Making sense of the non-sensical world of American politics

The Hand Iowans Were Dealt

It’s easy to complain about the Iowa caucuses – easy and completely justifiable. Iowa’s caucus-goers have given us the presidency of Jimmy Carter, lent credibility to Pat Robertson’s political ambitions and created a permanent constituency for ethanol subsidies among Democrats and Republicans alike. As friendly and civic-minded as Iowans may be, there’s no reason why a low-turnout contest in a small, rural state should play such an outsize role in every presidential nominating process.

But in the wake of Tuesday night’s Romney-Santorum photo finish and Ron Paul’s strong third-place showing, it must be said that this time around Iowans have discharged their responsibility impressively. Presented with the weakest presidential field of any major party in a generation, they made the best of a bad situation, punching the three most deserving tickets without handing any of them a decisive victory.  It’s as if Iowa collectively screamed, “this year, all you other states have to help us put lipstick on this pig!”

This isn’t what you’ll hear from the many disappointed conservatives who dislike all of Iowa’s top finishers – Romney because he’s too moderate, boring and phony, Paul because he’s too libertarian and anti-interventionist, and Santorum for all sorts of reasons (his aggrieved personality, his lack of electability, the taint of Bush-era “big government conservatism,” to name three). But on substance and strategy alike, Iowa’s top three deserved their joint quasi-victory, and the losers likewise deserved their plight.

This was particularly true of Rick Perry, who managed to spend $6 million advertising in Iowa without laying a glove on his competition, and whose reputation as a stud campaigner evaporated in the dead air of his atrocious debate performances. But Michele Bachmann and Newt Gingrich also squandered significant opportunities: Bachmann by never finding a message more compelling than her promise to make Barack Obama a one-term president, and Gingrich by wallowing in the mix of grandiosity and disorganization that his former colleagues in Congress remember all too well.

At one time or another, all three of these also-rans – as well as Herman Cain, lest we forget – seemed well-positioned to win the caucuses. In ultimately rejecting their candidacies, Iowans rejected a cascade of gimmicky tax plans, flagrant pandering (Gingrich’s denunciation of “big city attacks” on ethanol subsidies took the cake), and desperate appeals to identity politics. And they rejected, as well, the attempt to dress up in the mantle of True Conservatism records that were either threadbare or checkered by cronyism and corruption.

It’s not that Romney, Santorum and Paul ran campaigns free of gimmicks or pandering or that they boast untainted conservative records. And do your best here to separate the fact that it is slightly unnerving that Rick Santorum could fare so well in any election – even if it is the Republican caucuses in Iowa!  But at least Santorum and Paul had a message that set them apart from the rest of the field.

For all the talk about how Santorum’s social conservatism was ill-suited to a campaign focused on the economy, the former Pennsylvania senator’s emphasis on social mobility, family breakdown and blue-collar struggles spoke more directly to the challenges facing working Americans than any 9-9-9 fantasy or flat-tax gambit. From the opposite wing of the party, Paul’s libertarian and anti-war campaign scrambled partisan categories in useful and unexpected ways and supplied an alternative to the ritual chest-thumping that sometimes passes for Republican foreign policy debate.

Meanwhile, Romney’s cautious, calculating campaign managed to simultaneously stake out a plausible domestic agenda while ruthlessly exploiting the weaknesses first of Perry and then of Gingrich. Romney took few risks and inspired almost nobody, but his mix of substance and savvy largely confirmed the impression that he would be both the field’s most effective general election candidate and its most plausible president.

In an ideal world, Romney’s coronation would be postponed long enough to have a vigorous argument between Romney, Paul and Santorum (with Jon Huntsman getting in on the action as well, perhaps). They would debate foreign policy, domestic policy and the future of conservatism, with the recent losers and their gimmicks cleared off stage. In the real world, however, some of the defeated will hang around – like that clingy friend that can never take the hint to leave the party – and last night’s results probably just set the stage for the swift Romney victory that’s been coming all along.

But give the people of Iowa credit: They did their best with the hand dealt.

