Michael Smerconish: One by one, GOP candidates ride the wave, while Obama laughs

Published: Saturday, Oct. 10 2015 3:53 a.m. MDT

Republican presidential candidates from left, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., Texas Gov. Rick Perry, businessman Herman Cain, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum participate in a presidential debate at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2011. (Jim Cole, Associated Press) Republican presidential candidates from left, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., Texas Gov. Rick Perry, businessman Herman Cain, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum participate in a presidential debate at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2011. (Jim Cole, Associated Press)

Say hello, wave goodbye.

Roughly three-quarters of Republican primary voters refuse to embrace front-runner Mitt Romney, despite his nearly flawless campaign thus far. In each of the debates, Romney has been focused and strong. Tight control of his public appearances and media access has prevented any gaffes. The closest thing to a YouTube moment came when he told a heckler at the Iowa State Fair that "corporations are people."

Still, suspicion of Romney lurks in conservative circles, partly attributable to his passage of Romneycare, considered a blemish by tea party types intent on throwing President Obama out of office for his passage of Obamacare. Onetime Romney health-care architect and MIT professor Jonathan Gruber didn't help that perception when in a recent interview he compared the Romney and Obama initiatives and concluded that "they're the same." Additionally, there is the matter of Romney's shifting positions over time on bedrock conservative issues such as abortion and gay rights.

As a result, the anti-Romney core of the GOP has allowed itself to be courted by a variety of suitors. Like a wave that ripples through a stadium, this group has flirted with different candidates. However, once the media follow suit, the candidates have withered under the subsequent scrutiny.

Michele Bachmann caught the wave in August after winning the Ames straw poll. The triumph, however, wasn't enough to overcome a series of embarrassing gaffes. She famously mixed up Concord, N.H., with Concord, Mass. She said John Wayne was born in Waterloo, Iowa, when it was really the birthplace of John Wayne Gacy. She extended birthday greetings to Elvis on the anniversary of his death. Claims that her husband's clinic has "prayed away the gay" didn't help. No one of these was a knockout blow, but collectively they fostered a view that she was ill-equipped. And so the wave shifted.

The next candidate to hang 10 was Rick Perry. He entered the race amid great conservative expectations, only to see them fade with his less-than-stellar debate performances. Sadly for Perry, he etched a spot on the debate highlight reel when he said he would eliminate three federal departments but could name only two. Alongside the clips of Lloyd Bentsen telling Dan Quayle that he was "no Jack Kennedy" and CNN's Bernard Shaw asking Michael Dukakis what he'd do if his wife was raped, we will forever watch Perry say: "The third agency of government I would do away with ... the Education, the Commerce. And let's see ... the third one, I can't, sorry ... oops."

The tide shifted again, and it was time for Herman Cain to boogie. But with the new scrutiny of the former CEO of Godfather's Pizza came revelations of complaints of sexual harassment. And under the glare, he, too, displayed his frailties. A routine question about Libya from a newspaper editorial board went viral when Cain struggled ("I gotta go back to ... got all this stuff twirling around in my head"). Last week, he was left wondering, "How do you say delicious in Cuban?"

After Bachmann, Perry, and Cain crashed in the surf, the new wave runner was Newt Gingrich. Once written off for infidelity and his current wife's penchant for charging jewelry at Tiffany's, Gingrich was front and center in the most recent debate long enough to defend a $300,000 payment from conservative scourge Freddie Mac (which was reportedly actually part of $1.6 million to $1.8 million worth of work), which he defended as payment for his having acted as a "historian." The whitecaps of the Gingrich surge are already evident.

All the while Ron Paul has been respectable, but static, showing no prospect of expanding his hard-core base.

So now what?

There are three possibilities: First, the previously discontented finally settle on Romney, which seems unlikely, at least for now. Second, Rick Santorum finally gets on his surfboard for what would surely be a short ride. Third, the wave could shift to Jon Huntsman.

But where Bachmann, Perry, Cain and Gingrich have provided continuous fodder for SNL, to those who make up the GOP wave, Huntsman has been a veritable laugh track.

