What a long, strange week it’s been. At least, it has been in Iowa.
This week, everyone — including the candidate himself — seemed blindsided when Mike Huckabee, former Baptist minister and Arkansas governor, surged into second place in Iowa, trailing Mitt Romney by only a few percentage points. Romney has spent millions on TV ads and highly choreographed appearances in Iowa, while Huckabee’s Iowa expenditures more closely resemble the price of a John Edwards’ haircut — which makes this an awfully bizarre development in the GOP battle for the Corn Belt buckle.
So far, no one has been able to proffer a decent explanation for Huckabee’s newfound popularity. Just a few weeks ago, he was hanging out back in Tancredo-Hunter-Paul territory; now he’s a major contender. This odd turn of events seems to speak more to the fundamental uncertainty at the core of the GOP this election cycle than anything about Huckabee, Romney or any of the others. The restless ebbs and flows of the Republican base here hint at an uncomfortable problem for the party: What passes for true conservativism today? What rallies the base? These are questions that no one in the state seems comfortable asking, and no candidate seems adept at answering.
A recent New York Times poll found that one-half of Iowa Republicans and a full two-thirds of New Hampshire Repubs said they would consider voting for a candidate who does not share their views on social issues like gay rights and abortion. That’s a major 180 from the “values voter” blocks of elections past. And yet, at the same time, “large majorities”, according to the Times, want the next president to be “as conservative or more conservative” than Bush II.
Concludes the Times, “…the survey suggests the extent to which Republicans are struggling to balance ideological and pragmatic considerations as they face an election in which many are fearful of losing the White House.”
Nowhere in Iowa is this ideological uncertainty more pronounced than the immigration debate. That same Times poll found that 86 percent of Republicans in Iowa consider immigration “a very or somewhat serious problem facing the country”, putting it right up there with the war and the economy.
And yet Tom Tancredo, the ostensible leader of the charge for deportation and closed borders, languishes at the bottom of the GOP puddle, claiming the potential votes of a measly 2 to 5 percent of likely voters.
Why the disconnect?
Before the caucus, Iowa’s internal struggles with immigration mirrored those of many states. Sure, we have our own border-obsessed xenophobes (Google “Rep. Steve King”), but for the most part, Iowans like to think of themselves as sensible people who recognize the contributions of others. Iowans have watched immigrants single-handedly revive the struggling economies of rural towns. They’ve kept many essential manufacturing and agricultural industries afloat. And they are slowly helping to reverse Iowa’s dreaded “brain drain” — young workers making a mass exit out of the state, leaving gaping holes in our workforce.
Since caucus season began, however, Iowans have been inundated with polarizing TV ads from GOP candidates, warning about the dangers of immigration — even, in Tancredo’s case, comparing Latino immigrants to bomb-planting jihadists.
The Republicans aren’t quite sure what they stand for, but they know they can whip the base into a frenzy when they play the fear card.
Iowans love caucus time almost as much as we love our State Fair (likely because the political circus rakes in almost as much money as the real one), but we’re always glad when things get back to normal. A University of Iowa poll found that a majority of Iowans — both Democrats and Republicans — favors putting undocumented workers on a path toward citizenship. That’s a far cry from what most of the GOP candidates, especially Tancredo, are espousing. Still, one has to wonder what sort of lasting impact this fear-mongering election cycle will have on not only our state, but the country.