Is there anyone not annoyed by Mitt Romney’s narrow win in the Iowa caucus? Conservatives are disappointed because they recognize that the former Massachusetts governor, who used to be pro-choice and was for Obamacare before it was called that, is only pretending to be one of them. Seventy-five percent of Iowa’s Republican voters wanted someone further to the right. But because their votes were divided among too many weak and weird candidates, the only moderate running in their state came out on top.
Liberals are bummed because Romney is the strongest potential challenger to President Obama. This shows up clearly in head-to-head polls, which put Romney tied with or slightly ahead of Obama, while other Republican contenders trail by 10 points or more. It was hard for Obama campaign officials to suppress their glee last month when Newt Gingrich, the only even remotely plausible alternative to Romney, briefly ran at the head of the pack. But even they knew this was a momentary aberration. Short of Republicans committing collective suicide by picking someone else, Democrats would like to see Romney win the nomination after a protracted, costly struggle that would deplete his financial resources, sully his image, and drag him further to the right. Today, that scenario looks less likely.
We journalists are sorriest of all, because Romney coasting to victory is a weak story. Were the press any other industry, cynicism about its self-interest in promoting marginal challengers would prevail. Local television stations (many of them owned by media conglomerates such as Slate’s owner, the Washington Post Company) count on election-year revenue bumps from political advertising in important primary states. If the nomination contest is effectively over by, say, the time of the Michigan primary on Feb. 28, valuable money will be left on the table. But for reporters, rooting for the underdog, any underdog, is really a matter of wanting a more dramatic story. The straight-laced front-runner winning Iowa and New Hampshire before securing the nomination early on does not count as a compelling narrative. Hence the media’s pretense of taking seriously a succession of nonviable candidates with outlandish views. Rick Santorum is not, under any circumstances, going to be the GOP nominee.
This confluence of motives amounts to an insider conspiracy to resist the obvious.
So expect to hear more and more about less and less likely alternatives to a Romney victory in the coming weeks. Jon Huntsman, the only candidate yet to enjoy a moment of popular enthusiasm, could do better than expected in New Hampshire. Once Rick Perry joins Michele Bachmann in dropping out, conservative sentiment could coalesce around the unlikely survivor Rick Santorum.* Chris Christie could still change his mind! Anything could happen, of course, but it won’t. In the end, the GOP is overwhelmingly likely to nominate Romney because he is the most electable candidate available and at this point, no one else can beat him.
The Republican party Romney is likely to lead into battle has, however, revealed itself in a diminished state—dominated by its activist extreme, focused on irrelevancy, and deaf to reason about the country’s fiscal choices. To survive a Republican debate you are required to hold the incoherent view that the budget should be balanced immediately, taxes cut dramatically, and the major categories of spending (the military, Social Security, Medicare) left largely intact. There is no way to make these numbers add up, and the candidates do not try, relying instead on focus-group tested denunciations of Obama and abstract hostility to the ways of Washington.
Above every other issue, the candidates in Iowa pandered about how thoroughly and completely they would ban abortion. Paul, an obstetrician by training, blanketed the state with ads making the dubious claim that he once saw doctors dispose of a live baby in a trash bin. (If so, why did he not intervene?) Gingrich proposed throwing out the Constitution to defy judges who invalidate anti-abortion legislation. In the closing days of the campaign, Perry augmented his opposition to abortion to include cases of rape or incest. Santorum toured with members of the Duggar family, who are featured in TLC reality show 19 Kids and Counting. Like the Duggars, Santorum believes contraception is “not okay.”
The notion that the Tea Party stood for something new on the American right has now dissolved in favor of a familiar range of radical, not really conservative tendencies. Iowa clarifies this factionalism by presenting it in exaggerated form. There is juvenile libertarianism, represented by Ron Paul. There is theocratic moralism, offered in evangelical Protestant flavors by Bachmann and Perry, and in a Catholic version by Santorum. There is the idea of ideas-based politics, represented by Gingrich. When all of these alternatives finish falling by the wayside, what will remain is the attempt to actually win a national election, represented by one Willard Mitt Romney.
A version of this piece appears in the Financial Times.
Correction, Jan. 4, 2012: This article originally misspelled Michele Bachmann's first name. (Return to the corrected sentence.)