A raucous Iowa caucus
Every four years, Iowa transforms from an inconspicuous little rural state into a veritable clusterfuck of egomaniacal presidential candidates and predatory media types. Generally a shy, unassuming people, Iowans regard the hubbub with a mix of bemusement and awkward hesitancy. They're more familiar with the fertilizing qualities of hog crap than with the squalid contents of political bullshit. Also, their pale skin tends to burn in the spotlight.
Notoriously centrist—Iowa tipped in favor of Bush in 2004 by the slimmest margin in the nation and was Gore territory in 2000—the Hawkeye state derives its disproportionate political pull from being the first step in the presidential nominating process. Its caucuses didn't enter the political lexicon as "all-important" or "crucial" until after 1972, when an obscure South Dakota senator named George McGovern used an Iowa win to circumvent the Democratic Party establishment and secure the nomination—a strategy Jimmy Carter winningly replicated four years later.
Since then, candidates invest preposterous amounts of time and resources in Iowa. John Edwards has been campaigning here for so long, his children likely qualify for in-state tuition at Iowa's three regent universities.
With this year's pissing match so close and so wide open—it's the first presidential election since 1928 devoid of a presidential or VP incumbent—there was no shortage of political stagings and rhetorical circle jerks for Iowans to attend. The anxious weeks leading up to the 2008 caucuses saw droves of candidates crisscross the most obscure corners of the state with a barrage of outlandish advertisements at their disposal. The mad dash was not without reason: Exit polls conducted by CNN in 2004 revealed that nearly half of caucus-goers (42 percent) made up their minds in the week leading up to the caucus.
Since the Republican National Convention is coming to St. Paul later this year, I decided to get a preview of the GOP field.
With a few exceptions, the general ambience on the Republican campaign trail is dire and hopeless. You can sense this in the hackneyed, uninspired applause lines the candidates regurgitate repeatedly and the half-assed cheers they elicit in turn. You get the feeling these candidates aren't so much mounting virile campaigns as they are going through the motions in the name of electoral posterity.
And who can blame them? Recent Gallup polls have every Democratic front-runner besting their GOP counterparts in head-to-head match-ups (although a hypothetical Hillary Clinton-John McCain bout yields a razor slim one percent edge for the Dems). Barring the imposition of martial law or the revelation that Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John Edwards share the same Amazonian DMT dealer, it is unlikely anything resembling a Republican will inhabit the White House come January 20, 2009.
This feeling was palpable on a foggy, bitterly cold day two weeks before the caucus. About 75 people packed the tiny Webster County GOP headquarters in Fort Dodge. The air buzzed with... something. Not anticipation, but the possibility that something worth anticipating might present itself sometime in the future. It was like standing in a nursing home recreation room and not remembering why you came.
The attendees were present to catch a glimpse of Fred Thompson, the heavily sedated former actor who represented Tennessee in the U.S. Senate between 1994 and 2003.
With some time to kill before Thompson's appearance, I met an old gentleman by the name of Ken Rasch, a.k.a "Mighty Mel," a self-described "cowboy shooter." Wearing a beige Stetson, yellow-tinted glasses and leather boots, he certainly looked the part. He was also wearing an empty holster. He told me it had contained a 1911 model, ivory-handled Colt .45 not 15 minutes earlier, but he was told by organizers that he had to disarm himself. He had begrudgingly done so and placed the weapon in his canvas bag.
"This is the first time I surrendered my damn gun!" he said ruefully.
"It was quite a battle," his wife chimed in, beaming back at her husband, who glared at the man who'd disarmed him.
I asked the couple why they support Thompson over other Republican contenders.
"Our youth are being bombarded with terrible things these days," said Rasch, whose definition of terrible things evidently doesn't include Baby's Day Out, the 1994 John Hughes flick featuring Fred Thompson. "But this man has strong values. He reminds me of the kind of values Ronald Reagan had. He stands up for the right to life and he's for the Second Amendment so people can defend themselves. I think he's a real good conservative."
The conversation was cut off by hushed murmurings indicating the event was about to kick off. Far-right Congressman Steve King (R-Iowa), a xenophobic Golem look-alike who once unironically called Joseph McCarthy "a hero for America," slithered up to the podium and introduced the man of the half-hour. When Thompson finally took the stage, a blue tarp draped behind him proclaiming him to be "The Clear Conservative Choice," he wasted no time in reiterating that he is indeed the Clear Conservative Choice.
