southernbeau

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.

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