Jonathan Cohn

Who Won Iowa? The Far Right.

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The Iowa caucuses were full of last-minute drama: Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney were vying for the lead all night. At 1:50 a.m., Santorum was ahead by just four votes, with only a single precinct's tally still outstanding. Forty-five minutes later, Romney was back in front by eight votes, thanks to some guidance from a pair of precinct captains named Edith and Carolyn got the vote right. (If you were watching CNN in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, you'll know what I'm talking about.)

That's how it ended: With Romney edging out Santorum by eight votes. But the Iowa caucuses don’t award delegates and they aren’t winner-take-all, rendering the distinction between first and second irrelevant. For all intents and purposes, the two men tied, with the libertarian Ron Paul running not far behind. 

I don't think this is great news for Romney. My colleague Alec MacGillis, who has been reporting from Iowa, interprets these results as a blow to the presumptive front-runner, who oozed confidence in the last few days but who, in percentage terms, performed slightly worse than he did four years ago. Of course, I also think my colleague Ed Kilgore is right when he predicts that Romney will end up as the nominee anyway.

Still, there’s another storyline out of Iowa, one that was clear even before the caucus meetings were underway. And it's about substance, not the horse-race. For all of its crazy unpredictability, the Republican campaign to date has featured one constant: A lack of serious ideological separation among the major candidates. All of them have taken up position on the right. And by that I mean the far right.

Santorum has been there for a long time, particularly on social issues: On abortion, gay rights, and myriad other issues he’s done more than taken conservative positions. He’s advocated for them, loudly, with strident arguments. Santorum’s record on economic issues isn’t as extreme, as critics like Erick Erickson have pointed out: Santorum supported the Bush Administration on No Child Left Behind and the creation of a Medicare drug benefit, for example. But in this campaign, Santorum been unambiguous about his desire to slash federal spending, reduce taxes, and repeal the Affordable Care Act.

Romney has the less extreme pedigree, having governed as a moderate in Republican and famously signed into law a health care plan that became a model for the plan President Obama and the Democrats are bringing to the country as a whole. But that’s ancient history now: At least on domestic policy, Romney has taken positions every bit as extreme as Santorum: Remember, Romney embraced the original Paul Ryan budget, which proposed to end Medicare as we know it. And Romney was among the candidates who, during an early debate, said he would reject an deficit reduction deal in which tax increases accounted for a mere ten percent of the total budget savings.

Yes, Romney has been cagey in his pronouncements: When he endorsed the Ryan budget approach, for example, he did so through primarily through campaign surrogates – allowing him to shore up support among conservatives (and diminish the support for conservatives) without producing quotes that will make for easy advertising material during the general election. And just today, I saw Dan Balz, senior political analyst of the Washington Post, wondering whether Romney – or any Republican nominee, for that matter – would be able to emerge from the primaries without debilitating conservative baggage.

I think we know the answer to that question. With sometimes exceptions for Paul and Jon Huntsman, all of the Republican candidates have taken positions calling for a massive restructuring of the federal budget, one that would decimate the welfare state and give huge tax breaks to the rich. They’re also calling for sweeping reductions in regulation and reorientation of the federal judiciary to the right.

Maybe the candidates are sincere about these positions and maybe they are just pandering. It really doesn’t matter. As George Packer noted in the New Yorker, candidates can’t just drop these kind of promises or disown this kind of rhetoric. Conservative voters won’t let them forget what they said. The rest of us shouldn’t either.

Update: I added the final results, as well as the reference to Edith and Carolyn.

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