"The world has gone to hell": A weekend at the Iowa Freedom Summit

At this weekend's big GOP confab, presidential wannabes competed to woo Iowa caucus goers. Here's who stood out

Published January 26, 2015 7:55PM (EST)

  (AP/Charlie Neibergall)
(AP/Charlie Neibergall)

The Republican kickoff event to the 2016 Iowa Caucuses was held at the palatial Hoyt Sherman Place in Des Moines on Saturday, and by all attendee accounts, it was splendid. Hosted by the conservative group Citizens United and Iowa’s controversial anti-immigration Representative Steve King, the event was a brilliant power grab by King and David Bossie of Citizens United to help orchestrate the outcome of the Iowa caucuses. The outcome they want? A strong anti-establishment Republican Tea Party candidate.

A list of the big dogs at the event shows how deep the potential Republican bench is for the 2016 presidential election: Jim DeMint, Dr. Ben Carson, Donald Trump, Scott Walker, Newt Gingrich, Mike Lee (who declared he wasn’t running), Rick Santorum, Marsha Blackburn, John Bolton, Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina, Sarah Palin, Rick Perry, Chris Christie, and Mike Huckabee. Add lesser knowns, to Iowans anyway, like former Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore, Jeff Duncan a Congressman from South Carolina, and New Hampshire State Representative Bill O’Brien.

Then there are the notable absences. Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney, Marco Rubio, Bobby Jindal and Rand Paul. Jindal says he had a conflict, but it’s not clear whether or not the other GOP stars were even invited to the event.  King was clear that the list of those absent are second, even third string in his mind.  At the beginning of the Summit he asked the crowd “Do you believe that the next President of the United States is going to be speaking to you today?” The crowd of over 1,250 roared and applauded. Nine hours later, with the crowd only diminished by a few hundred, he asked, and I paraphrase, “Do you believe that the next President of the United States spoke with you today?” This roar and applause was even louder than the first time he asked the question, and from my vantage point in the balcony, only two people in the audience were not applauding.

The first list of names is a liberal nightmare; the list of absences is the lesser of two evils.  But to attendees who listened to the speakers over the nine hours, the first list contains the cultural warrior who will save our nation, and restore our standing in a world that has gone to hell under the leadership of Barack Obama.

King’s question was cleverly posed. It leaves Bush, Romney, Paul, Jindal, and Rubio as also-rans when the race is just beginning.  Of course, Iowa Republicans, not King, will decide who the caucus winner is, but have no doubt that King will play a significant role in shaping this race.

There’s a new stage on the Iowa political scene, and it’s tilting to the right. We don’t even know how far to the right it has tilted. For two generations, six term Governor Terry Branstad (R), Senators Chuck Grassley (R) and Tom Harkin (D) have been re-elected time and again with votes from both Democrats and Republicans.  Branstad was first elected Governor in 1983, Grassley to the Senate in 1981, and Harkin was first elected to the House in 1975, moving to the Senate in 1985.

King has been a Tea Party favorite nearly as long as there has been a Tea Party. Now, with the retirement of Tom Harkin, he’s been joined by another Tea Party Senator Joni Ernst, who easily beat what appeared to be Harkin’s heir apparent, Bruce Braley. As all of America knows, Joni Ernst’s campaign was based on her conservative principles, her service to our country, motherhood and her experience castrating hogs.

With Ernst in the mix for the next election, the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party will exert considerable influence in Iowa.

As I write this, there are two clear results of the summit -- the creation of two clear losers, and the recognition of the viability of several candidates.

To understand who the losers are and why, we need some mythology. Namely, that of the coyote, the trickster common in Native American and other world traditions, who has the intellect, or secret knowledge that others lack, to play tricks or otherwise disobey normal rules and conventional behavior.

The Republican Party has, to its great benefit or detriment, two tricksters. Donald Trump, and Sarah Palin. They revel in playing tricks, disobeying rules, and conventional behavior.

Donald Trump, coyote, delivered a knockout punch to both Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush in front of the Tea Party crowd by saying things many of the other candidates likely wouldn’t because of social conventions.  He took out Romney when he said “It can’t be Mitt because Mitt ran and failed.” Here I paraphrase, “Like him, dislike him, the 47% won’t go away, Romneycare won’t go away. He choked.”

Jeb Bush went down too. Again, paraphrasing, Trump said: “You can’t have Romney, you can’t have Bush, the last thing we need is another Bush. He’s totally in favor of common core. Weak on immigration.”

The crowd loved it. While it was too early for the other candidates (in the small chance Trump is indeed a candidate) to sling mud, the coyote, the Donald, slings mud whenever and wherever he pleases. That’s his role.

