An old joke says that politics is show business for ugly people.
Here in Indiana, politics is a cross between a soap opera and a situation comedy, all ham-handed dialogue, Machiavelli-as-a-moron maneuverings and logic-defying plot twists – and performed by people who aren’t often mistaken for George Clooney or Brad Pitt.
Consider the machinations in the race to succeed retiring U.S. Sen. Dan Coats, R-Indiana.
Just a few short days ago, doctors could have prescribed the campaign as a sedative.
Three candidates on the Republican side – former state GOP chair Eric Holcomb, U.S. Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-Indiana, and U.S. Rep. Todd Young, R-Indiana – and one Democrat, former U.S. Rep. Baron Hill, D-Indiana, were vying for the seat. On the charisma scale, they collectively kept the needle buried in the yawn category.
Time to cue the laugh track.
As the Indiana General Assembly’s elephantine efforts to negotiate the maze of adding civil rights protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender citizens to state law without offending social conservatives stomped to a stop, Stutzman sent an opinion piece around to the state’s news organizations urging conservatives to “stand up.” In the name of all that’s godly, Stutzman said, Hoosiers need to deny their LGBT friends, family members and neighbors equal protection under the law.
Hill saw an opening. Within minutes, he fired off a response.
Hill and other Democrats see Stutzman as the second coming of Richard Mourdock. Mourdock was the Republican who knocked off sure-bet-for-re-election U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Indiana, in the 2012 primary and then, through a series of ill-advised public pronouncements, proceeded to lose to Democrat Joe Donnelly in the fall – but not before costing GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney his last shot at claiming the White House with a spectacularly ill-timed and inflammatory debate discourse on God, rape and reproductive rights.
Some Democrats call Stutzman “Mourdock Junior,” a reference both to Stutzman’s boyish demeanor and to the fact that the two occupy a similar spot on the ideological spectrum, somewhere just to the right of Genghis Khan.
Stutzman and Mourdock also have a shared gift for self-destructive utterances.
A few years ago, when Republicans in Congress shut down the federal government to try to win a political battle over health care they’d lost in legislative votes, litigation and national elections, Stutzman stepped before TV cameras to proclaim that the shutdown wouldn’t end until Republicans “got something” for their efforts. He couldn’t say what that “something” might be.
In other words, Stutzman said putting widows’ checks and the world economy in peril was more about political extortion than it was a stand on principle.
Rhetorical pratfalls such as that are why Hill and his team so desperately want to run against Stutzman.
They also account for the reason many business-oriented and more centrist Republicans were worried Holcomb and Young would divide up enough votes between them to give Stutzman the nomination, which might lead them to disaster in the fall.
A solution presented itself.
When Gov. Mike Pence tossed Lt. Gov. Sue Ellspermann overboard as his running mate this year, Holcomb yielded to some behind-the-scenes urging. He dropped out of the Senate race and agreed to replace Ellspermann. That will give him the unenviable responsibility of prying Pence’s foot out of his gubernatorial mouth.
Holcomb’s move cleared the field for Young to dispatch Stutzman in a head-to-head contest.
Ah, but there was a wrinkle.
It turns out Young may have come up two or three signatures short in one congressional district of the required number to put him on the primary ballot.
Democrats and Stutzman are cluck-clucking that “rules are rules” and tut-tutting that Young’s name shouldn’t be put before the voters.
Everyone else is just grateful that worthy successors to the Three Stooges finally have been found.
There’s another old joke that speaks to how desperate some people, including (and maybe especially) politicians, are to live in the spotlight.
A boy ran away to join the circus. The circus masters put the lad to work running along behind the elephants and donkeys with a shovel collecting the fragrant droppings the animals left behind.
The boy’s friends told him it was a lousy job and that he ought to quit.
“What!” the boy exclaimed. “And give up show business!”