"I read that the Des Moines Register wrote about me, 'Conservatives now have a horse to ride,'" he said. "Well, my response to that is, 'Saddle me up!'"
The standing-room-only crowd suddenly jerked out of its slumber and burst into wild applause. Over in the corner, a gaunt man who looked to be three yee-haws! away from suffering a stroke bared his teeth in feral approval. I half-expected the ravenous mob to produce an actual saddle and take turns riding a manically bucking Thompson as part of a bizarre second-tier-candidate photo-op, but they did not. Instead, they fell silent and gazed slack-jawed toward the podium, eagerly awaiting the next crumb of bunkum.
"Our principles are under assault from the society we live in," Thompson continued in a courtly Southern drawl. "And we're not going to turn over the keys of this country to these folks." Once again, the crowd cheered. I distinctly heard someone whoop, "Amen!"
It was quintessential Thompson. Often criticized for possessing the work ethic of a welfare cheat and the charisma of a dead oak tree, the gruff 65-year-old managed to subtly fan the flames of Old White Male Rage by lulling his supporters to sleep, then jolting them awake.
When it came time to field questions from the audience, a middle-aged white woman with close-cropped dark hair asked him the following question:
"I appreciate your tough stance against illegal immigrants. But what about the babies? Those that are born here? Are there policies you could make to deport them?"
Thompson shuffled his feet and deftly answered, "Well, I don't believe the president can change that with the stroke of a pen. I believe the courts have interpreted that as falling under the 14th amendment."
The woman wilted ever so slightly in her folding chair, visibly disappointed that her candidate wasn't willing to deport American babies for the crime of being born Hispanic.
There were no more whoops of "Amen!" the rest of the night.
THE POLITICAL STORY in Iowa this season was the unexpected ascension of Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee. Written off early in the race as a second-tier pretender, the Huckster suddenly found himself battling Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney for the top slot in the Great Iowa Poll Dance.
To understand how Huckabee—a candidate with scant ties to the party establishment or the Wall Street set—could elevate from a distant fifth in Iowa (polling under 5 percent in August) to clear front-runner status (up to 35 percent by mid-December), you have to understand the unique campaign dynamics of the state.
Iowa is the Lost World of campaign politicking, a nostalgic bastion where meet-and-greets in town halls and diners can sway more voters than can TV spots or radio ads. In other words, personal charm trumps campaign spending here in Iowa. Or at least it can when deployed effectively.
And Huckabee pulled it off. Despite being outspent 20 to 1 in the state by arch nemesis Romney, Huckabee ransacked Iowa by wooing the evangelical base and fiscal moderates with a potent elixir of prairie populism and Judeo-Christian skullfuckery. It was a sight to behold.
A microcosm of this phenomenon was on full display on December 22 in Orange City at Northwestern College. Orange City is a sterile little town inhabited by noticeably depressed Dutch Calvinists. It's the county seat of Sioux County, which, in 2004, turned out 84 percent in favor of Bush. Not a single county in either Mississippi or Alabama turned out in such high numbers for Dubya. In short, Sioux County is the perfect habitat for a fundamentalist snake-oil salesman such as Huckabee.
Standing before the packed college theater, the Baptist minister held the microphone close to his mouth and eyed his flock. His aw-shucks affability and colloquial earnestness more than compensated for his underwhelming stage presence. (If you took Richard Nixon circa 1973, sheared his jowls with a meat cleaver, and filed 1.3 centimeters off the tip of his nose with a synthetic grindstone, you'd be left staring at a creature physically identical to Huckabee.)
Cooing in a Jimmy Stewart-esque inflection, he touched on all the right emotions:
• Anti-D.C. sentiment: "Too many times politicians go off to Washington and end up getting changed by the very institutions they were elected to challenge. I, for one, think it should it be the other way around."
• Reassuring populism: "We are all equal. We are not made unequal by our net worth, our IQ, the labels we hold, the cars we drive, or our ancestry. And I, for one, take comfort in that."
