The Puritan hangover that is the Republican Party’s right wing was in full bloom this past weekend in Iowa, as a bevy of conservative presidential prospects shared the stage at the Iowa Freedom Summit, preaching to the converted about the sins of liberalism, the weaknesses of Obama and Democrats, and what is needed to restore America’s glory, guts and greatness.
“America needs a hero again,” Sarah Palin chirped before 1,000-plus attendees, almost all white, middle-aged or older, who looked like they had been diverted from a bus tour of Ronald Reagan’s birthplace in nearby Illinois. “And screw the left and Hollywood who can’t understand what we see in someone like Chris Kyle [the protagonist of American Sniper] and all of our vets.”
Palin now more of a political entertainer than candidate, was there, like many others, to inspire the most right-wing Iowans to ignore the GOP mainstream and select a presidential nominee who puts God, guns, less government and the Constitution (as they see it) as their compass.
Every possible candidate present—Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, ex-Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, real estate mogul Donald Trump, brain surgeon Ben Carson, ex-Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and others—said America’s future depends on returning to a past before big government, but never big business, was public enemy number one, and when American military might made dictators and terrorists cower.
It was equal parts a right-wing talent and freak show, where anything that could be called liberal was derided as weak, morally loose, indecisive, coddling and a failure. Federal government and union-represented public schools are scourges and the source of the major problems that Americans face, they said repeatedly, adding that only the GOP could give working people the tools needed to finally prosper. That agenda includes sealing the borders, dismantling Obamacare, shutting government agencies, cutting taxes and red tape for small business, gutting unions, privatizing schools, protecting Christian liberty and traditional marriage, and using the military.
“Today is the 50th anniversary of Winston Churchill’s passing,” Cruz said in one rant. “Churchill stood as a lion in winter. A voice against the darkness that was sweeping the globe. And I’ll tell you 50 years later that we are facing threats every bit as ominous.”
Speaking just days before the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Cruz once again displayed why he is arguably the Senate’s biggest demagogue since Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Nothing in the world today—including the horror in Syria—matches the slaughter of WWII. But Cruz, like the others speaking in Iowa, is being given an outsized podium and microphone by the libertartian Koch brothers, whose network co-sponsored the event and also announced it would spend nearly $900 million in the 2016 election, guaranteeing that ultra-right-wing views will bombard the airwaves.
The mainstream media—like NPR’s coverage of the summit—tends to give each possible candidate the benefit of the doubt, portraying each as a good guy or gal with no prior record that needs to be brought up at this stage of the process. So let’s go through thumbnail sketches of those we are going to be hearing a lot from in coming months, especially as the Koch party tries to push the political center to the far right.
1. Scott Walker: The Thug
Walker was pronounced the event’s winner, if you will, by mainstream media. That’s really not a shocker, because he told everyone he is a preacher’s son who grew up in Iowa until the third grade, learned most of what he needed to know about life from that small town experience, and felt the power of people’s prayers as he and a GOP majority legislature went after the public employee unions in Wisconsin. “We weren’t afraid to go big and go bold,” he said, getting sympathetic nods as he recounted how he ignored 100,000 protesters and his family suffered death threats. Walker also bragged about loosening gun controls to allow concealed weapons, policing the polls with stricter voter ID laws, and cutting state spending. Walker’s evangelical values, anti-union crusade (excluding police and firefighters) and imperial management style telegraphed that a conservative son of a small Iowa town could become the ruler of a bigger blue state. After his speech, he flew to California to attend a Koch donor retreat, and by the weekend’s close he announced he was forming a presidential campaign committee.
2. Ted Cruz: The Demagogue
There is no Republican in national office who throws rhetorical barbs like Cruz and enjoys watching the sting of his words. Cruz, another preacher’s son whose rise in politics followed his willingness to incite fights for right-wing causes, threw chunks of red meat, endearing him to the Tea Partiers. “Our rights are from God, not government,” he said, adding the “Constitution binds the mischief of government.” He said federal government was filled with “senseless obstacles,” and called for dismantling the IRS (reassigning its 110,000 employees to guard the Mexican border), getting rid of “locusts” at the Environmental Protection Agency, repealing “every word” of Obamacare, and replacing the federal income tax with a flat tax rate (which benefits the rich and hurts the poor). Cruz repeatedly recited what may become his mantra, if he runs: “Show me where you have stood up and fought.” He said only true conservatives could “reignite the miracle of America,” saying, “If you’re a single mom waiting tables, you can do anything.” He said the key to a 2016 victory was “reassembling the Reagan coalition” of evangelicals, libertarians, blue-collar democrats, women and youth.
3. Chris Christie: The Combatant
East coasters probably would not have recognized the deferential and solicitous man who introduced himself to Iowans as a pro-life, conservative, successful blue-state governor just re-elected with significant black and brown voter backing. The New Jersey governor did not present himself as the over-confident, bullying, self-satisfied politician he is locally known to be. He explained that his reputation for brashness comes from his Irish father and Italian mother who taught him to clear the air in life. Christie said the rich are doing fine, “but the promise of America is shrinking,” “the anxiety is still there,” and the “under-represented need our help.” He said, “What we need in America is a leader who we really know,” alluding to an opacity around President Obama and Hillary Clinton. Above all, Christie said he has never pretended to be anything but a conservative, and that forthrightness with the public is the key to winning blue states. By the time Christie finished his speech, the stone-faced audience was strongly clapping.
