The Iowa caucuses, in which a nation awaits the verdict of a handful of some of its least representative citizens, are not going to settle the race for the Republican nomination for president. But they did put on display the choice the Republicans present to voters: right, far right or the far, far right.
The caucuses Tuesday night were headed to an astonishing draw between Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney, followed by Ron Paul. More than anything, the tight finish suggested that Mr. Romney has had a hard time selling his recently minted conservatism to hard-core Republican conservatives; two-thirds of caucusgoers identified themselves as Tea Party supporters.
The Republican caucuses only do a middling job of predicting who will win the presidency in November. But, this year, perhaps more than others, they were an important event to watch for any American voter.
The errors, absurd misstatements and unrelenting extremism were not the result of some “gotcha” moment in which a candidate was cornered in an interview or debate by a tricky (or maybe not so tricky) question. The Republicans have had months, millions of dollars and the advantage of there being no competing Democratic contest, to present the images of their own choosing — and they are dark and disturbing.
The candidates were all nasty to each other; Newt Gingrich called Mr. Romney a “liar” on Tuesday. But when it came to President Obama, they were off the charts with baseless charges that would be laughable if they were not so insulting to the president and to the intelligence of voters.
Iowa’s economy is not as bad as that in many parts of the country, so the candidates mainly tried to outbid each other in pandering to its socially conservative Republicans. Mr. Gingrich served up a right-wing theology that would dismantle every social advance since the institution of child labor laws and eviscerate the judiciary that has protected civil rights for a half-century.
Mr. Santorum talked endlessly about his opposition to a woman’s right to choose an abortion and gay Americans’ right to marry, while insisting that he would protect Americans’ right to carry guns anywhere at anytime.
Even then, he had a hard time keeping up with Representative Michele Bachmann, founder of the House Tea Party caucus, who said she was the only Republican who would defend “faith, marriage and the protection of life from conception to natural death.”
Representative Paul delighted young crowds with his libertarian slogans — no war, no Federal Reserve, basically no government — but seemed to have no real ideas other than to follow the literal words of the Constitution. Gov. Rick Perry of Texas based virtually his entire appeal on his religious faith — a desperation play that failed and led him to retreat to Texas to decide whether to continue his obviously pointless candidacy.
In the middle of all this, of course, was Mr. Romney, no real conservative trying to be all forms of conservative — forswearing his belief in abortion rights and global warming while insisting the health care reform he championed in Massachusetts isn’t right for the rest of the country. He rivaled Mr. Gingrich in his false attacks on Mr. Obama, including claiming that the president travels the world apologizing for America.
As the Republican competition moves to New Hampshire next week, it is likely to focus less on social issues and more on economic issues. But that means even more of the slash-and-burn economics and class warfare that were also on display here.
Primaries bring out the extremism in candidates, but this year seems much worse because the “center” of the Republican Party has lurched so far to the right. The only good news in this primary season is that the more Americans listen to the Republican hopefuls, the more the voters will realize how out of touch these candidates are with the majority of Americans.