This Saturday, Republican presidential wannabes like Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum and Donald Trump will attend an Iowa event "designed to educate and mobilize the conservative base regarding worldview application and issues that impact the family." What that means in practical terms is something much uglier.
All of them will come to kiss the ring of a social conservative icon named Bob Vander Plaats, knowing that winning Iowa is key to locking up the 2016 nomination, and that Bob Vander Plaats is key to winning the Iowa caucus.
Vander Plaats is a longtime politico with diminished influence in the state, having run for governor three times, losing all three races. In 2012, he led a failed effort to oust David Wiggins, an Iowa Supreme Court justice who ruled in favor of marriage equality in 2009. His limited political success has come in very conservative climates where he can marshal the resources of his organization and network of fellow ultraconservatives -- endorsing former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum for their Iowa caucus victories, and ousting three justices in 2010 (a national wave election for Republicans) who also ruled in favor of marriage equality.
While he is increasingly unpopular and politically ineffective with most Iowans, the influence Vander Plaats wields in conservative circles unfortunately has a caustic impact on Iowa politics. And, because of his place in such an important state, that impact is felt across the nation. The extreme brand of ideology Vander Plaats pushes drags the Republican Party’s debate dangerously far to the right -- for example, comparing homosexuality to secondhand smoke and slavery, as well as blasting Herman Cain's abortion position as insufficiently conservative. His influence makes it impossible for legitimate candidates to survive the first in the nation caucus without addressing and, most often adopting, positions more akin to a carnival barker than a political leader. The winner of the caucus inevitably grabs the spotlight, shifting the focus to the ridiculous and away from a real conversation about our future.
On a Saturday afternoon last summer I sat in a megachurch in Waukee, Iowa, to attend and live-tweet the first-ever installment of the gathering, known as the “Family Leadership Summit.” Throughout the day, speaker after speaker tossed out one offensive comment after another. After a while, I had to pry my jaw off the floor.
A local radio host said, “I don’t think the mark of the beast will come in the form of a 666. I think it will be a rainbow.” Attendees were called upon to vote against pro-choice candidates even if they have to vote for “the devil himself.” Another radio host who is now teaming up with Vander Plaats for their own right-wing talk show said “there is a reason the child killers are on the side of the homosexual lobby.” And Vander Plaats himself told his supporters that in the effort to overturn marriage equality, “We need you to be biblical.” Needless to say, there was an overflow of material to cover.
More shocking was the roster of potential presidential contenders who showed up out of deference to Vander Plaats and his red-meat-ingesting audience. Santorum, winner of the 2012 caucus, spoke. 2008 caucus winner Huckabee conducted a live broadcast on Fox News from the summit. Don’t forget about Texas Gov. Rick Perry -- he was there, too. What’s more, none of them disagreed with a single word that was said on the stage they shared.
Iowa, and the entire country, would be better served if every candidate stopped paying attention to Bob Vander Plaats, and those who follow his lead. Practically, this would mean candidates refusing his calls and officeholders refusing his requests. Maybe that’s unfair; it’s hard to expect Republican candidates to completely ignore the man who endorsed the winners in Iowa’s last two presidential caucuses. We can hope. But as they continue to pay their respects to Vander Plaats this weekend, Iowans and Americans should hold them, and him, accountable.