As the likely coronation of Hillary Clinton as the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee quietly progresses without serious opposition, the Republicans seem to be working overtime publicizing an abundance of long shots hoping to be her challenger.
The cattle call of conservative wannabes that flocked to Iowa last weekend for a so-called Freedom Summit served chiefly to advertise that the GOP continues to be dominated by right-wing ideologists convinced that purity can triumph over political reality.
One after another, they preached their anti-government orthodoxy, pronouncing their fealty to the notion that he who governs least governs best, apparently believing that is the way to win the hearts if not the minds of the American voters.
The likes of Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, Ben Carson, Rick Perry, California businesswoman Carly Fiorina, and even Sarah Palin paraded their wares before the faithful. An army of out-of-town reporters also showed up, eager to begin the opening round of the national guessing game of who will be the next president.
A few newer faces like Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin earnestly offered their pitches on central issues like immigration reform along with the usual party platitudes. But conspicuously absent were the two ostensibly more moderate possible 2016 entrants, Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush, both vowing their conservatism while giving themselves wiggle room.
Mr. Romney, apparently stirred by Mr. Bush's unexpectedly early campaign fund-raising, is making candidate-like moves and continues to insist that he is, as he said in 2012, "severely conservative." Mr. Bush, meanwhile, strives to carve out a more independent posture by saying that a Republican who wishes to win the presidency has to be willing to march to his own drummer.
Appropriately, it fell to that chronic ersatz contender, real estate mogul and television celebrity Donald Trump, to address this collection and to declare Mr. Romney already down for the count as a proven loser in both 2008 and 2012. In character, Mr. Trump played the bull in the china shop while threatening to run himself. He declared, "It can't be Mitt because Mitt ran and failed." Of the absent Jeb he offered, "The last thing we need is another Bush." Both observations predictably drew approval from the choir to which he preached.
The one other Republican who already owns recognition as the party's raging bull, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, weighed in with his usual in-your-face contribution. "If I was too blunt, too direct, too loud and too New Jersey for Iowa," he asked, "then why do you people keep inviting me back?"
All this throwing of red meat to trained lions may have given the attendees a warm feeling, and an easy workday for the reported hundred or more reporters who trekked to Des Moines, a favored watering hole on the campaign circuit. But to onlookers aware that the Grand Old Party needs to cast a broader net for less conservative voters in a national election, the Freedom Summit seemed hardly an ideal showcase.
The chairman of the Republican National Committee, Reince Priebus, has been working to cut back in 2015-16 on the too-numerous presidential primary debates that Romney managed to survive in 2012, but in much-tarnished shape. Even so, this warm-up for the next presidential campaign augurs ill for the party as well as for Messrs. Romney and Bush if they choose to get into the pit with what may be the largest and hungriest pack of GOP wannabes in years.
The Republican Party in the past had functioned on an understanding that he who waited most faithfully, patiently and longest in the ranks would eventually get his "turn" as the presidential nominee. The pattern worked for Ronald Reagan in 1980, his third try; for the senior George Bush in 1988, at least his second; and for Bob Dole in 1996, John McCain in 2008 and Romney in 2012, each on his second attempt.
For Jeb Bush, this would be his first presidential bid and hence not his "turn." But if the Iowa prelude is any evidence of the competition, his early image as "the adult" in the bunch certainly should encourage him to go for it.
Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is email@example.com.