The GOP's clamorous, counterproductive 2016 circus

There's such a thing as too many candidates...

And behind curtain number one...
(Image credit: (Illustration by Lauren Hansen | Images courtesy iStock)

Another day, another trio of new candidates for the Republican presidential nomination.

A brain surgeon with no particular feel for politics. A business executive who lost the only election she ever entered. And the most famous graduate of Ouachita Bible College, who made a stop in the Arkansas' governor's house before becoming a talk-show host. Just throw Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, and Mike Huckabee on the pile.

It's already a big pile: Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio are official. Jeb Bush is officially unofficial, just as Rick Santorum, Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal, Chris Christie, Rick Perry, and George Pataki are. Lindsey Graham and John Kasich are unofficially unofficial. But they are thinking about it! A few of these would-be candidates are sure to find the likelihood of embarrassment too great, and will stop before they officially start. But I'm betting that the first debates will include 10 or more candidates.

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So has the addition of this week's candidates added to the ferment of ideas? No, not really.

In some ways, Fiorina understands the minds of many modern primary voters. She's all but promised to be a paladin of the existing orthodoxy of her party's conservative base. So she sells herself on her ability to sell. And she sells her identity. On day one of her campaign, she rattled off the talking points her nomination would cross off Hillary Clinton's list. She told reporters: “Because I am a woman, there are many things she can't say. She can't play the gender card. She can't talk about being the first woman president. She can't talk about the war on women.” Mutually assured decorum, I guess.

In a lineup of politicians, the non-politician Ben Carson is easily the most impressive and accomplished person in the room. But his charm is almost entirely in being charmless. He speaks with great poise, which is refreshing. But his professed political views, and his manner of expressing them, are distinguishable only in volume and lack of spittle from the apocryphal "paranoid right-wing uncle" that is the foil of every annual Thanksgiving advice column.

Mike Huckabee is the most plausible of the three, actually having been elected to a statewide office. He also performed not-terribly when he ran for president in 2008. As a bonus, he offers some good and some bad populist critiques of the party's establishment. Is the magic still there? I'm not sure. Ted Cruz has already soaked up so much of the "I hate the Establishment and they hate me" cred. And Cruz is going directly after Huckabee's base of evangelical voters, while Huckabee himself has yet to prove he can win the middle-income Catholics and moderate voters of the Midwest. It's Iowa or bust for Huck.

Is any of this good for the party or the nation? No, not really.

There is broad agreement among elite Republicans that the sheer number of serious and unserious candidates may hurt the party. It crams the debate stage, elicits shallow questions, and reduces the nationally televised answers to the tiniest sound-bites or hand-raises. It's bad for the party, and the country. It's also a can't-lose deal for any would-be candidate willing to endure flights to Des Moines and house parties in Nashua.

A losing campaign can generate new interest in your career. It connects you with the wealthiest backers of your party. And it generates mailing lists and emailing lists of people who are not quite as wealthy but whose contacts can be useful for selling books, or filling up a local venue and making you seem like an important voice in the life of the Republic. Because the Republican Party has a para-party shadow in the institutions of the conservative movement and conservative-media complex, even a failed presidential campaign can be quite a successful life-proposition.

And hey, if worse comes to worst, and the bottom falls out of your "candidacy," you can just rent or sell outright the names and whatever data you collected to the highest-bidding erection pill or diabetes-treatment interests. I see you voted for Ben Carson. Are you interested in seeds that will help you survive the collapse of our currency?

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Michael Brendan Dougherty

Michael Brendan Dougherty is senior correspondent at He is the founder and editor of The Slurve, a newsletter about baseball. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, ESPN Magazine, Slate and The American Conservative.