02/18/2012DES MOINES, Iowa -- Iowa seems like scorched earth today, and not only because there has been an unusual drought of snow this winter.
The caucuses are over; the candidates are gone. But a sense of anxiety, even embarrassment, lingers.
Part of the extensive unease here comes from the bungled election count. Iowans and people across the country went to bed that Tuesday night last month thinking that former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts had prevailed, winning a vital political contest that had eluded him four years earlier. Then it emerged that the actual winner was former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, whose great strength so far has been in states contiguous to this one.
Part of the anxiety comes from the shrillness of the campaign rhetoric, which was discordant in this state of unusually high literacy and unusually good manners. The combative language that began here has continued, maybe even grown more coarse, as the contest has moved east, then south and then west. Party leaders across the nation worry that the sticks and stones of winter could end up hurting the Republicans in autumn.
And part of it is the sense of helplessness some Republicans feel as the debate veers out of control. The party seems to lack ballast, if not balance; one of the principal challengers seems more set on personal revenge and personal redemption than to have the party prevail in November; and the front-runner's campaign seems rooted more in its sense of political inevitability than in its ideological irresistibility. Indeed, 70 percent of those who voted for Romney in the Nevada caucuses said their top priority was his electability.
And so, if the country -- with a president with vulnerable poll ratings and an opposition party with no rudder or gyroscope -- seems to have a case of political influenza, the seasonal flu seems particularly virulent here.
"Apparently the confusion that occurred with the caucus count happens all the time and it doesn't matter because the caucus results aren't close," says Barbara Trish, a Grinnell College political scientist. "But this year it was close, and it mattered. We know that this, after all, is a party event, not an election, and there aren't the kind of formalized proceedings you see when a state runs a primary, but it still was embarrassing. At the same time, some of the campaigning turned people off. Activists weren't impressed with the field and were alienated by the fighting and the language."
Sociologists might describe The Winter's Tale here in Iowa and the GOP conundrum across the country as anomie -- a social instability or personal unrest growing out of a breakdown of standards or the absence of purpose. It is particularly pervasive here, where Matt Strawn, the Republican Party leader, has stepped down amid criticism, particularly strong among conservatives, that the party was reluctant, and then late, to announce Santorum's triumph.
Beyond providing early political tests in unusually homogeneous settings, Iowa and New Hampshire share many qualities. They both are jealous of their positions at the front of the political parade and exceedingly vigilant about preserving their prerogatives. Iowans, both Republicans and Democrats, are worried that the fumbled January vote count, the lengthy recount, tardy announcement of the new results and the tawdry nature of the campaign could endanger the pre-eminent role the caucuses have played for more than a third of a century.
Any re-evaluation of the place of Iowa inevitably would raise the question of the pre-eminence of New Hampshire. Nobody is ready to touch that issue right now -- but almost everybody, including candidates past and present, has been critical of the incivility of the Republican race thus far.
"This race has degenerated into an onslaught of negative and personal attacks not worthy of the American people and not worthy of this critical time in our nation's history. This is the most important election of our lifetime," former Gov. Jon Huntsman of Utah said in his endorsement of Romney just before the South Carolina primary. "The current toxic forum of our political discourse does not help our cause."
While a candidate, however, Huntsman also used strong negative characterizations of his opponents.
Nationally, Republicans have been unusually forthright about the deficiencies of their nominating process, shining a light on the great vulnerability of the American political system: how we choose the finalists in presidential elections.
The Democrats bow to no party in their ability to tinker with, and then comprehensively overhaul their nomination process, almost always making it more inscrutable, more unresponsive to the times and more unlikely to produce a plausible president at the end.
Now the GOP, having fought the equivalent of the 1943 tank battle at Kursk, will end a long hiatus with contests in Arizona and Michigan a week from Tuesday. From the great shouting to the great silence, the Republicans were stuck in midwinter hibernation.
Of course, in other political years, the primaries were fewer and later. In 1960, the Democratic calendar didn't start until March 8 and included primaries in only 15 states and the District of Columbia. As late as 1976, the Republicans held fewer than 30 primaries, beginning in New Hampshire on Feb 24. The nomination processes used in 1960, when Sen. John F. Kennedy and Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey engaged in a spirited Democratic fight, and in 1976, when President Gerald R. Ford and Gov. Ronald Reagan battled for the Republican nomination, didn't choke off what we now know were important debates about the parties and their futures.
Today's parties shy away from the smoked-filled rooms -- like the one at the Blackstone Hotel in Chicago where GOP leaders selected Warren G. Harding as their nominee -- but party leaders privately pine for the days when a few professionals could bring order to the chaos of a modern nomination process.
You can hear some Republicans yearning for those days, though perhaps not for Harding, at a time when their party members are marching through their political calendar with the nagging notion that their most gifted field generals are on the sidelines -- in Indianapolis, Trenton and perhaps even in the antechambers of the Senate in Washington.
Then again, that is the nature of political contests. Even in years when incumbents are campaigning for a second term, we hold elections to satisfy our desires for what we don't have and think we want. Then more elections follow.
(David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412 263-1890). Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.)