• Blood lust: "No more 'light footsteps doctrine' foreign policy. I, for one, advocate a 'both foots [sic] in your face' doctrine."
At that point, I expected Jesus Christ himself to descend from heaven, snatch the microphone, and say something like, "As the Prince of Peace, I've followed your Christian-themed campaign closely, which I, for one, find transparently hypocritical." Alas, He did not.
The secret to Huckabee's success is his ability to soften the edges of hardline conservative rhetoric with seemingly genuine compassion, thereby making his bunkum more universally palatable.
Huckabee's so good, it's easy to forget he's the same guy who, in 1992, suggested we quarantine AIDS patients. Who believes the world to be 6,000 years old, give or take a few decades. Who thinks an apocalyptic Jesus Fest is more likely than natural selection.
Despite his flirtation with off-the-heeze battiness, we heart Huckabee for his sincerity. Sure, he might be a batshit troglodyte, but he's an honest batshit troglodyte.
DECEMBER 27. Exactly a week before the Big Day. In a cushy bar and grill in Cedar Rapids—located in bluer, more populous east Iowa—a packed house awaited Sen. John McCain. He was scheduled to appear at 3:00 p.m. The clock read 3:35. Had they thrown him back in the tiger cage?
Just then one of McCain's sharp-dressed staffers took the floor and told the 100-plus folks in attendance that the senator was on his way and offered a nugget to chew on while they waited: "An important thing to remember about Senator McCain when the caucuses roll around: He's the only Republican candidate polling successfully against Hillary Clinton. That's because he has a very wide appeal to diverse groups of people."
As I surveyed the restaurant, taking note of the supporters—some old, others young, some in business suits, others in football jerseys—I couldn't help but agree: This was an incredibly diverse group of white people.
When McCain—who was polling a distant third behind Huckabee and Romney at the time—walked in, he wasted no time in getting down to substantive business. Having last heard Huckabee speak, I was not prepared for McCain's pithy, no-bullshit stump style. It couldn't be more different from Huckabee's: no maudlin pandering, no sappy appeals to ghosts, no shameless fellating of the yokels.
"As some of you may have heard, former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was assassinated earlier today," said McCain, who apparently doesn't believe in opening with a joke. "I think this development highlights the need for a president with foreign policy experience."
He elaborated on this point briefly, then got down to strategy. Or at least tried to.
"Why should we care about Pakistan?" he asked. "The first reason is their nuclear capabilities. We need to recognize that—" He stopped mid-sentence and noticed a cameraman standing five feet away. McCain put his hand up to shield his face from the bright light shining from the camera. "My friend, you're going to have to leave me," he ordered, trying not to strangle the bastard. He turned back to the crowd. "Another reason we must be concerned about Pakistan is because it borders Afghanistan. This is of strategic importance in the War on Terror. If we—"
McCain stopped again and glared at the videographer who had now inched back up to his original position. "My friend, you're going to have to leave me," he repeated, this time more forcefully. A McCain staffer sauntered up to the cameraman and directed him to back up. "My friend, you're going to have to listen to her," said McCain. His assailant relented.
Maybe it was because McCain was looking alarmingly pale and fragile that day. Maybe it was because press on the campaign trail tend to radiate an aura of predatory aggression. Whatever the case, in that brief, seemingly inconsequential exchange, McCain suddenly appeared to be a wounded antelope and I couldn't shake the feeling that all of us lurking off to the sides—reporters, cameramen, curious passersby—were African vultures awaiting his fall.
I pushed the thought aside and peered around at the others. Some looked shattered and a little off-kilter, sure, but nothing about them suggested they were capable of gobbling the flesh of a 71-year-old former POW in front of 120 total strangers in broad daylight unprovoked. And besides, there were children present. They would be inconsolable.
DOWNTOWN DES MOINES later that day: Hundreds of student campaign volunteers gathered in a Marriott ballroom to hear their fearless leader speak truth to power.
"All these wars—the war in Iraq, the War on Terror, the War on Drugs—do nothing but undermine our personal liberty. Our government was created to protect liberty, not willfully take it away. We have to reverse this trend!"
Meet Ron Paul: Texas congressman, presidential hopeful, and political mutant of the most fascinating order.
