Seven days ago, the Rick Santorum boom was still a glint in Mike Allen’s eye. In a Des Moines Register poll published the weekend before the Iowa caucuses, 41 percent of respondents said they weren’t sure whom they were going to support.
And these were people who expressed an intention to attend a caucus. They had an inclination. But, like diners poring over the menu at a fancy restaurant, they might yet change their minds.
Indeed, if the polls are to be believed, many Iowa voters must have changed their preferences multiple times over the past few months, as the electorate as a whole (to lower the tone of the metaphor) seemed to pick up one cantaloupe after another, always looking for perfection, never finding it, putting the melon back and reaching for another. The fruit that started at the bottom of the bin — Santorum — got a big squeeze at the end.
There is at least one difference, of course, between choosing what to eat from the bounty of this country and choosing among politicians clamoring for your vote: In the restaurant, or with the cantaloupes, you are probably looking for the best among a variety of appealing options. At the caucuses, or in the voting booth, you are probably seeking the least objectionable among a group of undesirables.
Plenty of Variety
At least that’s how Iowa Republican voters apparently saw it. To a non-Iowa non-Republican, it doesn’t look that way. It looks as if Iowa Republicans had an embarrassment of riches to choose from, including every variety of right-wing fruitcake, from libertarian through evangelical; every degree of Washington experience, from a former speaker of the House to a fellow who can’t remember the names of Cabinet departments he intends to eliminate; and all sorts of family values, from one candidate who has seven children to one who has had three wives. All these options, sandwiched in the polls between two reasonably normal moderate Republicans: throwbacks to the days when primaries were a road test for candidates, looking for one who might conceivably win, rather than loyalty exams sponsored by the various tendencies of modern conservatism.
All of these candidates pushed their positions and arguments, and offered their physical presence, to Iowans for the better part of a year. They spent tens of millions of dollars telling people where they stand. Yet almost half of those who intended to participate in a caucus said, just a few days before the voting started, that they may still change their minds.
What more information could they need? What did they think might happen on Monday or Tuesday to clarify the choice for them? Why the furrowed brows, the pulled chins? It’s partly, I guess, a form of preening encouraged by political polls. Being undecided makes you seem interesting. Being decided makes you seem dull. You are no longer of any interest to the campaigns and candidates — even to the candidate you support.
Is there any other democracy on earth where the voters are as spoiled as they are in the U.S.? Especially, of course, in certain states, such as Iowa and New Hampshire, where the old joke is literally true about the citizens who say they haven’t yet formed an opinion about a candidate because they’ve only met the fellow a few times. But even voters in the rest of the country — if their votes have any relevance at all after the residents of Iowa and New Hampshire have their say — are coddled in many ways.
Greatest on Earth
Consider just a couple. The conventions of political rhetoric in other nations don’t ordinarily require candidates to assure their audiences that they are the greatest people on earth, or possibly the greatest people in all of history, as every politician seeking national office in the U.S. must. There have been nations, of course, whose politicians have used this kind of talk and meant it — often with tragic results. For Americans, all this talk of greatness is more of a tic or a habit than a guide to action.
I’m not worried about a slide into fascism. Still, it’s unattractive. The U.S. is a pretty great place, where billions of people around the globe would probably move in three seconds if they could. But the more we go on and on about this, the less true it is, and the harder it becomes to make it more true.
More generally, modern American politicians almost never use their campaign rhetoric to deliver bad news or to challenge the citizenry. Every problem we have (to the extent that such a wonderful nation as ours could have any problems) can be solved — solved easily — by a tax cut for you or a tax increase for someone else. America’s problems today are not all that different from those of Europe. But the rhetoric is completely different. Chancellor Angela Merkel told Germans on New Year’s Eve that Europeans faced the “harshest test in decades.” 2012, she said, “will no doubt be more difficult than 2011.”
“Austerity” is what every European politician says is necessary. Have any of this year’s Republican presidential candidates (save Ron Paul) used this word, except dismissively or with a sneer? Has President Barack Obama? This is partly because of a legitimate debate in the U.S. about how much austerity is needed, if any. But if and when a dose is needed, the American politician will have a hard time administering it – – and the American voter will be completely unprepared for the sting.