“This is my 10th presidential campaign, Lord help me. I have never before seen such a bunch of vile, desperate-to-please, shameless, embarrassing losers coagulated under a single party's banner. They are the most compelling argument I've seen against American exceptionalism. Even Tim Pawlenty, a decent governor, can't let a day go by without some bilious nonsense escaping his lizard brain. And, as Greg Sargent makes clear, Mitt Romney has wandered a long way from courage. There are those who say, cynically, if this is the dim-witted freak show the Republicans want to present in 2012, so be it. I disagree. One of them could get elected. You never know. Mick Huckabee, the front-runner if you can believe it, might have to negotiate a trade agreement, or a defense treaty, with the Indonesian President some day. Newt might have to discuss very delicate matters of national security with the President of Pakistan. And so I plead, as an unflinching American patriot--please Mitch Daniels, please Jeb Bush, please run. I may not agree with you on most things, but I respect you. And you seem to respect yourselves enough not to behave like public clowns.”When he calls likely Republican presidential candidates “clowns,” I take Klein to be saying that they are plainly unqualified to serve in that office, and ought to know it, but they’re running anyway. Since reasonable people on different sides of the partisan divide have different ideas about what qualifies one for the presidency, it’s unreasonable to expect that they’ll agree on which presidential candidates qualify as clowns. But, in assessing the other side’s presidential candidates, they apply the concept of “clownishness” in roughly the same way.
By my lights and Klein’s, Michele Bachmann would, and Mitch Daniels and Jeb Bush wouldn’t, qualify as a clown. The scary thing, from our standpoint, is that there are people we could see winning the Republican nomination, like Mike Huckabee, whom we used to regard as more than a little clownish. It’s only fair to acknowledge that Republicans know the feeling. They thought that there was something clownish about the presidential candidacy of a guy who’d had an undistinguished record as an Illinois and United States Senator in 2008.
So both Republicans and Democrats think that, when it comes to choosing presidential nominees, the other side’s sending in the clowns. Let’s stipulate that there’s increasing incidence of clownishness in the presidential primaries in the non-incumbent party on both sides. If that’s so, and I think it is, why is it happening?
We can get to the beginnings of an answer by asking ourselves what a clown gets by running for the presidency. Quite a lot actually. If the timing is right, playing the clown in presidential primaries is a rational strategy of self-promotion for the clown and for promoting the clown’s core values.
Although their reputations have since taken a hit, Jesse Jackson and Pat Robertson were the path-breakers in this respect. Although few of his staunchest supporters could really see him in the oval office, Jackson’s 1984 presidential candidacy confirmed his place as the country’s preeminent civil rights leader and stiffened the Democratic Party’s spine when it came to promoting much of his civil rights agenda. Robertson’s 1988 candidacy raised his own profile as a television evangelist and helped make social conservatism a litmus test of ideological rectitude in the Republican Party.
So, under normal circumstances, it’s rational for ambitious public figures to play the clown. That explains why more people are doing it every election cycle. Yet when more people follow that rational strategy, two things happen.
First, the more clowns there are, the more precipitously the returns to clownishness diminish. Clownishness raises the clown’s stature by, literally and figuratively, enabling him to share a stage with non-clownish candidates and out-perform low popular expectations. Recall what happened to Al Sharpton when he tried to replicate Jackson’s success by running for president in 2004. Although he performed better than a lot of people expected, Sharpton didn't succeed in raising his own profile within the civil rights community or advancing his own civil rights agenda within the Democratic Party. That, in large part, was because he was sharing the stage not only with serious candidates, but with clowns like Carol Moseley Braun and Dennis Kucinich. Sharpton’s best efforts to draw attention to himself and away from them just made him seem all the more clownish. Roughly the same thing happened to Republicans trying to replicate Pat Robertson’s success. Patrick Buchanan made a splash in 1992, but Gary Bauer didn't when he was out there carrying the social conservative banner and Alan Keyes was just out there.
Second, the more clowns there are, the higher the average clownishness of the field as a whole, and the lower the qualifications any candidate has to have to look (comparatively) presidential. Take Mike Huckabee. At the beginning of the 2008 election cycle, he was the class clown in more than one sense in a lackluster Republican field. But that didn’t stop him from establishing himself as the voice of social conservatism in a field dominated by McCain, Romney and Giuliani and winning the Iowa Caucuses. Now, Michelle Bachmann is starting to look like this election cycle’s Huckabee, making Huckabee look like a crusty elder statesman from his perch on the Fox News Channel. How will Bachmann look in 2016?
It looks to me like things are going to get worse until the returns to clownishness diminish to the point that they're outweighed by the financial and reputational costs of mounting a vanity presidential campaign. Judging from the present state of the Republican field, that hasn't happened yet. Can you blame a Mitch Daniels or a Jeb Bush for not wanting to play this game until it does?