy: Today's Republican Party is so whacked, so loony, so fey in the attic, that winning its nomination requires taking positions that will render the nominee unelectable come November 2012.
Thus, the Republicans who actually are running or still thinking it over fall into two categories: those who have functioned with some success in real-world politics and are now scurrying to repudiate their previous accommodations with reality, and those who have been Mad Hatters at the tea party all along. Some candidates have a foot in each camp: Newt Gingrich is probably responsible for more non-reality-based allegations than anyone else in the Republican field (that may simply be a function of his longevity), but he knew enough to recognize that Paul Ryan's decimation of Medicare would never fly. His mistake was saying so publicly -- a position that so inflamed Republican base voters he had to repudiate it (and, Newt being Newt, he threatened to attack anyone who dared to quote his initial criticism, claiming they would be speaking "a falsehood").
In today's Republican Party, the truth shall set you down, and out.
With one striking exception, the campaigns of those candidates who've actually shown an ability to win centrist voters have already become cascades of renunciations. In the very first GOP presidential debate, Tim Pawlenty felt compelled to apologize for once having believed in climate change and supporting cap-and-trade legislation. Jon Huntsman also backed cap-and-trade when he, like Pawlenty, was a governor, and he too, according to The Boston Globe, has now changed his position as well as second-guessed his support for Obama's 2009 economic stimulus. Mitt Romney has continued to defend the health-care plan he signed into law in Massachusetts (that's the striking exception) but attacks Obama for extending that plan to the other 49 states.
And the game has only just begun. The Tea-Partified Republicans of Iowa and South Carolina, without whose support winning the nomination will be all but impossible, still lay in wait for Pawlenty, Huntsman, and Romney (and making their road steeper yet, the latter two are Mormons, a religion that many evangelicals consider non-Christian). Will the Real-World Three toe the party line on scrapping Medicare (Pawlenty already has), collective bargaining, stem-cell research, and the Pythagorean theorem? No such agonizing choices await the Mad Hatter candidates, of course. Rick Santorum, Herman Cain, Gary Johnson, and Ron Paul are free to indulge the fantasies of Republican base voters with no fear of compromising their nonexistent chances of winning the White House. In the wings await the Hatters who actually have a following: Michele Bachmann and -- now back touring the country and about as welcome to Republican professionals as Banquo's ghost -- the ineffable Sarah Palin.
How did the Republican Party become at once so insular and unmoored that winning its presidential nod requires an extremism that would give Barry Goldwater the creeps? Many are responsible for the Republicans' descent into madness, but pride of place surely goes to Fox News chair Roger Ailes, the onetime Nixon aide who created a counterfactual network that in turn helped create a counterfactual Republican Party. Ailes, we now learn from a recent article in New York Magazine, despairs over the current crop of Republican candidates, but he has no one more to blame than himself for driving more electable Republicans from the race. The man who gave Palin (as well as Huckabee, Santorum, and Gingrich) a regular gig at Fox, according to one Republican close to Ailes who's quoted in the article, now thinks "Palin is an idiot. He thinks she's stupid."
But take a bow, Roger; that's the Republican field you've built.