THE HORSERACE JULY 19, 2013
That does it. With Rep. Peter King’s announcement that he’s interested in running for president in 2016, I want to enter for the record my unseemly, unabashed excitement for the 2016 Republican primaries. King rounds out a field of “maybes” that already includes “wacko birds” Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, Allen West, John Bolton, Paul Ryan, Chris Christie, Kelly Ayotte, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and been-there-done-thats of varying potential like Rick Perry, Jon Huntsman, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum. Some are self-dealing, some are YouTube bait, some have mortifying pasts, and any one of them might seduce the kind of eccentric, shifty, crocodile-shooting, or high-rolling super PAC patrons that wormed their way out of the woodwork in 2012. It’s gonna get weird.
King specifically is best-known for his abiding fear of homegrown terrorists, so long as they are brown. He proclaimed, in a 2007 interview with Politico, “There are too many mosques in this county.” As chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, he held a string of hearings about the radicalization of American Muslims, on the (completely wrong) grounds that Muslim Americans had largely refused to cooperate with post-9/11 law enforcement investigations. And yet, throughout the 1970s and ’80s, he was probably the biggest stateside defender of the Irish Republican Army, a terrorist organization that sought to force the British out of Northern Ireland. Their decades-long bombing campaign, which hit targets like 10 Downing Street and the Harrods department store, killed more than 1,750 people, 600 of them civilians. King was unfazed. “If civilians are killed in an attack on a military installation, it is certainly regrettable, but I will not morally blame the IRA for it,” he told an Irish publication in 1985.
And King promises he will be a credible alternative to Rand Paul and Ted Cruz.
Indeed, Paul is only partway done with his transformation into a serious contender. He’s moderate-adjacent on issues like immigration—rhetorically willing to legalize the illegal immigrants living in the U.S.—and pitching to staid Republican mega-donors like the Koch brothers. But the Kentuckian’s record is laughably out of the mainstream. (Since becoming a senator, he’s introduced go-nowhere legislation to gut or dismantle at least twelve federal agencies.) He has a knack for attracting Southern racists and he won’t disavow the Lost Causer working for his staff. A loony past? Read up on Aqua Buddha. Cruz, meanwhile, is the politics of nullification incarnate, reminiscent of Joseph McCarthy in his dealings with defense nominee Chuck Hagel.
Even the mainstream-ified candidates have their demons. For now, Marco Rubio is the baby-faced senate star who maybe got taken for a ride by Democrats on immigration reform. Just wait until Republicans delve into Rubio’s extensive self-dealing, or meet Florida politician David Rivera—the proprietor of tangled campaign finance scheme involving shady dealing and dog track racing, he is Marco Rubio’s Karl Rove. If you have forgotten all of those YouTube videos of Chris Christie belittling teachers who confront him about budget cuts, 2016 will surely remind you—and provide Christie with a fresh supply of workaday voters to put down.
Rick Perry, whose alternatively goofy and wooden public appearances ultimately doomed him, (but not before he was dogged by several distressing revelations, like the fact that his old hunting camp was known as "Niggerhead"), may give it another go. The Texas governor reportedly spent the last campaign on painkillers for a bad back. This time around, presuming he is unburdened by medical ailments, we may glimpse beyond his “Oopses” at his astonishing constitutional philosophy—he’s basically Clarence Thomas in a bolo tie—and his devastating governance on issues like health care. (Maybe he’ll scold more women for being teenage moms.)
I could go on. And of course, there will be colorful ancillary characters, the kind that not even the people who treated Herman Cain like a contender will deign to take seriously. Ousted Rep. Allen West—who recently said, with a straight face, “I believe there’s about 78 to 81 members of the Democratic Party that are members of the Communist Party”—could be 2016’s Michele Bachmann. If a glut of national attention has not scared him off, there’s Ben Carson, a famous Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon with a history of making virulently homophobic remarks. Making a play for the Donald Trump slot (the celebrity who only threatened to run) is Ted Nugent. No, really, Ted Nugent, who once brandished two machine guns onstage at a concert, shouting, “Hey, Hillary! You might want to ride one of these into the sunset, you worthless bitch.”
The 2016 primaries may also turn out to be a race without a Romney—the guy who is going to clean up delegates after everyone else is done making an ass out of themselves. Any combination of Rubio, Christie, Bush, and a rehabilitated Rick Perry could then turn the primaries into a bruising war of the super PACs—complete with masters of the universe who reside next door to Oprah or recommend that ladies in need of contraception put an aspirin between their knees. Who can wait?
I know, I know. Candidates like these provide cover for the less hysterical uber-conservatives who look reasonable by comparison, their quirks can draw our attention away from their own disastrous or insidious policy proposals, and they generally “distract from the issues." It’s cheap to revel in cheapening of our national politics, to lavish attention on people who have scaled their book tour into a whistle-stop tour, and to delight in the oddities of super PAC donors who are devastating the campaign finance playing field. (Did you know GoDaddy founder Bob Parsons shoots elephants for fun?)
This is all true. And yet—besides the fact that it’s just plain fun to cloister yourself with hours of videotape of Newt Gingrich’s college courses—I wouldn’t want a presidential election cycle to pass without its fair share of crazies. The rise of Herman Cain and the indefatigability of Newt Gingrich were frank reminders that a hefty proportion of our politics is Kabuki no matter who you are; that voters and the media warm unthinkingly to candidates who show even a modest talent for channeling our stereotypes. (Remember when liberals were quaking at the thought of a Rick Perry candidacy?) Watching someone like Allen West tout his stand-for-nothing, stand-against-everything politics on the national stage is the price we pay when everyone has to send their soundbites through the same 24-hour hype-machine we dare to call election coverage. Guys like Peter King are merely vessels for the horserace we deserve.
Molly Redden is a staff writer with The New Republic. Follow her on Twitter @mtredden.