Republican presidential field: Mock the 'clown car' at your peril

'Clown car' is a fashionable dig at the mass of Republicans in the 2016 presidential race or considering a run. But the laughs may be on those who mock the struggle to emerge from the pack. Sometimes it works. 

Steven Senne/AP
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a likely Republican 2016 presidential candidate, addresses a crowd during a town hall style event at an American Legion post, in Pembroke, N.H., on May 12. Christie is one of at least 15 GOP presidential prospects in 2016.

Clown Car. An increasingly common term to dismiss the more than 15 Republicans who either have announced or are considering White House bids.

“Clown car” is a feature of circuses, an event to which presidential campaigns often are compared. In the big top stunt, which dates at least as far back as the 1950s, a sizable number of colorfully garbed entertainers emerge from a tiny vehicle. (The New York Times, in a 2001 article, described 23 of them fitting into a Volkswagen Bug.) The phrase meets many of the tests for a popular political expression: It’s alliterative, punchy, and most definitely a put-down.

Not surprisingly, Democratic partisans such as Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz have seized on the term. WMUR reported that the tart-tongued Democratic National Committee chair said in a recent Granite State appearance: “We’re here to tell you that we believe families in New Hampshire and across America can do better, and that’s why we’re here as the clown car of GOP candidates rolls into town.”

Though liberals tend to focus on fringe candidates such as retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, more prominent White House aspirants also have gotten the clown-car treatment. Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank typified the genre with a May 18 take headlined, “The Republican field is a clown car.” Milbank focused on Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who actually has compiled a substantive record in his dozen-plus years in the Senate. But Graham’s trouble earning media attention is what drew Milbank’s interest: “There is little dignity for Republicans as they try to break free of the very large flock.” 

Milbank’s column provoked an angry response from Fox News’s Neil Cavuto, who noted that Democrat Bill Clinton was considered quite a long shot when he took on President George H.W. Bush in 1992. “So beware those who write about clown cars: More often than not, the joke’s on them,” Cavuto asserted. “And suddenly the ones mocking the clowns in that car, are the clowns driving it.”

While “clown car” is a relatively recent construct in political language, the theme of too many candidates potentially degrading the process has been around for a while. Back in the 1988 cycle, journalists borrowed from Disney and often referred to the sprawling Democratic presidential field as the “seven dwarfs.”

“Clown car” also can refer to the tendency – even necessity – of presidential candidates running to the ideological extremes to secure their party’s nomination, only to face a more moderate electorate in the general election. That’s troublesome for Republicans in 2016, Politico senior political columnist Roger Simon wrote in a January 2015 piece with the headline, “GOP clown car runs into ditch.” Simon wrote that Republican candidates usually “attack from the right, which can force the eventual nominee farther to the right than the nominee wants to go. This risks losing moderate voters in the general election.”

Though “clown car” is an easy jab against Republicans, it sometimes does more harm than good. Kansas Independent Senate candidate Greg Orman found out the hard way in the closing days of his 2014 run. “Orman derided the stream of GOP surrogates who have come to Kansas to boost Sen. Pat Roberts (R), a three-term incumbent,” The Washington Post noted at the time. “Political visitors have included Mitt Romney, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). ‘It sort of seems like a Washington establishment clown car to me. Every day a new person comes out of that car,’ Orman said.” But all that help boosted Roberts, who coasted to reelection.

Chuck McCutcheon and David Mark write their "Speaking Politics" blog exclusively for Politics Voices.

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