DES MOINES, Iowa—Listening to Republican presidential candidates talk to GOP activists in Iowa, it’s hard to tell which party is in more trouble. The president and his party are so bankrupt and swaddled in serial stupidities that a string of electoral routs is surely coming, they say. Common-sense voters will drive Democrats from Congress and the presidency before they undermine the American Dream further. Still, each GOP hopeful seems compelled to pitch himself as a Republican savior: the only solution to a broken party that won’t win the presidency without his unique brand of political repair. “You guys have a strong force here,” said Sen. Rand Paul to the attendees at the Iowa Republican Party’s state convention on Saturday, “but frankly the president won Iowa twice. So we can’t do the same ole same old.”
Paul’s solution is to reach out to younger voters and minorities. Former Sen. Rick Santorum told the crowd of 1,400 delegates he knew how to talk to the working class, which the GOP must woo in order to win in 2016. Gov. Bobby Jindal portrayed himself as a can-do governor in touch with a national grassroots “rebellion” and ready to lead a hostile takeover of Washington. Gov. Chris Christie, former Gov. Jeb Bush, Gov. Scott Walker, Sen. Ted Cruz, and Sen. Marco Rubio were not in the important presidential state for the weekend, but each promises that he has the missing puzzle piece to the GOP’s presidential election map in his suit pocket.
Iowa has what Paul calls “strong force” because its caucus starts the Republican primary process. If there is to be a successful national Republican coalition, it will be built by the party’s next presidential candidate and that candidate will have to figure out Iowa first.
“Sen. Paul, I supported your father, and I’m ready to help you, too,” said a young man who stopped him after his speech. Paul asked if he had a business card. The senator threw out plenty of red meat to the crowd, suggesting the president should trade five Democrats instead of five Taliban members in his next prisoner exchange and suggesting that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s handling of the security situation in Benghazi made her unfit to be commander-in-chief. But Paul is considered to be the Iowa front-runner by strategists here because of people like that young supporter. The young, energetic voters who backed his father are ready to work for the son. The other Republicans who stopped Paul in the hallways offering to host him when he returns in August proved that the appeal is also broad.
Paul’s message to the party was that younger voters are ready to vote Republican if the party follows his lead in appealing to them on issues of personal privacy. “Every one of them has a cellphone,” he said of young voters, “and they don’t think it’s any of the government’s business what they say on it.”
Rick Santorum, who was signing copies of his book Blue Collar Conservatives, said the party must focus more on workers if it is going to win national elections. He said 6 million working people didn’t vote in the last election. “Our message is all about corporatism and business,” he said of the national party. “We can win every businessman’s vote and still lose elections by landslides. … As far as a lot of workers in America are concerned, we don’t care about them.” Santorum’s prescription for the party was to do what he did in the 2012 race: talk about rebuilding the country’s manufacturing base and rebuilding infrastructure as ways to provide jobs. He also reiterated his pitch that marriage and strong families should be promoted as paths to income security.
Jindal was the first out of the gate after Mitt Romney’s presidential loss to offer advice. He said the GOP should stop being the “stupid” party, which amounted to a prescription to present conservative ideas in a more appealing way and stop focusing on the party’s congressional wing. He did not reprise that message to delegates. Instead, he took a more traditional approach, using outrage as his inroad to voter hearts. He cited a string of Obama administration scandals, but put his rhetorical emphasis on what he said was the administration’s war on religious liberty. “I see more frustration in this country than I’ve seen in decades, and it’s not just against Democrats, it’s against Republicans as well. People are saying I don’t just want to see incremental change. Don’t just rearrange the chairs on the deck, we want to see a wholesale takeover.” As a governor, he offered himself as an antidote to “a president who hasn’t run anything before.”
A common theme among the possible future candidates is that while the Republican Party didn’t need to moderate its policies, it did need to improve its public face. “Let’s stop being a cheap version of the liberal party,” said Jindal, who then repeatedly told a small gathering of GOP supporters and activists Friday night that “tone matters” and that “we need to be optimistic and cheerful in this fight.” Paul, who has said, “If we want a bigger crowd, our message has to be a happy message, an optimistic message, one of inclusiveness,” told the Iowa crowd that it should try to achieve the optimism contained in the message the painter Robert Henri offered to young painters: “Paint like a man coming over the top of the hill singing.”
I asked Paul who he thought represented that optimistic vision of the GOP. He named Jack Kemp, the former congressman and secretary of Housing and Urban Development, who was able to sell conservative policies as a happy warrior rather than a dour scold. “As I go into communities and talk to African-American conservatives, they tell me that Kemp is the one they remember, more than Reagan.”
The Iowa GOP is a microcosm of the tensions within the national party. Each of the constituencies in the larger party—the establishment wing, social conservatives, several Tea Party organizations, and those with libertarian leanings—has a base there. Party leaders are trying to manage these internal tensions in the hopes that they don’t squander the state’s national reputation and Republican chances to pick up a Senate seat in a purple state. That’s why over the last year, Gov. Terry Branstad and his establishment allies worked to retake control of the state party from the libertarian-minded wing that supports Rand Paul.
In the past the conflicts between these groups have erupted during the state conventions—this year it was Idaho’s turn to have a fight—which is why the Iowa state party co-chair started the day by saying that the watchwords for the gathering were “Republican Unity.” The party chairman then kicked things off, asking delegates, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” Everyone listened. It was a grand unified event with little rancor. Branstad’s efforts to win control paid off. If Iowa Republicans figured how to make everyone play nice, it might become a model for future presidential candidates as well as a starting place.