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