Rupert Cornwell: Have Republicans taken leave of their senses?

On the campaign trail, the zealotry is even greater. The candidates are the product of a broken system. It is a kind of madness

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The greatest political show on earth is under way in earnest. With last weekend's official declaration of Rick Perry, and the Iowa straw poll that sealed the ascent of Michele Bachmann and the demise of Tim Pawlenty, the battle to secure the Republican nomination to face President Barack Obama has come into focus.

A few loose ends of course have yet to be tied up, chief among them, will Sarah run? (right now, it doesn't look like it, although you never know.) Even a Palin-less horse race will be intriguing enough. Mitt Romney is front runner, but an uncommonly vulnerable and unconvincing one. Ms Bachmann, the surprise of the campaign so far, now has to raise her game even further, while Mr Perry – ordained by the media as the third "top-tier" candidate in the field – must prove that what sells in Texas sells across the rest of America. He must do this moreover, a mere four years after voters bid his predecessor in the governor's mansion in Austin a profoundly relieved good riddance from the White House. In short, fascinating stuff. Alas however, a show is all it is.

In every US presidential campaign there is a disconnect between razzmattazz and reality; as the eloquent former governor of New York, Mario Cuomo, once put it, "you campaign in poetry, but you govern in prose." Never though has the disconnect been as wide as now: between a country suffering from a dismal economy, a runaway deficit and a massive crisis of self-belief, and a Republican party that to any balanced observer has taken leave of its senses.

The theatre of the absurd did not begin in Iowa at the weekend. Who can forget the warm-up in Washington, as the Tea Party-led conservatives in the House of Representatives, wilfully ignorant of the real world beyond their ideological nostrums, held the creditworthiness of the US to ransom over the hitherto pro-forma matter of an increase in the national debt ceiling?

That led to the humiliation of downgrade by the rating agencies – not out of any fear that the world's largest economy could not meet its obligations but because of the accumulated evidence that the US political system had become so dysfunctional it could not take routine economic decisions like passing an annual federal budget, let alone a coherent deficit-reduction package. The same tragi-comedy is now set to be enacted on the presidential campaign trail.

None of this is to absolve entirely the current occupant of the Oval Office. Barack Obama has failed to live up to the expectations of four years ago. It's not just that the poet of the campaign trail has proved prosaic and humdrum in office. Too frequently, he has come across as vacillating and inexperienced, a soft touch at the negotiating table, over-quick to compromise on the principles of his party. The country has yearned for inspiration from the White House; what it has got, all too often, has been semi-detached fatalism. But just a small part of the blame belongs to Obama. In a system like America's, of frequently divided government, the savviest and most streetwise president can do little if the other side simply refuses to compromise.

That is what happened over the deficit-reduction package. So obsessed were the Republicans with cutting spending that they refused to countenance even the tiniest tax increases, even though they were being offered what by any rational standard was a dream deal: three dollars in cuts for every dollar of tax increases (or "revenue enhancement" as the latter must now be described.)

For this generation of Republican leaders, all that matters is slashing spending and down-sizing government. For them, even the closing of the most outrageous tax loopholes is heresy. No matter, as the US stands on the brink of double-dip recession, that the case for further government investment to create jobs is overwhelming. For Republicans, all that matters is fiscal austerity for the masses and tax cuts for the wealthy.

Whatever Obama's failings, he is the personification of sanity. But no matter that the "trickle-down" theory of economics has never been shown to work, and no matter that the gap between America's rich and poor is wider than at any time since 1929, for Republican purists, "cut the capital gains tax" has been a mantra to solve every problem. Who was it who defined madness as doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different result?

On the campaign trail the zealotry is even greater. Michele Bachmann insists that never again must the debt ceiling be raised, period. Rick Perry kicked off his Presidential bid on Saturday by vowing to "work every day to make Washington, DC, as inconsequential in your life as I can." As for Mitt Romney and John Huntsman, the "moderates" in the race, theirs were among every hand that shot up in the last Republican debate as candidates were asked whether they would even veto a deficit package that included just one dollar in tax increases for nine dollars in spending cuts. So much for dream deals. So much for common sense.

Some of course, claim that this is just the American way. During the primaries, it is argued, Democratic and Republican candidates alike always move to the left and right respectively to satisfy the activists who make up the bulk of primary voters. Come the general election, the nominee then scuttles back towards the middle ground to attract the independents and centrists who decide the outcome.

And indeed, a candidate's bark has often in the past been much worse than a president's bite. Take Ronald Reagan, the party's patron saint (and whom Perry, with his big-state conservative credentials and cowboy aura, in some respects resembles). Government was the problem, not the solution, Reagan famously declared. Yet he wound up raising taxes and cutting deals with congressional Democrats when he needed to. Alas, Reagan was a crypto-socialist compared to the current crop of Republican candidates.

But they too are the product of a broken system, undermined by an excess of elections, and polarised by the gerrymandering of congressional districts, creating safe seats in which the biggest danger to an incumbent comes from radicals of his own party in primaries. Republicans have been driven ever rightward and Democrats leftward; the twain, it seems, can meet no longer.

And every two years the process is repeated. In the absence of public financing, a congressman from the very moment he wins election must focus on raising money for the next one. That too is a kind of madness. But who cares, at least now, when the greatest political show on earth is rolling at last?