From the moment he announced his candidacy, he's provided one reason after another for the fringe faithful to ignore him.

On June 21, Huntsman actually said: "I respect the president of the United States. He and I have a difference of opinion on how to help a country we both love."

Respect the president? Obama loves this country? That's heresy. In a September debate, Huntsman stumbled over science:

"Listen, when you make comments that fly in the face of what 98 out of 100 climate scientists have said, when you call into question the science of evolution, all I'm saying is that, in order for the Republican Party to win, we can't run from science."

Just last week he messed up an answer on torture. "We diminish our standing in the world and the values that we project, which include liberty, democracy, human rights and open markets, when we torture," Huntsman said.

In the same South Carolina debate, Huntsman offered this knee-slapper:

"I take a different approach on Afghanistan. I think it's time to come home. I say this nation has achieved its key objectives in Afghanistan: We had free elections in 2004, we uprooted the Taliban, we have dismantled al-Qaida and we killed Osama bin Laden."

Forget that he's pro-life, an ardent defender of the Second Amendment, and actually practiced fiscal conservatism while governor of Utah (as opposed to just talking a good game).

To the migrating GOP voters, he's been gaffes galore. No doubt the one laughing the hardest is President Obama.

Michael Smerconish writes a weekly column for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may contact him via www.smerconish.com.

I very nearly missed it.

A soldier was making his final journey, accompanied by police and Patriot Guard Riders.

I was waiting for the light to change by the TRAX station that sits between the Triad Center and Energy Solutions Arena, my mind racing with all the things I had to accomplish that day.

Work interviews, stories, grocery shopping, geometry with my eighth- and ninth-graders crowded everything else out on that early-autumn day.

Though I was looking straight ahead, I wasn't actually paying any attention to things around me. It took a minute for the procession even to register.

It moved in slow, stately formation down 300 West to its left turn at South Temple: dozens and dozens of motorcycles with American flags flapping gently. First came the uniformed police officers on what looked like just-polished motorcycles. Then the hearse, a heart-wrenching sight, followed by members of the Patriot Guard Riders in another flag-bedecked group of motorcycles, at least two abreast, that stretched nearly the block's length.

As traffic continued its normal flow and pedestrians shuffled along the street, many with heads down or earphones in, as oblivious as I'd been a few minutes before, I got a huge lump in my throat and literally froze at the sight.

If you've never seen it — the flags, the procession, the hearse that's a tender, grim reminder that men and women die for this country's cause — it's hard to explain the moment. It was more than touching. It was astonishingly emotional.

And I suspect that wave of raw emotion would cross political lines and that it wouldn't even matter what you thought about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Patriot Guard Riders escort the hearse by invitation from a fallen soldier's family. They were inspired, ironically, by the hateful Westboro Baptist Church, a teeny group of protesters who like to show up at soldier's funerals and bother the families with their message that the individual's death was divine retribution for America's tolerance of homosexuality. They say stupid things, like expressing thankfulness for the improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that have killed so many of our young men and women in the last few years.

Why their deity would single out a soldier here and another there to express wrath is beyond me. It doesn't fit in with anything I've been taught about God's nature.

But I suppose we owe them thanks for inspiring the Patriot Guard Riders, who have expanded their purpose to embrace the funerals of firefighters, police and other first responders and to welcoming soldiers home. What they do is a public "thank you" for service.

The PGR website sums it up: "We don't care what you ride or if you ride, what your political views are, or whether you're a hawk or a dove. It is not a requirement that you be a veteran. It doesn't matter where you're from or what your income is; you don't even have to ride. The only prerequisite is Respect."

The procession and my near-failure to see it reminded me of those who serve their country far away — something I've selfishly paid less attention to since my own soldiers, my brother Ken and nephew Josh, both got home safely. What a lamentably short attention span.

A soldier's final journey demands silence and a hand over the heart — if you're blessed enough to notice it.

But it also reminded me that so much life passes by me, and I'm usually paying very poor attention. That's something I can change. When my dad became blind at age 13, he said the thing he missed most were the sunsets. I don't always remember to look at them.

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