The people who run the Republican party want two things heading into the 2016 election. They want the new, unified Republican Congress to "show the party can govern," avoiding the shutdowns and debt default threats and vote-counting calamities on the House floor, while perhaps even working with the president to pass a significant achievement like corporate tax reform. And out on the trail, they want their eventual presidential nominee to avoid dishing out the sort of nativist, cranky soundbites throughout the primary process that the Democratic party will be trawling for. Getting the party not to go out of its way to blow up its presidential chances was a difficult and unsuccessful effort in 2012, and it's not going to be any easier heading into the next one.
There will be landmines to avoid at every turn over the next 12-16 months, until all the budgets and debt ceiling hikes and primary debates are in the rearview and the presidential field is culled to a single nominee. That process of selection unofficially began at this weekend's Iowa Freedom Summit, in which ten or so potential candidates spoke to political reporters and even a few actual Iowans for about ten hours.
Aside from all the analysis about which candidates looked good or bad, who had the best lines, who hit the right buttons, etc., the event showed that one of the party's biggest problems over the next couple of years, a wrench thrown right into the GOP leadership's best laid plans, is a mere matter of geographical coincidence: that Congressman Steve King's district happens to be in Iowa.
If King were from Kansas, his nuttery could be avoidable and isolated. He would be a Tim Huelskamp, a highway tourist trap that's not worth the lost driving time. But King, right up there with Rep. Louie Gohmert as the most reliable fount of "GOP Lawmaker Says [Insane Thing]" content for liberal websites, and far and a way the most prominent anti-immigration figure in the House conference, represents a district in Iowa. What a brilliantly tragic joke that God has played on the Republican party.
Marginalizing a figure like Steve King is critical to the GOP's 2016 hopes. And it's not like he doesn't present fresh new opportunities for leaders to marginalize him. He plotted against John Boehner in the coup attempt at the beginning of this month, a move that typically demands retribution against participants when it fails. And before the State of the Union, he introduced the word "deportable," as a noun, to the lexicon -- another heartfelt way of referring to a human, someone's child or parent or grandparent, who faces the daily threat of being ripped away and sent to another country.
If Steve King was from any other heartland state besides Iowa, he would have spent this past weekend in some lonely corner talking to himself. Instead, he was hosting, and fielding over-the-top compliments from, a majority of the party's potential presidential candidates. Not just from the outsider, conservative-movement characters like Rick Santorum or Ted Cruz, either. Chris Christie, the New Jersey establishmentarian who's never much ascribed to the doctrine of the immigrant-bashing wing, was there touting King as the perhaps the finest public servant in the history of Western civilization.
Viable candidates do enough damage to their and their party's presidential general-election hopes when they embrace King in the Iowa race to the bottom. But they also make life a lot harder for the party's congressional leaders, John Boehner and Mitch McConnell. When they kiss King's ring in Iowa, they make King more of a force to be reckoned with in Congress.
Consider the first big Boehner/McConnell headache of this 114th Congress: funding the Department of Homeland Security by the end of February. Boehner went ahead and appeased Steve King's rightward flank with an appropriations bill that rolls back both of President Obama's executive actions deferring deportations for certain classes of undocumented immigrants. That bill will now either be filibustered in the Senate or vetoed by the White House. John Boehner and Mitch McConnell will then be in the familiar situation of having to convince conservatives to support something that the president will sign.
Steve King and his allies will call on the Boehner and McConnell not to relent and show some "spine" or whatever. The problem is that these calls, which don't make a whole lot of mathematical sense, will be amplified by the party's prospective presidential candidates, a.k.a. Steve King's new best friends. This dynamic doesn't make it any easier for Boehner and McConnell to "show they can govern" by funding the Department of Homeland Security, a routine measure that shouldn't require extraordinary displays of procedural dexterity.
This guy just had to be born and raised in Iowa, didn't he, GOP? In Iowa, where he's dirtying up your presidential candidates. Representing Iowa in DC, where he's messing up your new Congress. Life's not fair.