The results of the Iowa caucus have the news media spinning a "victory" for Mitt Romney, the Goldman-Sachs candidate, and the supposedly all-but-inevitable nominee of his party. Just why he was deemed the "frontrunner" before even a single vote had been cast is a mystery known only to the professional pundits, who seem to have bestowed this title on him because of his perfect hair and his perfectly unauthentic persona. Romney is the Stepford Candidate, robotically repeating those phrases which are expected of him with all the conviction of a simulacrum. Which leads one to wonder: how can this preprogrammed human automaton ever hope to defeat the personable and relatively authentic Obama?
For those with more imagination, the victor in this fight has been Rick Santorum, whose surge toward the end put him within a dozen or so votes of Romney. Hours after the results were announced, we were treated to the sight of breathless commentators anointing a candidate with no money and no real conservative credentials as the One True Anti-Romney who could snatch the crown from Mitt’s brow.
The Iowa caucus results are supposed to be all about "expectations," which begs the question: whose expectations? Why, the mainstream media’s, of course, a fact which – you’ll note – allows these guardians of the conventional wisdom to play their key role as the final arbiters of what all this voting means. And the formulaic "spin" had been determined far in advance: if Romney won, then his coronation was supposed to be foreordained. If anybody but Romney won, it would simply delay Romney’s final victory. If Ron Paul won, then the Iowa caucuses would henceforth be deemed "irrelevant."
Peter Feaver, writing on foreignpolicy.com, was typically dismissive of Paul’s showing:
"The Iowa results probably indicate that there will not be a big crack-up within the Republican party on foreign policy because the caucus returns are likely to be the high-water mark for the candidate with the most distinctive foreign policy platform in the field: Ron Paul. He did well enough to gain another week of press attention. But in the one contest best-suited to his unusual political operation, Paul did not beat expectations. He would have to really surprise in New Hampshire in order to remain relevant in the later primaries, and those are likely to be even tougher terrain for him."
It’s all about "press attention" – but what if it isn’t? What if it’s possible to bypass the traditional gatekeepers and create a movement weaned on alternative media and rising populist anger at the Washington-New York power elite? Because that is precisely what Paul has done, and that movement has hardly crested in the wilds of Iowa: it’s only owing to a deficiency of imagination on the part of Feaver and his confreres, a curious sort of tunnel vision, that allows them that assumption.
"But also, the great strides that we have made has been really on foreign policy. The fact that we can once again talk in Republican circles and make it credible. Talk about what Eisenhower said that beware of the military-industrial complex. Talk about the old days when Robert Taft, Mr. Republican, said that we shouldn’t be engaged in these entangling alliance. He believed what the founders taught us. He didn’t even want to be in NATO. We certainly don’t need NATO and the UN telling us when to go to war.
"But we have seen a great difference. The majority of the American people are behind us on this whole war effort. They’re tired of the war. Cost too much money. Too many people get killed. Too many people get injured. Too many people get sick. And the majority – maybe 70% or 80% – of the American people now are saying it’s time to get out of Afghanistan."
At every debate, and every campaign appearance, Paul is transforming the discourse. Forced to start noticing him due to his steadily climbing poll numbers, the mainstream media invariably dismissed his ability to expand beyond a narrow libertarian base, which was supposedly limited by his "isolationist" foreign policy views. Yet he managed to pull off what was essentially a three-way tie, denying the alleged frontrunner and the media-anointed "conservative" a clear victory.
I’ll note, in passing, that Democrats opposed to our aggressive foreign policy are almost never described as "isolationists," and one can hardly imagine a reporter referring to the demonstrations protesting the Iraq war as "isolationist" rallies. The left-right, red state-blue state lens the media clamps over every event distorts and masks a somewhat more complex underlying reality.
Much has been made of Paul’s youthful constituency, and his lead in commanding the support of political independents and Democrats who signed up as Republicans for the evening, and yet less is said about the 18 percent of evangelicals who cast their lot with the one presidential candidate who wants to dismantle the Empire. In spite of a relentless smear campaign led by Fox News and the neoconservative would-be policemen of the right, nearly a quarter of Iowa Republicans stood with Paul at the caucuses.
