Republican comedy hour

The following editorial first appeared in the Chicago Tribune:

Casey Stengel, who managed the New York Mets in their inaugural 1962 season, when they set a record for losses, once said ruefully, “I’ve been in this game a hundred years, but I see new ways to lose I never knew existed before.” He could have been a voter, circa 2011, watching the Republican presidential field in action.

With the economy in an extended stall and President Barack Obama’s approval rating down, you might think 2012 would be an easy year for Republicans to recapture the White House. But handed a golden opportunity, they have been trying their best to hand it back.

What a change this crop of candidates is from those who sought the nomination in past out years. In 1996, the race attracted heavyweights like Sens. Bob Dole, Phil Gramm and Richard Lugar, as well as former Education Secretary Lamar Alexander.

In 2000, the contest featured such serious figures as Gov. George W. Bush, Sen. John McCain and former Labor Secretary Elizabeth Dole. But this year’s campaign often resembles a remake of “The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight.”

In Wednesday’s debate, Texas Gov. Rick Perry couldn’t remember the third of three federal departments he wants to abolish — a gaffe that National Journal called “the worst stumble in the 51-year history of televised presidential debates.”

But in the contest to look inept, Perry has plenty of competition — such as former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain, who leads the field in the latest CBS News poll in spite of himself.

He doesn’t seem to understand his own tax plan, and he has spent a couple of weeks defending himself against allegations of unwanted advances by four different women. In case anyone failed to suspect that Cain has retrograde ideas about women, he referred to former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as “Princess Nancy.”

Michele Bachmann? She won the Iowa straw poll, then went on national TV to claim that the HPV vaccine can cause mental retardation — a claim rejected by scientists.

Newt Gingrich might fill the resulting vacuum, if Republicans can forget his history of adultery and the ethics violation that made him the first speaker ever to be reprimanded by the House of Representatives. His irritable self-infatuation probably won’t wear well.

Rick Santorum has what is delicately called a “Google problem” stemming from his fierce opposition to gay rights — not to mention that an aide to John McCain once said, “In my 20 years in the Senate, I never met a dumber member.”

The most intriguing prospect appears to be a square peg in the GOP circle. Jon Huntsman shows promise. He’s a knowledgeable former diplomat who handles himself well before the public. He had a conservative record as governor of Utah, but because of his moderation on climate change and civil unions, many in the Republican Party regard him as a John Kerry impersonator.

Ron Paul’s support for legalizing drugs and slashing the defense budget make him a strong possibility for the nomination — of the Libertarian Party.

Mitt Romney has done well as a businessman and a governor, but he has done nothing to shake his reputation as a shameless flip-flopper. He went to Ohio before a statewide vote on a measure curbing the collective-bargaining rights of public employee and, when asked, declined to take a position. Then he endorsed it.

This stage of the campaign may be akin to when a new musical opens somewhere out of town, where its flaws can be identified and fixed before it goes to Broadway. There is still time to get things right.

Six months from now, one of these candidates may morph into someone who appears able not only to win the GOP nomination but make a plausible replacement for the incumbent president. But anyone who hopes to beat Obama had better show the American people something a lot better than what they’ve seen so far.

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