The Iowa presidential caucuses are only a year away, and so it’s fitting that the 2016 GOP primary would kick off in earnest in Des Moines. Congressman Steve King’s “Iowa Freedom Summit” last weekend featured nine hours of speeches from almost twenty-four Republican politicians.
The cast of characters, while colorful on the surface, were ultimately pretty predictable. They were all true GOP believers, nursing desperate dreams of running dark-horse campaigns that might first catch fire in an early state like Iowa, and then propel them to a nail-biter against whomever the establishment candidate might be. Poor rubes. Don’t they know that the moneymen, not the base, decide who gets to be president?
Parades of delusion aren’t necessarily boring, though; there were some highlights. Wisconsin governor Scott Walker talked about Union thugs threatening to gut his wife “like a deer.” Chris Christie successfully restrained himself from bullying anyone. (No educators in the crowd?) Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson did a weird call-and-response thing about securing our border with Mexico. Rick Perry reiterated his disdain for the federal government.
In closing out the event, King asked the packed auditorium, “Do you believe the next president of the United States spoke from this stage today?” The crowed roared. A few GOP headliners were conspicuously absent from the Freedom Summit, however—those potential candidates with the actual clout and cash to pull off a general election victory: Mitt Romney, Rand Paul, Paul Rubio, and, most importantly, Jeb Bush.
It’s easy for Democrats to make fun of all the goons that lead the Republican Party—the fundamentalists, the inarticulate swaggerers, the bow hunters and bouffant hairdos—but they should give them credit for actually being the big-tent party when it comes to ideology. There’s more all-around diversity of ideas (if not of actual types of people) in the GOP than on the Democratic side of the aisle. Just think of the gulf that exists between the foreign policy positions of Ted Cruz and Rand Paul. Or the economic populism of Mike Huckabee compared to that of a hard-liner like Scott Walker.
Meanwhile, the Democrats struggle to find a serious alternative to stale Clintonian economic neoliberalism. Bernie Sanders, remember, isn’t running as a third-party candidate because he doesn’t want to be a spoiler, so he’s starting out with his hands raised in surrender. (It’s enough that he contributes to the “conversation” or whatever.) Elizabeth Warren, who continues to claim that she is not running, concentrates on domestic issues—which is probably a good thing, because her foreign policy positions are also pretty hard to distinguish from Clinton’s. There’s Jim Webb, but he’s the exception that proves the rule, being too socially conservative to fit comfortably into the Democratic mainstream. By contrast, it’s hard to discern what exactly the Republican mainstream is.
On the other hand, measuring the impact of that diversity calls for weighing, not counting; as far as “serious chances” go, the number of Republican contenders able to raise enough money to win a general election looks to be about the same size as the Democrats. As a Republican-leaning Wall Street lawyer told Politico off the record, “If it turns out to be Jeb versus Hillary we would love that and either outcome would be fine…. We could live with either one. Jeb versus Joe Biden would also be fine.” And Wall Street decides presidential elections, not Tea Party patriots in Iowa.
The Citizens United decision is five years old, and its effects have been obvious. According to one study, just 0.01 percent of the American population funded 28 percent of the 2012 election. Despite the hoopla over small donors and social networking, Citizens United has pretty much annihilated retail politics. In our new Gilded Age, we have new masters. The Koch brothers made that fact depressingly clear at their most recent annual donor retreat in Palm Springs, where they announced they were going to spend nearly $900 million on the next election. As Nick Confessore pointed out in the New York Times, this is more than either political party has ever spent on its own election in a single cycle.
“It’s almost as if these folks are creating their own third political party,” former Ohio governor Ted Strickland told Reuters. He’s fundamentally right; allowing so much “speech” to emanate from a handful of oligarchs forces national political discourse (and election results) to almost solely reflect the interests of a single rarified class of Americans.
And that’s the tragic irony of the Iowa Freedom Summit—that it was really just a dog-and-pony show of heartfelt, but ultimately impossible aspirations. That Wall Street lawyer talking to Politico went on to say, “It’s Rand Paul or Ted Cruz versus someone like Elizabeth Warren that would be everybody’s worst nightmare.”
You know who he means by “everybody,” don’t you? In the words of Frank Zappa, “Number one ain’t you, you’re not even number two.” America has an incredibly diverse spectrum of political beliefs. Unfortunately, the left and right boundaries of what’s possible are drawn to fit the political imaginations of the Koch brothers and their ilk—not Iowans, and not anyone else.