(The moment to which the title of this post refers is at 1:15.)
I plan to follow this Presidential election. I realize that in so doing, I am encouraging the misdirection that ensures the Republican party will continue taking far more small, local elections than either their popularity or their capacity to govern would warrant (The wrong-headed focus on Presidential elections, to the detriment of Congressional elections in off-years and local elections in every year; this means that people who traditionally vote Democrat do not vote in off-years, only voting in Presidential elections, while traditionally more conservative voters — angry older white people — vote in every election. This [along with gerrymandering in Congressional districts] means there is permanent gridlock as we have right now: Democratic president, Republican congress.); but I hope to analyze the candidates, and maybe understand what it is people want, what they are looking for.
And why we can never seem to get it.
So the first issue seems to be encapsulated in the title of the article linked above: “GOP presidential candidates face delicate balancing act.” The balancing act referred to is the need to appeal to the “base” of the Republican party, the farther-right-leaning elements, while at the same time trying to achieve enough universal popularity to win a general election. This shouldn’t be a strategic decision. This shouldn’t be a matter of how one presents one’s self; it should be a matter of deciding whether or not to run, and perhaps which policies and positions to actually back. Because really, you should simply hold positions that are appealing to the right and yet universally acceptable; that’s the point of a single nationally-elected executive: they hold the middle ground, and negotiate compromise. But that’s not how we put it, of course: what we talk about is the appearances.
Tim Pawlenty gets it right:
“You have to know who you are, know why you’re running, know how to present your message and then not waver,” said Tim Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor who ran unsuccessfully for the GOP nomination in 2012.
So when Chris Christie emphasizes his opposition to abortion, you have an example of the right way to run, but also one thing that’s wrong with the current state of affairs, particularly in the Republican party: he said what he actually thinks — and it does seem to be what he actually thinks; I’ll give the man credit for being clear and consistent on the issue — but it’s a social wedge issue, an issue that shouldn’t get anywhere near the focus that it does. People oppose abortion, sure; but the belief that this is a fundamental concern that should be addressed is nothing but a crowbar that conservatives use to get into office. Thomas Frank talks about this in his excellent book, What’s the Matter With Kansas, in which he explains how politicians have gotten elected despite having actively and repeatedly done harm to the very people who elected them: and it started with pro-life stances. The point Frank raises is this: people get themselves elected with pro-life stances, claiming that the most important issue in the election is the end of legal abortion — and yet, somehow, abortion is still legal, even in Kansas. While the same people voting pro-life lose their jobs and their social safety net as the conservatives they elected cut taxes and de-regulate businesses.
So Chris Christie: honest and solid — but seemingly using political savvy to get elected, rather than following Pawlenty’s advice. It should be noted, of course, that Pawlenty did not do very well when he ran for the nomination in 2012, but again: that points out the flaw in the system.
(My favorite quotation from the article: “The temptation will be to scratch the ideological itch of those in the room,” Matt Strawn, a former Iowa Republican Party chairman, said of events like the one here Saturday. “I would submit that those itches are best scratched in private, one-on-one conversations.” I can’t imagine a better invitation to innuendo. Jon Stewart should grab that one.)
Another flaw in the system: making such a big goddamn deal about Iowa.
The demands on candidates who come to Iowa can be almost never-ending, and candidates find it difficult to resist the urge to try to meet as many of those demands as possible. “Iowa is littered with shiny objects that are very tempting for presidential candidates,” said GOP strategist Phil Musser, who was part of the Pawlenty team in 2012. “A successful candidate has to have patience and understand you don’t need to chase every one.”
Okay. I get it. Iowa votes first. Winning the first vote means you get to be called the front-runner. It means you get to pretend that your victory is now inevitable, because you won the first one. But don’t we all know better? Rick Santorum won Iowa in 2012. Mike Huckabee won in 2008. All right, the four elections before that, Iowa went to the nominee — but two of them were unopposed, the Bushes seeking their respective reelections. Iowa picked Bob Dole over George H.W. in ’88, and George H.W. over Ronald Reagan in ’80. So other than gimmes, Iowa has been a bellwether for only one in three elections.
Steve Schmidt — who might be the smartest Republican on the planet, and certainly the most reasonable (Why the hell doesn’t he run? Oh right: he’s too smart.) — said,
. . . running for the nomination is a character test of the candidates — a proving ground for delivering a message without being overly swayed by any particular audience or segment of the party.
Pointing to Saturday’s session in Iowa, he said: “These are events where you show your mettle. . . . The American people don’t evaluate candidates on an issue score card as much as they do on a strength and leadership basis.”
Which is somewhat true, in that wedge issues like abortion are used to show “strength and leadership.” But I disagree that people don’t evaluate candidates based on an issue score card; we do. Not consistently, logically, or predictably, but we do. A big reason I voted for Barack Obama in 2008 was that he opposed the war in Iraq and the prison in Guantanamo Bay, and that’s also why I’m still disappointed in the guy despite having done what I believe is a bang-up job in the big chair: because Gitmo is still open, and we are using drone strikes to kill people while seeking more authorization for even greater use of military force: this man is not the dove I thought he was, and I dislike it. Were he to run again, I would have serious concerns about that.
But to the point that Schmidt makes, that the entire nomination process is a way to show leadership and strength (and, I would argue, the consistency and rationality of one’s positions), explains why we are talking now about November of 2016 — and really, about the following January, two full years in the future. But it doesn’t explain why we care so damn much about Iowa. This is a national election, for a national seat; the candidates should go, as much as they can, everywhere. Not just one podunk state that cares more about pig farming than does an other state in the country. The candidates should go to Iowa — and they might as well go there first, since Iowa votes first — but they should go other places, too.
Except here. They shouldn’t go here.
As the speakers were testing their messages in Iowa, some candidates were heading for California for a weekend retreat hosted by billionaires Charles and David Koch, two of the most influential donors in the party.
Those are the candidates to watch out for.