4. Carly Fiorina: The Taskmaster
Karl Rove, speaking on Fox News, said that the ex-Hewlett-Packard CEO, who lost a 2010 U.S. Senate race to California’s Barbara Boxer, gave the best speech after Walker. Fiorina began with an anecdote about her mother teaching Sunday school, who gave her and the other students a plaque reading, "What you are is God’s gift to you and what you make of yourself is your gift to God." She said she didn’t feel very gifted but learned what it was to work, get an education, become an entrepreneur, and raise a family. “I have traveled all over the world and it is only in the United States of America that a young woman can start as a secretary and become the chief executive officer of the largest technology company in the world,” she said. That promise is imperiled, Fiorina said, by weak politicans, especially President Obama and Hillary Clinton, who approach crises as managers, making do, instead of real leaders who “create possibilities” and bring others along.
Fiorina said it was small business, not corporations, that are hurt by excessive government. She derided Obama as a liberal hypocrite, calling for equal pay for equal work for women but not changing the seniority system, “which is in place in every federal government bureaucracy and every union: the seniority system, which does not reward performance, or merit, or hard work, but rewards instead time and grade. The seniority system, which disadvantages women.” Her sharp focus stood out from what most of the men said from the stage, whether on domestic or foreign affairs. Fiorina, a cancer survivor who is pro-life, said both parties “tinker around the edges,” citing many examples domestic and abroad where “politics has triumphed over principle, and expediency has triumphed over courage.” She concluded, “What is required now is citizenship and leadership… Let us together truly reform our government and our politics,” prompting one of the day’s few standing ovations.
5. Ben Carson: The Scold
Retired brain surgeon Carson has become a right-wing darling for his calm demeanor and cutting criticisms of President Obama, what he says are the left’s moral lapses, and his complaints about the disintegration of conservative family values. Like others on the podium, he grew up poor, faced long odds and still succeeded, he said, thanks to his single mother’s firm hand and getting an education. Carson, who is African American, said Americans need to listen to their parents, “not social psychologists.” He supports charter schools, said business owners should be prosecuted for hiring any undocumented person, the U.S. border should be sealed, and government—as epitomized by Obamacare—has gotten too big and is drowning future generations in debt. What government now spends on Medicaid—state health plans for the poor—is about $5,000 a year and could buy “boutique” private plans. The federal government should open all public land to oil and gas drilling. “We have to have courage once again in this country,” he concluded. “We can’t allow the progressives to shut us up through political correctness, and through all the things that they do. And if they want to act like third graders and call us names, let them… Freedom is not free.”
6. Donald Trump: The Crook
Trump, the New York-based real estate mogul, is easily dismissed by longtime GOP politicos like Karl Rove for being more of a political entertainer (like Palin) than a candidate. But his comments at the Iowa Freedom Summit added a pro-business spin to the more ideological candidates. (Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul did not attend; they went to the Kochs' donor summit in southern California). Trump was widely quoted saying that Mitt Romney “failed” and “choked” running for president in 2012, and should go away, and “the last thing we need is another Bush,” referring to ex-Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. (Neither attended.)
But on substance, Trump claimed that Obama is not respected abroad and the toughest foreign leaders “take advantage of us,” referring to China, Russia and Iran. At home, he said America’s roads, bridges and airports “are crumbling” and “we have to rebuild.” He said mainstream Republicans are weak, bungling their response to Obamacare and immigration reform and are poised to alienate the public by going after Social Security. He said they, like Obama, don't know how to negotiate and close deals. “I’m seriously thinking of running,” Trump said, "because I can do the job.”
7. Rick Santorum: The Savior
Santorum, the social conservative who surprised the mainstream media by winning Iowa’s Republican Party Caucus in 2012, beating Mitt Romney, appears ready to run again. He had a very different message from four years ago, when he, too, mostly was an evangelical scold. Santorum said Americans can see that Obama failed to deliver on his promises and want a positive message they can believe in. When the GOP talks about entrepreneurs, they are ignoring 90 percent of the people who don’t own businesses, he said. “Americans feel the divisiveness and are sick of it.” The often-cited GOP rhetoric that a rising economic tide will lift all boats doesn’t work for people “without a college degree,” with family breakdowns, and “holes in their boat,” he said.
“If you say that we will raise the tide, they don’t feel it,” Santorum said. “They don’t feel better. They’re sinking deeper.” His remedies include privatizing education and taking steps “to rebuild the family,” such as ending welfare programs (and corporate welfare as well). Like the others expressing libertarian views, he blamed Washington “for making U.S. manufacturing uncompetitive” and lambasted Obama’s foreign policy, saying he’s “seen the impact of indecision by an American president.” But most surprisingly, the former senator said, “We [Republicans] don’t win because too many people don’t think we care.”
The Long View
These seven potential candidates are not the full GOP field. But collectively, they represent the spectrum of views from its major right-wing factions, whether evangelicals or libertarians, or a mix of both. It is easy to sneer at figures like Palin or Trump, but there's no doubt their views will be amplified by the media between now and the November 2016 election.
In contrast, the Democrats appear poised for a coronation, where Hillary Clinton will get the nod. It’s perilous to assume that the White House will remain in Democratic hands, especially since there are serious critiques across the political spectrum of Obama’s record. If anything, progressives need to be wary that their views will not be further marginalized, as centrist Democrats consolidate their control and the Kochs pull the Republican Party further to the far right.
Perhaps there is a silver lining in the prospect of right-wingers dominating the 2016 coverage in the near-future, because the country will likely tire of their views before the real campaign begins. On the other hand, the last thing the country needs is to be drenched in endless right-wing propagandizing about the evils of government, unions, liberalism, safety nets, environmentalism, and diplomacy overseas, and how conservative Christian values are imperiled.