The real reason that we put up with the idea of the Iowa Caucus, despite the quadrennial concerns that it allows a few people from a small state to have an outsized influence on electoral outcomes (concerns which are somewhat overstated, but not completely dismissable!) is the simple fact that it is a really pretty thing to look at. For a few days in our lives, we immerse ourselves in the wonderment of seeing middle Americans, who we imagine are not far removed from the hard labor of working the soil for their daily keep (Iowa's population is largely urban, but we don't send TV cameras to those caucus sites), take those first fitful and uncertain steps in a long political process. They gather in community centers and school gyms and sit in folding chairs, and they use a pen to write a name on a slip of paper, and all is right with the world. Really right with the world! By the time everything is over in November, we'll have been exposed to every last dose of venality and cynicism our political culture has to throw at us, so we need this tonic, right at the outset, to preserve our constitutions from the coming toxins.
In exchange for this balm, we accept that the Iowa Caucus has a story to tell. The Iowa Caucus, we tell ourselves, may not be that great at picking a president, but it has a purpose to serve in winnowing down the field and eliminating those candidates who can't perform the basic tasks of retail campaigning. How did we do this year? Well, it winnowed out Michele Bachmann. It probably should have freed us from the further ministrations of the "Rick Perry campaign," but Perry has decided to soldier on. As Bachmann had already essentially eliminated herself from competition at the end of September, this seems a woefully inefficient way of getting a candidate to quit the race.
Nevertheless, Iowa generated something that felt like excitement, even if that hectic feeling was created by nothing more than two counties being dreadfully slow at counting. At the end of the night, three candidates claimed a sort of victory. Third-place finisher Ron Paul probably would have preferred to have ended the night much nearer to the leading vote-getters -- he really needed a first-place finish to prevent the media from dialing back their coverage of his campaign -- but he ended the night on an optimistic note, riding out of Iowa on a substantial amount of money and enthusiastic support, armed with a long-game plan to navigate his way to a high delegate count.
Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, as you well know, battled to a photo finish, with Romney eking out a thin, eight-vote victory. But Romney couldn't claim the night. Not with Santorum's shoe strings-and-chicken bones operation nearly matching the Super PAC-enabled Romney vote for vote. Santorum, sensing that he was poised to claim something that would seem more like victory than the actual win, had a chance to capitalize on the moment and, as Rachel Sklar pointed out in Mother Jones the next day, he utterly nailed it:
Last night, after enough of a delay that pundits took note, Santorum took the podium for his speech and sheepishly apologized for reading from his notes. He proceeded to positively kill it. He spoke earnestly and with real emotion about his wife and family, his grandfather who had worked in the Pennsylvania coal mines into his 70s, and the American working class. He spoke of his daughter, born disabled with a life expectancy of just a year, who, against those odds, was now three years old; he spoke of another child lost, and of his passionate belief in the dignity of human life. His tone was strong, though at times wavered with emotion. He fed off the audience, acknowledging a zinger about Romneycare with a grin. He shouted out the New York Times for recognizing his Chuck Truck. He was humble, impassioned, patriotic, and filled with conviction. If you didn't know anything about Santorum before last night, you'd be impressed.
How could Romney have followed that? Well, the answer was pretty much "any way other than the way he did." When Romney finally took the stage, his speech had the tone and tenor of a man who was either in the throes of amphetamine mania, or was told seconds before going on stage that if he didn't finish within a certain time, someone, somewhere was going to start killing hostages. Romney paused for audience responses that never came, raced through his remarks at a breakneck pace and went back to his stump speech for that awful recitation of "America The Beautiful" that included his "corn is an amber wave" joke that never ever worked, as Stephen Colbert's brilliant next-day montage demonstrated:
Nevertheless, what's so bad about a little inability to seem human when your organizational strength and war chest dwarfs that of your next opponent several times over? Those are the challenges that Santorum has to surmount -- along with Romney's big lead in the upcoming New Hampshire primary -- which, again, is part of the important election year tonic: Dixville Notch! Hart's Location! Snow! Maple syrup! Live free or die! A reporter saw a moose!
And that's where this is all heading -- to the Granite State! There, Jon Huntsman lies in wait, hoping to remind people of his existence. Ron Paul rides a moneybomb wave, hoping to forge a deeper connection with New Hampshire's storied independents. Newt Gingrich -- barking mad at Romney for his vicious Super PAC attacks -- is threatening to rain down hellfire on the favorite. And there will be two debates in the 72 hours, including one at nine in the morning on Sunday, which is apparently sponsored by Satan. For everything you need to get caught up on the week that was, please feel free to enter the Speculatron for the week of January 6, 2012.
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