In an electoral landscape marred by play-it-safe hacks and transparent mountebanks, Paul and his minions have injected the process with something long considered inappropriate in presidential politics: fun. From the infamous giant blimp instructing witnesses to "Google Ron Paul," to the "Ron Paul Money Bombs" (days such as the anniversary of the Boston Tea Party in which donors dump ungodly sums of cash into his coffers), Paul & Company have tethered a dead-serious libertarian-leaning message to innovative, if slightly irreverent, fundraising methods.
Paul's internet-savvy campaign ranks third in money-in-hand among GOP candidates, behind golden boys Rudy Giuliani and Romney. He leads all presidential hopefuls—Democrat and Republican—in money received from military families, despite or because he spouts the bluntest anti-war rhetoric of anyone on the trail.
So why is he polling in single digits?
Part of it has to so with his whiny, shrill delivery. He comes across less as a viable candidate for Leader of the Free World and more like your tinfoil-hat wearing uncle who tries to coax you onto his lap after Thanksgiving dinner.
But there's another reason. Standing before 300 or so student volunteers, the crazy bastard actually said the following:
"The War on Drugs has hurt more people and created more harm than individual use of illegal drugs. As for medical marijuana: People debate whether it has medicinal value or not. As a physician, I'd have to say that yes, it probably does. But that's not the point. The point is, who should have a right to make that decision? The individual who's dying of cancer or some do-gooder in Washington who wants to put you in jail regardless?"
There's a simple reason why most other candidates don't engage in this level of intellectual honesty: It amounts to political suicide. You're much safer pulling a Mitt Romney and saying something to the effect of, "As president, I'd double the incarceration rate of non-violent drug users," and then proceed with a fear-mongering anecdote about how some foaming-at-the-mouth dope addict on parole once snuck into your home, pissed on your Jesus fish, and raped your bedridden grandmother.
I wandered around the cavernous ballroom looking to speak to student volunteers about this. Paul's rousing speech had ended 15 minutes earlier and most of them were standing in a massive line patiently awaiting their chance to shake the hand and get their picture taken with the doctor.
I spotted a tall guy sitting alone in the corner, his nose buried in a book. "Excuse me," I said. "Can I ask you a few questions?"
He looked up from the paperback and saw that I was a reporter. "No," he snapped, and turned his attention back to the book. It was Thomas Paine's Common Sense.
His reaction wasn't surprising. Ron Paul devotees are notoriously skeptical of the media. And in some ways, it's hard to blame them. Paul's image problems (specifically the conspiratorial nutjob thing) are exacerbated by the ADD-addled nature of the American media. In this, the golden age of five-second sound bites and snappy print quotes, the nuances of Paul's intellectually complex positions are often trampled for the sake of brevity. Just a day earlier, the New York Times Magazine had retracted an absurd post linking Paul to a white supremacist group. By the Times' own admission, "The original post should not have been published with these unverified assertions and without any response from Paul."
I approached another reader, this one lost in Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers. His name was David Wright, a senior at Valparaiso.
"I come from a very Republican family and consider myself to be a hardcore fiscal conservative," said Wright, who voted for Bush in '04 and whose general aura evokes Alex P. Keaton. "That's what attracted me to Paul: his fiscal conservatism."
"But what about his social positions, like what he was saying about the War on Drugs?" I asked.
"I'm the son of a Lutheran pastor. I've never touched a drug in my life. So my view on drugs didn't initially mesh with his. But in hearing his logic, I can now better understand where he's coming from."
The Paul phenomenon appeals to a very specific breed of cat, one utterly unconcerned with petty ideology or party cleavages: people fed up not just with the political parties, but with the political system itself. This has resulted in a strange polygamous marriage of minarchists, paleoconservatives, libertarians, centrists, even 9/11 Truthers. It was a wild party.
THE MOST IMPORTANT THING to know about Willard Mitt Romney is that his national security adviser is Cofer Black, vice chairman of Blackwater Worldwide—a fact the national press is evidently too busy to report. You would think a mercenary army of ill repute attempting to ride a political prodigy into the executive branch would be somewhat newsworthy. But the mainstream media has its head so far up its ass that if you Google the words "Mitt Romney Blackwater," the first hit that comes up is a Media Matters essay lamenting the fact that the major newspapers and networks have kept mum on the issue. The implications are grim.
