The Heart of the Matter

The recent intra-Republican wrangling in Iowa about the impact of the quadrennial Ames Straw Poll–soon to be echoed, inevitably, by complaints beyond Iowa about power of the First-in-the-Nation-Caucus–is yet enough diversion from the GOP’s basic problem in presidential elections. If Iowa Republicans were all that unusual (in anything other than their taste for federal energy subsidies), the talk about changes in the nominating process or calendar might have merit. But as Jonathan Bernstein points out today at WaPo, that’s not the heart of the matter:

[C]laims that Iowa in general and Ames in particular has biased Republicans toward poor general-election candidates, or good candidates saddled with unappealing issue positions, is silly. A lot of people now are talking about immigration issues and the Latino vote in particular, but to whatever extent immigration is responsible for poor Republican results with Latinos, it’s awful hard to conclude that Iowa Republicans were out of step with their national party on those issues. The same is true on Christian conservative concerns.

The truth is that the issues that seem to be hurting Republicans with swing voters are simply not very controversial in Republican primaries. Instead, the way that every Republican nomination battle has been recently, wherever it takes place, is that candidates must jump over never-ending hurdles to prove they aren’t “RINOs,” and there’s simply no counterweight on the other side. Therefore, any process change short of eliminating the public portion of the process entirely isn’t going to matter.

If Republicans want to stop taking losing positions on issues, they need to find a way to downplay those things they believe strongly in despite their unpopularity and to give up those things they don’t really care about.

No question about it. But because, for a variety of reasons, Republicans don’t want to “downplay those things they believe strongly in,” they’ll keeping looking for candidates, issues and procedures that purport to defy demographics and public opinion.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.