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Saturday, August 13, 2011

IOWA: TOO LITTLE, TOO SOON

It was more like another version of American Idol than an important political debate. The pundits were ready to predict and the audience was ready to vote.  Bret Baier of Fox News who hosted the show even said the next day that the candidates were looking for a "sound bite" that would be remembered afterwards.  There isn't any way to have a "debate" with eight participants.  The average talking time for each participant was somewhere just short of ten minutes.  Of course there was little new ground covered anyway.  The candidates knew what the questions would be in general and gave prepared answers even if they didn't quite fit.  All hewed to the Tea Party line except John Huntsman who differed on the issue of the extension of the debt limit. The rest stuck with "no new taxes" (as did Huntsman) and more cuts in spending. 

Still, for those who were looking for sound bites there were a few.  Herman Cain complained that "Americans need to learn how to take a joke" when asked about his suggestion to fix the southern border; "build a ten foot high electrified fence".  Hmmm, sounds less expensive and more effective than the one their building.  But it has to be a joke, at least now if not when he said it because PETA would be agonizing about fried coyotes and open borders advocates who can't make the distinction between fences that keep people in and fences that keep people out would be calling it a violation of human rights.   Newt Gingrich got an enthusiastic response from the crowd when he called Chris Wallace's question about his staff resigning a "Mickey Mouse"  "gotcha" question.  Newt has done enough things in the past to make him a marginal candidate but he was right on this one.  Poll leader Mitch Romney said he wasn't going to "eat Obama's dog food".  This interesting metaphor can be interpreted anyway one wants but the imagery is a bit questionable.  Struggling candidate Tim Pawlenty offered to mow anyone's lawn that could identify President Obama's plan for fixing the economy and Michele Bachmann told us for the thousandth time that she is qualified to be commander-in-chief because she raised five kids and twenty-three foster kids.

So there you have it; humorless Americans, Mickey Mouse, Obama's dog food, the Brady Bunch card and politically induced lawn mowing.  In retrospect, probably not the sound bites the candidates hoped the electorate would remember them for. 

Some serious topics were raised but the fringe candidates hung on to their fringe status and the candidates that have a chance were predictable in their responses.  Pawlenty focused most of his time on attacking fellow Minnesotan Michele Bachman for her lack of achievements and qualifications.  He was right of course but Bachmann's supporters are undeterred because she tells them what they already believe and as she mentioned in her retort to Pawlenty, she was the author of the all important Light Bulb Freedom of Choice Act.    John Huntsman ("John who? He's polling at 2.3% percent) seemed uncomfortable, unassertive and "unpresidential".  Herman Cain always has an answer but somehow just doesn't seem credible.  Rick Santorum can't let go of his moralizing intolerance on social issues and Ron Paul?  Well he attracts a lot of support among anti-government purists but in spite of some good small government ideas he mostly lives in the simplistic parallel universe of libertarianism.  When the subject of Iran came up Paul's suggestion for our foreign policy was "They are not a threat". and "We should just mind our own business."  Well, the fact is that Iran is the number one national supporter of Syrian dictator Assad who is currently murdering his own citizens.  Iran is also the sponsor and supporter of the terrorist anti-Israeli Lebanese armed militia Hezbollah and the terrorist anti-Israeli armed militia in Gaza, Hamas.  Iran supplies arms to the Taliban in Afghanistan and is the focus of the regional and Western European governments and the United Nations because of its nuclear weapons program.  Paul also wants to do away with the Federal Reserve which is the nation's central bank, the issuer of our currency, the supervisor of our banking system and the conductor of our monetary policy. 
 
It could easily be argued that the most intellectually and experienced qualified candidate is former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich who acquitted himself effectively in the "debate".  However, because of a history of personal foibles and some verbal gaffes in the political pre-season Gingrich is polling at single digit numbers, a fact which has caused his campaign staff to seek greener pastures and has severely impaired his fund raising efforts. 

Thus the debate, with the exception of the Bachmann-Pawlenty dust-up and the Santorum-Paul disagreement on Iran, was more like a joint news conference with predictable questions and familiar talking points responses. The debate was simply part of the whole straw poll media event.  The straw poll is actually a fundraiser for the Iowa Republican party.  Participants are charged $30 to cast their opinions and as a percentage of eligible voters their numbers are quite small.  To justify it as a political exercise its supporters say it is a test of the organizational ability of the candidates, most of whom bus in their supporters, serve up food and entertainment and pay the polling fee for each.  Maybe so, but if that is what it is, the media and pundits are giving it way too much importance in terms of its election significance.  Straw poll winners often do not even go on to win the candidate selection Iowa caucuses in February and the winner of the caucuses often do not go on to win the nomination.  Still the media has already pronounced the end of the Pawlenty campaign since he did not come in first or second.  Front runner nationally, Mitt Romney is not even participating in the straw poll nor is newly announced candidate Rick Perry. 

So observers can relax and enjoy the theatrics, the over analysis and the dire predictions.  In truth the less popular candidates going into the debate and the straw poll will probably suffer campaign ending results sooner than they would have, although they will probably hang on until after the caucuses in February.  Ron Paul was predicted to do well in the straw poll and actually came in second which is a good indication of its irrelevancy.  He, like Michele Bachmann who came in first, attracted dedicated protest voters who in Paul's case know that he won't be the nominee or the president and in Bachmann's case who are in denial because she has convinced them that God wants her to be president. 

Prior to the New Hampshire primary in early 2012 the debates will get better with fewer candidates and after that primary the contest will probably be reduced in practical terms to Mitt Romney and Rick Perry and that should be really interesting.

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