Back to the dog-and-pony show: Desperate to reclaim his lead, Romney had gone negative on Huckabee, unveiling a 30-second TV spot essentially calling Huckabee a pussy for pardoning 1,033 criminals during his tenure as governor of Arkansas.
But on the stump that day in a Missouri Valley bar and grill, the oil-slicked Mormon from Massachusetts kept the gloves above the belt for the most part, pummeling the packed room with an awesome array of empty platitudes and ball-less bromides.
The first thing he did was trot out his automated wife, Ann, to recite stories of raising five boys. This appealed to the Good Housekeeping set. You could almost read the campaign strategist's notes scribbled in her doe-eyes: "Make sure the mothers in the audience can relate to your stories, Ann. And remember to keep it folksy."
Romney eventually took the mic. Looking like the teacher's pet standing before class for show-and-tell, he enunciated the following turds of hypnotic vagueness:
• "Our greatness comes from the fact that we're a good nation and we're a strong nation."
• "I want to make America stronger. I believe our strength is in our people and in our homes."
• "I want to strengthen our homes and our military in order to keep America the hope of the earth."
In a GOP field rife with political abnormalities, it's Romney—despite his alleged Mormonism—who embodies what a good ole Republican should look and sound like. The fact that Huckabee and Paul, two totally different political species, claim the same party is indicative of just how fragmented the GOP is in 2008. Things are so weird that TV evangelist/charlatan Pat Robertson is throwing his support behind a thrice-married, dress-wearing New Yorker.
And then there's Romney, the pristine pretty boy, the one man who appears poised to straddle the rift between social and fiscal conservatives. Not because of his concrete policy positions, but because of his bland, malleable generalities. (Pro-life or pro-choice? Who's asking?) Karl Rove couldn't have concocted a more perfect, voter-friendly ooze of mediocrity in a Petri dish.
WHICH BRINGS US TO RUDY. Discounting a brief, unscheduled appearance in Fort Dodge, Rudy Giuliani was a virtual no-show the two weeks before caucuses. When I called Giuliani's Iowa headquarters for comment, I was greeted with a recorded message of ominous woodwinds backing a raspy voice chanting "9/11, 9/11" over and over again.
ON JANUARY 3, throngs of caucusers swarmed Iowa's 1,781 precincts in record numbers. An estimated 114,000 people showed up to caucus for the Republicans, exceeding 2000's number of 87,666. (The upswing was even more dramatic on the Democratic side: the 220,588 caucus-goers nearly doubled the 124,000 who showed up in 2004.)
Unusually high turnouts usually mean one of two things: either the field is wide open or people are pissed at the status quo. Judging by who Iowans chose, likely this reflected a mixture of both.
It was just before 8:00 p.m. when CNN projected Michael Dale Huckabee as the GOP's victor. His populist approach had trounced second-place finisher Romney's robust campaign machinery. Affability had trumped organization. Campaign shoe leather had prevailed over campaign spending.
Soon, talking heads were contemplating what peculiar developments the victory of a non-establishment candidate might have in store for a party typically adverse to such ideological deformities.
"What we're seeing is a splintering of the old Reagan coalition," opined CNN political analyst Bill Schneider. "For Republicans trying to keep the party together, this is not good news."
Over at Fox News, GOP stewards grappled for an explanation. "We've all underestimated him," shrugged entrenched neo-con pundit Bill Kristol. "I've underestimated him. And I don't believe he's a one-state wonder."
Four months ago, if you had told these people that the toothy Bible-addict from Arkansas would shoot out of Iowa as the GOP frontrunner, they would have chortled at the sheer ludicrousness of the suggestion.
The absurdity of Huckabee's triumph was perhaps best captured during his victory speech. Standing directly behind him and slightly to his left was none other than a widely grinning Chuck Norris. Wearing a gaudy flannel shirt, the walking punch line looked a bit out of place, as if he were in Iowa to film a Bounty paper towel commercial and had taken a wrong turn somewhere.
So where does that leave us? Who will be the Main Man come September when the Republican National Convention rolls into town? It's still anybody's guess. In the meantime, let's pay close attention to the men behind the curtain.
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