(photo: mr. rollers)

The way the Republican Party keeps shuffling through front-runners for its 2012 presidential nomination, you almost start to wonder if these folks aren’t firm advocates of recycling after all.

Disposability is certainly something they have down pat.  Only four months ago, I wrote in this space needling the GOP White House contenders for coming across “like the revolving ducks in a shooting gallery.” And that was before the ephemeral rise and collapse of Michele Bachmann, soon to be followed by emergence and (apparently, if still in progress) decline of Rick Perry — which in turn has led previously reluctant pols like New Jersey’s Chris Christie to, um, weigh getting into the race.

Like other observers before me, I noted in that post the difficulties posed by the radicalization of the Republican base (“a group with more collective resentments than common sense”).  But it’s worth mentioning that the GOP electorate was similarly fickle four years ago, when it wasn’t nearly as cuckoo-bananas as it is now.

John McCain, the eventual party nominee, seemed washed up at this stage of the 2008 race, dropping in polls and running low on money.  But as each of his opponents took turns as the seeming front-runner, they suffered from the increased public scrutiny and faded as well — until Republican primary voters, having rejected all of the candidates as implausible, found themselves reaching back into the discard pile for McCain.

Why is it happening again?  If you get the impression that there’s something inherent about Republican party politics that makes being new and untested a plus and sustained public exposure a problem, you’re on the right track.

Ever since Ronald Reagan showed them the way, success as a GOP presidential candidate has been defined by the ability to present the public with a bland, unthreatening face that effectively hides the party’s underlying cruel policy agenda.

This almost requires that a promising candidate can’t have too much of a record, lest the agenda be revealed too clearly — or, worse in the eyes of the base, contradicted.  Thus you get nominees like George Bush, who came across as personally innocuous but had the family name to make him marketable (otherwise, he’d have been another Tim Pawlenty).

But since it’s hard to build name recognition as a politician without actually holding office for a while (unless you’re the son of a president, like Bush), finding one who can pull off what I call “the Reagan trick” is very difficult.  So what you’ve seen in the post-Dubya era is a disheartened Republican Party flipping channels, skipping past one unsatisfactory pretender after another… all in a vain search for a personality who captures the essential flim-flam needed to get the GOP back into the White House.

You can imagine the frustration when they reject each one individually, until they realize they’ve gone through the entire roster, leaving them with no choice but to pick one of the failures.  It’s a feeling that, for entirely different reasons, progressive Democrats have a lot of experience with.