Iowa Game Day Notes

So today’s it’s the Iowa Caucus Bowl, matching up the three strongest teams from the last coaches’ poll of the BCS series. . . wait, no, that was yesterday.  I’m still working off my football hangover, and marveling that yet again Stanford proves itself to be the biggest gridiron head case since Wrong Way Riegels, as I suppose befits a brainiac university.

The GOP field has seemingly featured nothing but a cast of Wrong Way Riegels, with the exception of Jon Huntsman, who is the only person in the field who has not yet enjoyed even a momentary boomlet and crash.  (Ron Paul may seem the exception, but he should be regarded as the Romney of libertarians: he has a solid floor but also a low ceiling.  Get over it.)

Tom Donlan writes in this weeks’ Barron’s (subscription required unfortunately) that “Almost any political veteran will tell you that the Iowa caucuses are a huge waste of everyone’s time.”  Quite right.  (If you’d like some reasons to ignore Iowa, here’s ten from Craig Crawford.)  The only time Iowa mattered was the first time it mattered, in 1976, when Jimmy Carter figured out that this sleepy affair could be used to catapult a long-shot into the top ranks of the field by generating some out of nowhere media attention.  But once the secret was out, it lost its ability to do this.  It didn’t derail Reagan in 1980 when he lost to George H.W. Bush, nor did it derail Bush in 1988 when he lost to Pat Robertson, or McCain last time around when he didn’t even contest Iowa.  Iowa can’t make a candidate any more, and it can’t really break one, unless you start howling at the moon like Howard Dean in 2004.

So might this year prove to be an exception if Rick Santorum wins and emerges as the new Not-Romney candidate?  Perhaps, but he has the same problems the other candidates have—he doesn’t have the money or organization to go the distance in the ground game of the week-to-week primary schedule.  (He’s not on the Virginia ballot, for example.)  In this respect this year’s GOP race has always seemed like the Republican analogue to the Democrat’s 1984 campaign, when Gary Hart emerged as the challenger for the better funded and better organized but terminally flawed Walter Mondale.  But for all of Hart’s excitement, Mondale still won the nomination.

This is why I said here on Power Line back in August that Romney was going to win the nomination, which attracted the ire of a lot of commenters, even though it was only an analytical statement.  I left the coveted Power Line endorsement to John, since he is better armed than I am.

If Santorum contrives to win tonight, and suddenly rocket to a win in New Hampshire next week, I can only imagine how much Mitch Daniels, Paul Ryan, Chris Christie, John Thune, Sarah Palin, and even Jeb Bush will be kicking themselves for not getting in the race.  Above all Tim Pawlenty should never have got out; he would surely be in the hunt right now if he’d stayed in.  And one other name comes to mind: Mike Huckabee, the 2008 winner in Iowa, might well be the front-runner right now if he’d got in.  (And maybe Huntsman will break out next week in New Hampshire?  This year it seems anything is possible.)

All of this shows how much the GOP primary electorate doesn’t like Romney, despite John’s endorsement.  But keep in mind that Romney was the conservative alternative to McCain in 2008; his early endorsement by National Review was uncontroversial, quite unlike this year, when all hell broke loose.  What has changed between 2008 and 2012 to make Romney so unacceptable to conservatives?  The conventional wisdom is that it was the individual mandate of Romneycare, which has exploded in importance in the aftermath of Obamacare, along with the rightward shift in the GOP brought on by the Tea Party.

These explanations are correct, but don’t go deep enough.  The real problem, as I size it up, is that Romney doesn’t perceive—and doesn’t match up to—our present constitutional moment, in which basic questions about the size and nature of government are salient in ways they haven’t been for decades.  Romney’s stubborn defense of the individual mandate “for Massachusetts” suggests he doesn’t get it.  I had a conversation a year ago with a very prominent person close to Romney (who shall go unnamed since it was a private conversation) who said to me that she didn’t understand why conservatives were so opposed to the individual mandate.  I allowed as how I understood the policy logic of it, but thought that it was simply unconstitutional—an abuse of the proper limits of government power.  This produced only a dumbfounded look from my Romneyite interlocutor.  My suggested path for Romney to back away from the individual mandate without doing himself flip-flopping damage was met with further puzzlement.

Maybe there is a chance for a brokered convention, but I doubt it. (For one thing, who would do the brokering?  George Will is right: there is no such thing as an authoritative “party establishment” any more.)  I will happily pull the lever for Romney in November knowing that he is far better than Obama.  I disagree with the folks like Red State’s Erick Erickson who say a Romney nomination would be the “end of conservatism.”  This is overwrought.  My fear is simpler: he is not equal to the moment.  I briefly thought Newt might be—that’s why I wrote the NRO piece baiting him about a possible Churchill parallel—but he has proven unable to focus in the way required of a truly momentous candidate, let alone a president.

In contemplating Romney I recalled a letter from Whittaker Chambers to William F. Buckley from March 1960 (one of his last), where he discussed his doubtful impressions from a recent lunch with Richard Nixon, then about to gear up for his run against JFK.  It captures my feelings about Romney:

If he were a great, vital man, bursting with energy, ideas (however malapropos), sweeping grasp of the crisis, and (even) intolerant convictions, I think I should have felt: Yes, he must have it, he must enact his fate, and ours.  I did not have this feeling. . .  So I came away with unhappiness for him, for all.  Of course, no such man as I have suggested now exists?  Apparently not.  Mr. Nixon may do wonders; he may astonish us (and himself), a new stupor mundi.  Then I shall have proved the man who, privileged to see the future up close, was purblind.  I hope so. . .  In short: I believe he is the best there is; I am not sure that is enough, the odds being so great.


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