January 6, 2012 Posted by | 2012 Presidential Election, Iowa Caucuses, Michele Bachmann, Mitt Romney, Politics, Republican Party, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Bachmann’s Waterloo Entry

Almost anti-climatically, Michele Bachmann officially joined the race for the Republican nomination for president yesterday in her birthplace of Waterloo, Iowa.  While I understand that Waterloo is Bachmann’s hometown and Iowa is an important state on the road to the nomination, I can’t help but be struck by the irony and symbolism of beginning a political campaign in a place called Waterloo.  Setting aside the unfortunate imagery, however, I would contend that Michele Bachmann is far from her political Waterloo as it relates to her quest for the Republican nomination for president.

Many political observers are prone to make the obvious comparisons between Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin.  The most notable similarity between the two, of course, is that they are both conservative women.  Delving beyond gender, the pair both possess the ability to mobilize and excite the conservative base – both are Tea Party favorites – with their red meat rhetoric and often factually suspect, yet emotionally inspiring diatribes against the Obama Administration in particular and progressive causes more generally.  And, yes, it’s true that neither woman would be confused as an intellectual heavyweight (Palin has a propensity for making up new words, while Bachmann has a unique ability for making inaccurate historical references).  But I believe it would be a grave mistake to write off Mrs. Bachmann as this election’s Palin, and consequently, not take her seriously.

I contend that Michele Bachmann should be taken seriously in the fight for the Republican nomination because she is genuine, principled and uncompromising.  She is unfailingly conservative – taking a moderate position doesn’t seem to be an option regarding any policy discussion – in stark contrast to Jon Huntsman.  She will not waver in the face of shifting political realities as has become habit for Mitt Romney and Mr. Gingrich.  She is tough, steely and willing to seek out a fight unlike the surprisingly feckless Tim Pawlenty, her fellow Minnesotan.  Mrs. Bachmann seems unfazed by new facts or events that no longer support her positions – don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story, seems to be her motto.  Put simply, she does not do nuance; she is what she is each and every day. 

In my view, most of the aforementioned qualities and characteristics possessed by Mrs. Bachmann are not desirable in a political leader.  While I admire her toughness, consistency and ability to remain principled, I think it is extremely important to constantly reassess one’s views on the issues as facts and human events evolve over time.  Furthermore, to be an effective leader one must always consider divergent opinions and be willing to compromise at just the right time to achieve the best possible policy outcome.  To be completely rigid and dogmatic is a sign of serious weakness in the general election.  But with respect to the Republican nomination, I submit that Mrs. Bachmann’s inflexibility and reflexive ideology are significant strengths.  Her biting tongue and creative one-liners will be extremely attractive to the Republican primary electorate.

But this same Republican primary electorate has a difficult decision to make – quite comparable to the decision the Democratic primary electorate had to make in 2004 concerning Howard Dean.  Dean was the principled progressive in that race with his stridently anti-war message and stinging quips directed at then-President Bush.  In the end, however, the Democrats nominated a far less inspiring and, yes, famously nuanced, candidate in John Kerry largely due to the belief that Kerry was more electable than Howard Dean. 

Will the Republicans fall in love with Michele Bachmann to such an extent that they are willing to risk any chance of ultimately defeating President Obama?  Or will they decide to hold their collective noses and nominate Mitt Romney or some other less inspiring figure because they are deemed to be more electable in the general election?  The answers to these questions will play a large role in the success or demise of Mrs. Bachmann’s campaign.

My guess is that the Republican primary electorate will be far more willing than the Democrats were in 2004 to take a chance on the “principled” candidate.  Given the current friction in the Republican Party between the Establishment and the Tea Party, it may prove more difficult to stamp out what might otherwise be characterized as “fringe” candidacies.  With hard-line conservatives attempting to purify the Republican Party and purge it of any moderates whatsoever, Michele Bachmann may actually become the establishment candidate. 

For the Democrats in 2004, the one and only goal was to unseat President Bush.  The conservatives today seem more willing to endure another Barry Goldwater election circa 1964 – lose the general election while winning the soul of the Republican Party.  Given these dynamics, Michele Bachmann could be a major factor in the fight for the Republican nomination.  Indeed, Bachmann’s Waterloo may be somewhere far, far down the road….far away from Waterloo, Iowa.

June 28, 2011 Posted by | 2012 Presidential Election, Michele Bachmann, Politics, Republican Party | , , , | 1 Comment