So the losers Saturday were certainly Romney and Bush, and maybe Rubio, Paul, and Jindal, if Steve King gets his way. During and after the event, everyone I spoke with was extremely happy with how it went, but wanted to see the other candidates as well. I haven’t seen Paul on the ground in Iowa, but I have seen Rubio and Jindal address crowds and they are effective. While much of America remembers the clumsy television performances on their Republican State of the Union responses, I’ve seen them do well in Iowa and expect them to be competitive, should they enter the race.

So who were the winners? In one way or another, all the speakers were. No one flopped. Still, some potential stars emerged at the Summit.

Social scientists call events like this rites of intensification. Rites of intensification are often held in times of crises, and to listen to the candidates, we are certainly in one. Information is shared, and group bonding takes place, often when confronting a common foe. These rites work best when emotion is heightened, and adrenaline flowing. Shared emotional experiences result in a common bond.  Cross-culturally, music, food, dancing, and intoxicating beverages or drugs are often involved, as all heighten emotion.

The rite of intensification began in the minutes before the event with a visually and aurally jarring video that depicted the ruination of America -- nuclear bombings, plane crashes, buildings exploding, interwoven with liberals bloviating, followed or preceded by their hopeless victims, and if memory serves, closing with the image of a swaying, bare chested, long haired, doped up hippie.

During the Freedom Summit, we skipped the dancing and drugs, and while I have no doubt that at least a few speakers imbibed the night before, food and music certainly played a role. Particularly music. King, for example, was introduced to the theme song from Rocky. The recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, and the opening prayer were added rituals. It was during the actual speeches where the candidates had to perform like American Idol contestants in front of a large, friendly, yet discerning set of judges.  And perform, they did. Common foes were identified, challenges to our nation addressed, applause, cheers, and standing ovations ensued.

It was nine hours of sequential rites of intensification, and we won’t know the results until the caucuses are over -- a year from now.

So, within that nine hours, and with a 20 minute-plus spot, how does a candidate rise to the top? First and foremost, the goal is not to flop, not to misspeak, establish ideological commonality, rouse the crowd, stimulate emotions, and differentiate yourself from the other speakers.  Almost every act was a hard act to follow.

As in all good rites of passage, enemies were identified and themes developed. The enemies, both foreign and domestic, were clear and numerous. It makes Richard Nixon’s notorious enemies list look like a ten year old’s birthday party guest list.

Obama. Obamacare, Hillary, Democrats, ISIS and other radical radicals, Harvard, "illegal immigrants," the EPA, the IRS, Common Core, Big Government, the NSA, Public Schools, Teacher Unions, the National debt, Union bosses, crony capitalists, RINOs, the Republican establishment, excessive rules and regulations, moderates, pro-choice advocates, and the media are all enemies.  With respect to the media, especially ABC, CBS, NBC, and MSNBC drew fire. Fox News escaped all criticism, so they must be doing something “right.” Which, of course, suggests a different problem most of us are already familiar with.

Congressman Marsha Blackburn was most explicit. ABC is “All ‘Bout Clinton,” NBC is “Nutin’ But Clinton,” CNN is the “Clinton News Network.” And finally, since only coyotes Palin and Trump can swear publicly, she implied that CBS is the “Clinton Bull Shit” network.

Interestingly, some traditional Democratic enemies were appropriated. DeMint started it, suggesting Wall Street, big banks, and some big corporations can be added to the enemies list. He also suggested that Republicans were the true progressives.

Who did it best? Let’s start with Ted Cruz. The audience was mesmerized by Cruz, and his performance was exceptional. He appeared passionate, thoughtful, had a great origin story, stressed his Christian faith (very important to this crowd) and was clearly ready to take on the world and restore America. The best orator of the group, he was smooth -- performance-wise, the Bill Clinton of the Republican world.

Dr. Ben Carson was also a success. He told a great life story about how he survived serious hardships, and shared his faith. With respect to immigration he wants to incorporate a guest worker program modeled on the Canadian one. That’s a guest worker program for jobs Americans don’t want to do, seal the border, and accept applications only from applicants who are outside of our borders.

Scott Walker surprised me, and the members of the audience I spoke with as well. On television he often seems flat, tired, and disengaged. Not on the Freedom Summit stage. To Democrats he must seem flawed, given the challenges he had in Wisconsin, and the recall effort. That’s a mistake. He was dynamic, and clearly established himself as a top contender.

Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee have already established their credibility in Iowa, so they’ll always be contenders. They had fine, but not break-out performances. Huckabee was hampered by the fact that we were nearly nine hours into the event when he spoke last. Republicans in Iowa will have to consider, however, if they think either of them can make it elsewhere, they need to think about who is the best candidate for the long game. Meanwhile, Santorum and Huckabee will have to think about their own long games, which will likely reduce their time in the state.

