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The GOP’s Rolling Thunder Revue The GOP’s Rolling Thunder Revue

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The GOP’s Rolling Thunder Revue

They’re either star-spangled mountebanks or "serious but boring." Can anyone be a real presidential candidate in a party that’s lost its way?


With her family in tow, Sarah Palin managed to steal the show at Sunday's Rolling Thunder rally in Washington, D.C.(Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

No disrespect to our Vietnam vets and their Harley-straddling supporters, but there was something all too appropriate about Sarah Palin’s abrupt decision to join—and thereby utterly dominate—the Rolling Thunder Memorial Day rally at the National Mall on Sunday. It all happened so fast, apparently, that even the organization’s chief spokespeople couldn’t figure out if Palin had been invited or not.

For Palin, of course, it was only the latest in a series of media-savvy moves proving again that, no matter what you might think about her as presidential timber, she’s no backwoodswoman when it comes to finding the media forest for the trees. And in that respect the former Alaska governor is at least the equal of Donald Trump, Michele Bachmann, or, most recently, America’s first potential Pizza President, Herman Cain.

But the truly odd thing about the GOP field for president at this point is that there is a whole other side to the ledger, or more appropriately, another end of the GOP spectrum. In opposition to the star-spangled swashbucklers like Media Queen Sarah and the Untrumpable Donald we have the “serious but boring” candidates: Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, and Jon Huntsman .

It’s all become very either-or: Republican voters seem to be getting  a choice of dazzlingly entertaining but unqualified; or qualified but stultifyingly boring. And nothing in between—except for maybe poor old Newt Gingrich, who’s been spinning like a top trying to go both ways.  

Gingrich was plenty entertaining when he announced for president, pillorying Paul Ryan’s Medicare plan as “right-wing social engineering.” Then, as it became apparent that Gingrich had offended everyone who might have anything to do with his winning the nomination, including nearly every GOP bigwig, he reversed himself completely, to the point where he was one of the few voices publicly defending Ryan in the wake of the devastating election results in New York’s 26th House District.

All of which raises a question: can the Republican Party in the end field anyone who is both serious and interesting and therefore remotely electable? Does the GOP even know what it is or what it wants anymore?

It’s a question that first really arose in the wake of the tea party takeover of November 2010, when every would-be GOP presidential candidate immediately recalculated how far right he needed to go to be nominated. Pretty far, as it turned out. Candidate Romney all but disowned Gov. Romney when it came to health care, declaring nonsensically that what had worked so brilliantly for him in Massachusetts wouldn’t work for the nation (because, obviously, it was so much like "Obamacare," which any successful GOP candidate must now compare to the Plague if he is to be elected). Similarly, candidate Pawlenty had to disown former Minnesota Gov. Pawlenty’s previous endorsement of cap-and-trade legislation. (Pawlenty lurched rightward again on Sunday. Speaking on Fox News Sunday, he appeared to endorse the idea of not raising the nation’s debt ceiling, though virtually every respectable economist both on Wall Street and in Washington says that has to happen.)

As for Huntsman, he’s only begun to run the GOP gauntlet, an ordeal that will no doubt prove embarrassing for a fellow who was, until recently, Obama’s ambassador to China. Presumably he won’t accuse the president of being soft on China, or overspending on the foreign-affairs budget.

The biggest problem for these “serious” candidates is that the Republican Party, which has been trending rightward since the Reagan years and received a big new jolt in that direction last November, has already moved well beyond the platforms with which Romney, Pawlenty, and Huntsman identified themselves as fairly respectable governors. As Gingrich is finding out, the party has already moved beyond some of his more nuanced positions in the past, such as his support for the Medicare prescription-drug benefit and the 2008 Wall Street bailout, not to mention the individual insurance mandate.

That’s not to count out the serious-but-boring types. It may well be that, in its desperation to defeat Obama, the party ends up swallowing its pride (and a good deal of its ideology) as it did with John McCain in 2008 and nominates Romney or Pawlenty. But in the meantime the headlines will continue to be dominated by the Rolling Thunder Revue being put on by Sarah and Co.

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