Steve King’s Cattle Call

So the first big cattle call of the 2016 Republican presidential nominating process is in the books, with the Steve King/Citizens United/Tea Party Patriots “Iowa Freedom Summit” in Des Moines on Saturday. John Bolton, Ben Carson, Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina, Mike Huckabee, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, and Scott Walker were all given 20 minutes to strut their stuff before an audience of True Believer conservatives and certain Caucus-goers, along with (apparent) non-candidate luminaries like Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Donald Trump and Jim DeMint.

If you missed watching some of the speeches or the media coverage, the two best places to read about it are probably Bloomberg Politics (which sent a large delegation to Des Moines to cover the event from many angles, as presented in the strange formatting of their site), and The Iowa Republican, which live-blogged all the speeches Saturday and then rated them later. In the IR accounts, brace yourself for redundant whining about the venue’s shortcomings.

To get one thing out of the way, nobody took advantage of the situation by doing a “Sister Souljah” on King specifically or Iowa conservatives generally. The speaker some had hoped would do that, Chris Christie, instead stressed the more ideologically orthodox parts of his record (especially on abortion) and repeatedly touted his relationship with his “great friend” Steve King. He also lucked into (as did Rick Perry) an immigrants’ rights protester, which is exactly what he needed to curry favor with this particular crowd.

So pretty much everybody was dishing out red meat. The closest anyone came to squishiness was Mike Huckabee in arguing Republicans shouldn’t attack each other, but that was in the context of a speech telegraphing in all caps that Huck no longer favored Common Core, which was his most immediate chore with Iowa conservatives.

The consensus winner (first announced by National Review‘s John Fund, but echoed by many others) was Scott Walker, who did exactly what he needed to do: show he could twist and shout with the best of them despite his “boring” image, and make an electability argument based on the fruits of confrontation rather than compromise. This latter dimension of his appeal should not be underestimated: at a time when MSM types and (more subtly) Jeb Bush and Chris Christie continue to suggest Republicans must become less feral to reach beyond their base, here’s Walker saying he won three elections in four years in a blue state by going medieval on unions, abortionists and Big Government. So Walker’s passed his first test in the challenge of proving he’s not Tim Pawlenty, and that’s a big deal given his excellent positioning in the field.

Walker’s closest competitors in the speechifying were by most accounts Ted Cruz, who did a standard Ted Cruz speech, making it clear he would be the ideological commissar in the race if he runs, and Ben Carson, who showed he could condense his strange crusade against “political correctness” from 45 minutes to 20 or so.

The most interesting of the other speeches was probably Rick Santorum’s, wherein he took advantage of an ideal venue for his new message focusing on immigration as the reason for all the problems of the white working class. It’s a seductive if evil argument.

The only real “fail” on Saturday was by the person not regarded as a candidate, but who made it clear before arriving that she should not be counted out: St. Joan of the Tundra herself. This is the first time in my memory that MSM mockery of a Palin speech was matched or even exceeded by conservative commentators. Here’s John Fund:

The former 2008 vice-presidential nominee told reporters last week that she was “seriously” considering running in 2016. But her meandering and often bizarre 33-minute speech in Des Moines proved she wasn’t. Sample line: “The man can only ride you when your back is bent, so strengthen it so America won’t get taken for a ride.” She will always be an entertaining speaker at conservative events, but she clearly lacks the discipline for a full-fledged campaign.

I personally think Palin’s outlived her usefulness to The Cause in no small part because other, more electable, pols have preempted her distinctive appeal to conservative self-pity and cultural resentment. But that’s a topic for another time.

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.