One woman I spoke with loved Rick Perry. Said he was “on fire!” Perry’s speech was a barn burner.  It was interrupted by a group of perhaps eight young protesters from the DREAM Action Coalition who interrupted the speech yelling out, asking Perry if he would deport them and their families if he became president. Their blue signs read “Deportable?”

They were politely removed from the audience, as the crowd cheered and applauded, drowning them out while Perry continued with renewed energy.

An additional protester interrupted Chris Christie, who said “Don’t they know I’m from New Jersey?” drawing laughs from the audience. The big bully Chris Christie I see so often on the news, wasn’t there Saturday. Instead, Iowans saw a thoughtful, warm, apparently generous man who showed that he may fit in just fine with Iowans.

Not to get too Freudian or abstract, but Sarah Palin is the id of the Republican Party, poorly managed by the ego and super-ego. But that is what makes her so magnetic to this crowd. She can say or do nearly anything she wants, and get by with it. She’s a loose cannon. Her delivery was scattered, nearly random, certainly disrespectful. We all know she has bark. And bite. Her most recent thoughts on Obama’s use of executive orders? “He’s kind of like an overgrown little boy who is acting kind of spoiled.”

Carly Fiorina, the former Chairman and CEO of Hewlett-Packard also stood out. Taking on Hillary, she said “Like Hillary Clinton, I too have traveled hundreds of thousands of miles around the globe. Unlike her, I have actually accomplished something.” This line, and the applause that followed riled the crowd.

The remaining potential candidates didn’t resonate as much. Jim Gilmore, John Bolton, Bill O’Brien, and Newt Gingrich came across as the grumpy old uncles we should probably dust off every once in awhile and ask for advice.

Mike Lee said he isn’t running, but I bet he will someday, and when he does, he’ll be a force to be reckoned with.  Congressman Jeff Duncan was well received, and I’m sure they brought him out to let Iowans have a chance to get to know him, as I suspect they are grooming him for a future role. Eventually presidential? Who knows. Right now, like Lee, he’s just checking out the scenery.

Another big winner was Steve King, although I doubt many will give him credit for a win. Clearly, he enjoyed his role, smiling during the introductions, bounding across the stage like the birthday boy running to open his presents to introduce the next speaker.  We’ll see how successful his efforts are in a year. After the protesters were escorted to the exits, I remembered a video I once saw where a couple of DREAMers confronted King and Rand Paul when they were apparently eating lunch. When Paul saw who they were and what they wanted to talk about, he nearly choked on his sandwich as he retreated. King stood toe to toe with them, and was willing to engage.

In addition to the DREAMers, other protesters waited outside. Two women were dressed as U.S. Senate and House members, wearing big corporation sponsorships, money stuffed in their pockets, mock martinis in their hands, protesting the role of big corporations in government.

One older man, a Navy Veteran who served two tours of duty in Vietnam, stood outside with a sign protesting the role of religion in politics.

They were all polite, peaceful, and largely ignored.

The candidates left many loose ends,  some that could be addressed, but not all easily. Like at all political gatherings, facts and history were ignored, or conveniently manipulated. Nothing good for America has happened in the past six years. There is no economic recovery. All the new jobs are bad jobs.  The George Bush years were never mentioned by anyone except Trump, and that was only because he feels George Bush is the reason we now have Obama.  Of course, omission and manipulation are common rhetorical tactics, but Iowans aren’t fools.

Other loose ends and inconsistencies? All of the candidates are strict constitutionalists except when they’re not. Like when Huckabee wants term limits on Congress and the Supreme Court.

Two interrelated themes were also clear throughout the day.  Fear, and the prospect of war. Clearly, our nation faces great enemies. Every candidate let us know that they are willing and ready to go to war, and that they envision a powerful and rapid response if needed and they were president. The America any one of them would lead would be a powerful one, and an effort would be made for us to be a leader in world affairs, willing to advance the goals of democracy everywhere. I just hope they remember the long term consequences of the previous Republican administration’s forays into Iraq and Afghanistan that still burden us today.  To put it bluntly, it certainly seemed to be a trigger happy group.  Hopefully, it was just part of the performance. I must admit that I never thought that I would ever see a trigger-happy pastor. Huckabee proved me wrong.

In the end, by every Tea Party standard the Iowa Freedom Summit was an overwhelming success.  The next President of the United States may well have spoken at the event. The big takeaway: the candidates at the Iowa Freedom Summit were prepared to bring scorched earth, at least metaphorically, to every establishment Republican who stands in their way in their effort to win the Iowa caucuses. Officially or not, the campaign has begun.

By Robert Leonard

Robert Leonard covered the 2008 and 2012 Iowa caucuses for KNIA/KRLS Radio in Knoxville and Pella, Iowa. He is an anthropologist, and author of “Yellow Cab.”

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