The Republican primary as a NZ stage show

20:12, Feb 16 2012

Eighteen months into my time in the USA, American politics has finally broken my spirit.

Just as I felt I could tune out for a bit and recharge for the general election, confident that Mitt Romney's financial advantage would see him glide to victory, there has been another crazy twist in the narrative.

A little less than a fortnight out from the primary election in Michigan, Mitt Romney's home state, upstart Rick Santorum has surged into the lead in the state and into a statistical tie with Romney, nationally.

Following this primary closely has echoed the torment of hungrily sitting down to eat at a restaurant with someone who can't choose what to order, but spread out in slow motion over 13 months.  

Romney? The safe option, but a bit dull I guess. How about... Gingrich? No, I had that another time, and despite what the menu promises it tasted bad. Paul? A bit out there? Oh, I could have the Romney... oh, maybe... so unexciting, though. Maybe I'll just take the Santorum? But leave me alone for a couple weeks so I can be really, really sure.  

Every single twist and turn in this endless campaign is front page, headline news, earnestly documented and captured on every channel and in every paper. I've lost the ability to laugh.


So to amuse myself these past few days, I've been casting the New Zealand remake of the 2011-2012 Republican Primaries, with a starring cast of local political figures (you know, for authenticity's sake).

I present to you now my casting choices, agonised over during stolen moments this past week staring out the window on the subway.

Mitt Romney, played by Don Brash (understudy: Bill English)   

To play Romney, a devout Mormon and private capital merchant, turned blue state governor and public healthcare and pro-choice advocate, turned conservative crusader, public healthcare denouncer and hand-on-his-heart pro-lifer, the successful applicant was going to have to be someone who encapsulated a similar sense of startling transformation.   

Who better to capture this than Don Brash, our own meek Reserve Bank governor turned populist conservative politician and ladies' man, turned failed ACT party saviour? As a bonus, Brash seems to have a similar drive for the spotlight as Romney, is also economically privileged and likewise prone to put his foot in his mouth.

Bill English came close on the strength of his disastrous 2002 election campaign. He got an honourable mention for really nailing down the "hey, I'm really an okay guy, why doesn't anybody like me?" desperation that hangs in the air around Romney. 

Rick Santorum, played by John Banks (understudy: Richard Prosser)

NZ First MP Richard Prosser was the early candidate for this role; I had felt symbiosis in the bumbling amateurism displayed in Santorum's recent "men might act irrationally if women are allowed on the frontlines of battle" remarks, and the weirdly casual homophobia on display in Prosser's recently published book.

But Santorum is a little bit more legitimately big time than a debut MP and former Investigate columnist. For this part, we were going to need someone who is more mainstream, yet still hiding an undercurrent of extremism. I mean, Santorum is a candidate, after all, with a serious shot at running for president, who has gone on recent record to denounce contraception even in married couples, advocate for adultery to be illegal, juxtapose homosexuality with bestiality and paedophilia, declare global warming as bunk and support a wall between Mexico and the USA.

John Banks fit this box for me: a former National Party minister, mayor of Auckland and currently ACT's leader and sole member of Parliament, but still prone in his time as a public figure to saying wacky things equating abortion to state-sponsored murder, and making some fairly dubiously racial, anti-welfare remarks.   

Newt Gingrich, played by Roger Douglas (understudy: Winston Peters)

Winston Peters was the first person who came to mind. He is the current New Zealand comeback politician du jour, somewhat aping Gingrich's ascent from shamed former leader of the House of Representatives to riding atop the Republican primary polls.

Sadly, Peters' success in the 2011 cost him this particular job. NZ First is back in office. In contrast, Gingrich has only one primary victory to his name, and he's now polling a little behind Ron Paul in fourth place.

No, only the memory of Roger Douglas' one-term return to the chambers of Parliament, he of the wildly divisive and still hotly debated Rogernomics, can truly replicate the feeling of witnessing the intensely worrying collective political amnesia involved in making the Gingrich campaign viable for a short while. 

Ron Paul, played by Bob Jones (understudy: Rodney Hide)

Ron Paul was the hardest to cast.

Paul's brand of highly ideologically libertarianism is avidly followed. He's a congenial old man. But, as I've said many a time and been proved right repeatedly, he is an incredibly successful fringe candidate (see: policy positions). I do believe the popularity of the Paul campaign centres on the idea that he is never going to win. He strikes me as being more for the advocacy, rather than implementation, of particular ideas. He represents an intellectual protest vote, one that allows you look at yourself in the mirror after making.  

Rodney Hide didn't quite fit. He's not rebellious enough, and too media friendly.

I was stuck, and then it hit me; the closest New Zealand has ever had to a libertarian uprising was the Bob Jones-led New Zealand Party in the 1984 election. Circa 2012 Bob Jones and Ron Paul are still pretty similar: slightly odd older men, prone to speaking loudly about things that probably don't make any sense if you got into it.

Bit parts: Brian Tamaki as Rick Perry, Anne Tolley as Michelle Bachmann, Colin Meads as Herman Cain (think about it!).

I guess if there's a takeaway from this exercise it is this: we actually do have some slightly worrying people coming in and out of our own Government, but no one really comes too close to these four... right?  

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