The icing on this cake is that the candidate made no attempt to downplay or hide his supposedly "controversial" foreign policy views: indeed, he emphasized them even when he was talking about domestic policy, tying the conservative project of dismantling the federal Leviathan to the need to drop the burden of empire. That over 20 percent of Iowa caucus-goers voted to endorse Paul’s uncompromising anti-interventionism scares the bejesus out of the GOP establishment because the Paulians aren’t going to go away. Well-funded and blessed with a growing army of enthusiastic volunteers, the Paul campaign has the resources to go all the way to Tampa.
The Iowa results lay bare the contours of the GOP’s constituency, and the changing face of the American right. The Romney camp represents the often-pronounced dead but never quite moribund Eastern Establishment or "moderate" wing of the Republican party. Santorum, for his part, is an unrepentant Bushian Republican, although you’ll never hear that name pass his lips. Ideologically, he represents Big Government conservatism married to an impossibly bellicose foreign policy which has us bombing Iran next week. In this, he is simply a younger, slimmer Newt Gingrich, with two less wives: it’s no surprise the original Newt has proposed a non-aggression pact with Santorum, offering to serve as Rick’s attack dog against Romney.
The real news out of Iowa is that the terms of the foreign policy debate in this country are being changed, and it’s all due to Paul’s singular voice. For the first time since the Vietnam war era, the electorate is being given the chance to vote for or against our foreign policy of perpetual war. What’s more, that battle is being fought inside the party that presided over and directed America’s post-9/11 rampage through the Muslim world: the very heart of the War Party’s territory. That this debate is even taking place is a victory in itself. Airily dismissed in the salons of Georgetown and Manhattan’s Upper West Side as a "fringe" candidate and the GOP’s "crazy old uncle," Paul’s solid showing demonstrated his growing political clout.
The various "conservative" aspirers to the role of the Anti-Romney all crashed and burned because the various strands of conservative thought they embodied have all failed to provide Americans with any way out of the crisis we face. Bachmann’s paint-by-numbers sloganeering and her reputation as a fount of misinformation, Cain’s cynical and formulaic pragmatism, Perry’s pastiche of Bush II, Newt’s warmed-over "compassionate conservatism" served up with a dollop of corruption – all have failed miserably in the realm of ideas, as well as at the ballot box.
Santorum represents the last best hope of the same neocons who led the Republicans to defeat in 2008. When Santorum denies the very existence of the Palestinians as a people he is appealing to the Likud wing of the GOP – a constituency hotly contested by Romney, whose foreign policy team is weighted heavily with neocons. The problem with this strategy is that the majority of Republicans are just as war-weary as the rest of us: while Santorum and Romney are bemoaning the official end of the US occupation of Iraq, polls show a majority of self-identified Republicans think the Iraq war wasn’t worth it. In this judgment they reflect the views of the majority of Americans, who want us out of Afghanistan, too.
We hear loud war cries emanating from the vicinity of Washington and New York, but where are the massive pro-war demonstrations demanding we act to stop the alleged [.pdf] Iranian "threat"? All we see and hear is Michelle Bachmann and a bunch of bleach-blonde Fox News anchors bleating that Paul is "dangerous" because he wants to avert World War III. All we hear is failed presidential candidate and bloated braggart Newt Gingrich declaring he’d vote for Obama rather than the "isolationist" Paul.
At least Gingrich is being honest for once. He’s telling us that all the talk about fiscal conservatism, the free market, and individual liberty is just window-dressing: what he and his fellow neocons are really after is the ability to launch more and bigger wars, and if they have to throw their "smaller government" baggage overboard to reach their goal, then so be it.
How long before the Santorum bubble expands beyond its capacity to encompass the truth and pops is anyone’s guess: mine is that it will be sooner rather than later. As more of Santorum’s Bush era positions come out, especially on economic issues, party conservatives in search of an alternative to Romney will have no one but Ron to turn to.
Paul is often disdained as a "protest" candidate, but every revolution starts out as a mere episodic protest. Paul’s Iowa campaign proved two things: 1) the anti-interventionist wing of the GOP is substantial, and 2) it is here to stay. Paul has set an important precedent: for the first time since the 1930s, a Republican politician who challenges the militarist malarkey coming out the mouths of our "conservative" politicians commands a mass following. That is a victory all advocates of peace, on the left as well as the right, ought to be celebrating.