The Republican Nightmare

Matthew Putney/ABC/Getty Images
Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney, and Newt Gingrich during the ABC News Republican presidential debate, Des Moines, Iowa, December 10, 2011

Glimpsed on CNN at 5:45, the network crawl on caucus night: “Rap on Iowa: Too White, Too Evangelical.” The words were polemical but not untrue, and the thought might have occurred to someone before. But it had never been in the crawl before; there was a shortage of ideas at 5:00, and elections have become a yearlong entertainment. If, in the day of Lincoln and Douglas, they were outdoor dueling sermons with a picnic thrown in and freestyle challenges from the congregation, the paradigm seems to have shifted to American Idol or Survivor. An astonishing amount of the talk in the Iowa campaign was amateur talk; but, as on the reality shows, that is the point. The politicians are climbing the amusement ladder of January, March, and April. Only the prime time of the general election presumes that they be halfway informed, semicogent.

The new model may account for the number of candidates who participated in the twelve debates in Iowa, and the liberality of caprice shown by Iowa Republicans in shifting favorites. Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, and Newt Gingrich each enjoyed a swollen moment at the top. The evident aim of the “surge” for these candidates was to find the force that could destroy the Mitt Romney juggernaut: he was too predictable a figure, too much the “sound” choice, and too moderate for a party whose proudest epithet is “conservative.” Romney is seen as a man of the establishment, deep down; no sort of contrast to Obama, except in what he says today—but he talked differently yesterday.

A little over 122,000 participated in the caucus vote on January 3; together they made up 5.4 percent of voting-eligible persons in the state. Again, there is nothing wrong with the smallness of the sample if you take the reality TV model seriously. It might seem wrong for such a group to impose so large a tribulation for the public good. But in these winter and spring playoff rites of passage, an even tinier sample, say a town of 25,000, would do. In any case, how did people choose—what explained the binge of support for Rick Santorum over the last few days of the Iowa campaign? A young mother interviewed on MSNBC, asked why she supported him, said that she liked him because of, “oh, his concern with family values—and I have a family.”

Michele Bachmann, who had won the Ames Straw Poll in August, suffered more than anyone else from the sequential serenade that greeted the arrivals of Perry, Cain, and Gingrich. The first two were nibbled at by old memories of their opinions or their lives, and were seen to crumble as their endoskeletons were exposed. But Gingrich already had been exposed—hadn’t…

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