Gluttons for Punishment: Blame Voters for the Dismal GOP Field

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If the Republican presidential candidates fail to offer substance, it's because they're giving the public what it wants -- empty calories

Michele Bachmann corn dog - AP Photo:Charles Dharapak - banner.jpg

It wasn't until I saw a horribly overweight man gorging himself over the breakfast buffet at a Grand Rapids, Michigan hotel on Sunday that I understood the fallacy behind all the hand-wringing over the Republican presidential field.

As he waddled to his table with two apparent Guinness Book of World Records-sized plates of food, including a stack of sausage and bacon nearly blocking the light from a nearby bank of windows, I realized that voters are being fed what they want to eat.

So, please, let's not get too self righteous, especially those of us in the media, as we opine about the perils to democracy or how voters are owed a better political buffet.

Anxiety over the Republican field crosses the ideological spectrum and inspires pained reflections on the general state of politics. It's manifested in both unalloyed derision by Democrats (subtext: "Boy, we may be unhappy with our guy but look at these yahoos!") and wincing over a potential lost opportunity by Republicans (subtext: "The incumbent should be dead meat and we're blowing it!").

The Wall Street Journal, seemingly anxious that those to whom it's ideologically sympathetic aren't up to snuff, editorialized that the GOP and independents are "desperate to find a candidate who can appeal across the party's disparate factions and offer a vision of how to constrain a runaway government and revive America's once-great private economy."

A page-one story Monday ("Calls Rise to Broaden GOP Field") was rife with similar discontent. You'd think that, like spectators between innings at Saturday night's minor league baseball game in Grand Rapids, they are staring at monkeys riding atop two dogs chasing goats across the outfield (full disclosure: it was very funny).

Nearly as vivid, and unavoidably less entertaining, was chagrin voiced by two New York Times op-ed columnists from diverse parts of the spectrum (full disclosure: I write a twice-weekly column for a Midwest edition of the Times and find the paper now qualitatively lapping the field).

Conservative Ross Douthat wrote that a question has dogged the GOP field all year. "Is this really the best we can do?" When it comes to frontrunner Mitt Romney, he wrote, "The answer is no."

In the same 24-hour period Frank Bruni, a former food critic, waxed melancholy after scrutinizing the run-up to the Iowa Straw Poll. When Sarah Palin dropped in on the proceedings, he took her response to a query on whether she was looking for votes -- "I'm looking for fried butter on a stick and a fried Twinkie as soon as I can get there" -- as evidence of hers, and the system's, superficiality.

"And we deserve something much, much better," he wrote.

I'm not sure if he would have ever written the same after visiting an Applebee's, Olive Garden or T.G.I. Friday's, or the thousands of enterprises which make that trio look like the Four Seasons in New York or Alinea in Chicago. But if Americans truly crave substance -- which I tend to doubt -- it's clear that in politics, as in dining out, they find it impossible to escape empty calories.

Yes, it would be dandy to find a Republican candidate to engage in an Oxford Union- or C-SPAN-like debate with GOP rivals and, then, President Obama. Imagine a bona fide dialogue on health care, foreign policy, unions, privacy, the role of government, you name it.

In the general election, such a debate could even bolster the president's support within his own ranks if he were forced to more clearly articulate the sort of big picture which some Democratic critics claim he has not.

John Mark Hansen, dean of social sciences at the University of Chicago and a political scientist, is of the general view that things happen in politics for a reason, often electoral, as politicians give voters "the impression that you want what they want."

So if those GOP debates have reeked of rhetorical homogeneity, he suggests, maybe it's because the campaigns have been hearing the same things in their focus groups and polling of, yes, real people.

As with all-you-can-eat buffets, the political system has long ago seen the utility of producing and consuming empty political calories.

Consider the stark realities facing virtually every municipality -- budget deficits, underfunded pension liabilities, declining state and federal funding, etc. Precious few politicians want to be straight and tell us we have to eat far less, work out and get in shape since we're running out of money.

So we get pre-processed jargon and wind up processing that in the same way our kids process the godawful lunches served in most public schools.

Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry and the others on the Republican side will inevitably run campaigns that are a political counterpart to any slickly marketed Taco Bell or Denny's franchise, forcing down people's throats what seems to catch citizens' attention in focus groups.

They may articulate a desire for fiscal discipline and sacrifice and truth-telling politicians but, in the end, can't help themselves buying into fatuous promises. It's the same with lack of resistance to the fried delights at their favorite $7.99 dyspepsia-inducing bacchanal, perhaps replete with free 16-ounce refills of Coke, too.

We've been so pampered for so long, now that an era of necessary austerity beckons, we remain addicts to empty calories.

I'm wary of finding any political insights from tiny Norway these days, given the recent and bloody bursting of its decorous image. But the playwright Henrik Ibsen did write, "A different world cannot be built by indifferent people."

Whether loading up at a Grand Rapids breakfast orgy, or occasionally stumbling to the voting booth, it's we who are the problem.

We deserve better? If we don't demand it, then we deserve even worse -- and likely will get it. Bring on the monkeys riding dogs, chasing goats.

Image credit: Charles Dharapak/AP

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James Warren is the Chicago editor of the Daily Beast/Newsweek and an MSNBC analyst. He's former managing editor of the Chicago Tribune. More

James Warren is a former manager, editor and Washington bureau chief of The Chicago Tribune. An ink-stained wretch, he's labored at The Newark Star-Ledger, The Chicago Sun-Times, and the Tribune in a variety of positions, including financial reporter, legal affairs reporter-columnist, labor writer, media writer-columnist and features editor. The Washingtonian once tagged him one of the town's 50 most influential journalists (he thinks he was 46, the number worn by Andy Pettitte, a pitcher for his beloved New York Yankees). He's a political analyst for MSNBC. He was recently publisher and president of the Chicago Reader, and is now policy columnist for Business Week and twice-a-week Chicago columnist for The New York Times (you can find his handiwork on the paper's website and on new Chicago pages produced for Friday's and Sunday's Midwest print editions by the nonprofit Chicago News Cooperative, which he held to start). A native New Yorker, he's a happy resident of the wonderful, if ethically challenged, City of Chicago, where he lives just north of decaying Wrigley Field with his Pulitzer Prize-winning wife, Cornelia, and their sons, Blair and Eliot. Blair's t-ball team is, yes, the Yankees.

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