When the fool supports the knave the good man may fold his hands. The fool in league with the knave against himself is a combination that none may withstand.
—Samuel Beckett, Murphy
Doctor, ’tis a great comfort to know the disease whereof I die.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Journals
Strafford, New Hampshire—Thank God the Republican road show has moved on from New Hampshire. Our voters, for whose benefit this protracted spectacle was produced, were sounding peevish by the end, asking more and more probing questions of the candidates and even roundly booing Rick Santorum a couple of times. Starting more than a year ago the guessing game about the eventual nominee lurched from one preposterous candidate to the next, including such early favorites as Donald Trump and Herman Cain. The first debate took place last May, with some fifteen others following in short succession. It became an endurance test for both the candidates and those bothering to pay attention.
The first time I saw the seven men and one woman onstage with their eager-to-please expressions and fake sincerity, they made me think of salesmen on a shopping channel peddling Florida vacation homes and work-saving kitchen appliances, until the live audiences broke the spell by cheering for the death penalty, torture, child labor, and a policy of letting those who cannot afford medical insurance die. Even people who ordinarily ignore the primaries couldn’t avoid seeing on TV these celebrations of meanness and inhumanity, and learning the names of the candidates whose words inspired them.
Not that our first-in-the-nation primaries were such edifying spectacles in the past. A fair number of dunces and palpable crooks from both parties have paid us visits over the years, trying to sell us some crackpot idea on how to fix the country, except they were not as numerous as they are today. Still, in the 1980 Republican primary, which Ronald Reagan won, the runners-up were George H.W. Bush, Senator Howard Baker, Congressman John Anderson, Congressman Philip Crane, and Senator Robert Dole. Compared to today’s bunch, they lacked the hint of being unhinged that now seems the first requirement of any Republican running for elective office. If the 1980 contenders twisted the facts now and then, they also had coherent national policies that would appeal to many Americans, and were by and large competent to run the country.
New Hampshire is a traditionally Republican state that overwhelmingly voted for President Obama—54 percent to 45 percent for John McCain—and has a Democratic governor and one Democratic senator. It tends to be fiscally conservative but moderate on issues dear to social conservatives, such as abortion. The state’s population is 92.3 percent white, 1 percent black, with the rest divided between Hispanics, Asians, and other…
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