THE REPUBLICAN CIRCUS

Richard Reeves

LOS ANGELES -- Who's left? Is there a good-looking, smart state legislator out there somewhere whom the Republican parties could agree on as their candidate?

And that is the problem. There are two Republican parties these days, and they seem to be about the same size -- and they hate each other. If there were one party, they could settle on a candidate (probably Mitt Romney) and go about the business of trying to defeat President Obama next year.

He seemed to have a lot of fun with it, but Chris Christie of New Jersey was never going to be the candidate or the solution to the party's problem. He's a plainspoken conservative who has shown a lot of guts in taking on unions and other vested interests in a tough state. But a Jersey conservative who has no national or international experience is not exactly what Tea Party Republicans would accept. He's a lefty by their standards.

The only one left out, it seems, is Sarah Palin. Remember her? She says she's on the verge of making a decision because, in the words of one of her assistants, she might have to become president to save the country from European socialism. I left out Ronald Reagan, the only name that could unite the party.

So what we see is probably what the Republicans will get. I suppose Romney is the front-runner -- remember Rick Perry and Donald Trump? -- but the Tea Party neither likes nor trusts him. They simply do not believe he is one of them, even as he has tried to line up with their positions. He has been, after all, to the left of the established party that the Tea Party wants to destroy. Right now, Romney is a one-man party running against a pretty motley crew of Tea Party Republicans.

(Romney's people now compare the Republican race to the NCAA basketball tournament. This contest has, they say, two brackets instead of four and Romney is the only candidate in his bracket.)

Gov. Rick Perry of Texas -- the Chris Christie of his day in the sun -- is still the most likely alternative. But he has unraveled more than a bit in debates, and his record as governor is a problem, according to a New York Times tip sheet: "Mr. Perry is an imperfect messenger whose positions on immigration and the HPV vaccine make the true believers suspicious. And his shaky debate performances, statements on Social Security and the recent controversy over a racial epithet painted on a rock in his hometown have created concern among members of the Tea Party that he might not be able to win next year."

Who else? Rep. Michele Bachmann has flamed out. Herman Cain has made a name for himself and we will probably hear from him again, but not as the presidential nominee of the Grand Old White Party. Maybe he'll be the keynote speaker at the Republican National Convention, if there is only one convention. Rep. Ron Paul has an enthusiastic libertarian following, but he is basically a Tea Party within the Tea Party. He's almost as alone as Romney. Jon Huntsman is running for 2016.

Oh, sorry, forgot Rick Santorum. But I'm not the only one to do that.

The Republican Party, more often than not, has been the party of order and orderly process, so it is great fun to watch them collapse into comedy. Their debates have been the most amusing in history, so we owe them something for that.

But beyond comedy, history is going to judge the Tea Party as a rule-or-ruin operation of well-meaning amateurs who crippled the Republican Party by basically trying to extend the life of an old and older America of white Christians. They can't win because that America is slowly dying off, and a new America, diverse and more complex, is emerging while we watch the circus.