Is This Really All There Is?

by Alec MacGillis | January 3, 2012

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DES MOINES – As those who have been to this city know, one of its defining features is the network of covered walkways that crisscross downtown at the second or third story level, allowing workers and shoppers to conduct their business in balmy comfort without being exposed to the Upper Midwest cold. After five days covering the 2012 Iowa caucuses, with the votes due to be cast starting in three hours, I’ve decided these walkways are an apt metaphor for the 2012 Republican primary season, in which a bunch of candidates scurry about at a hermetic, climate-controlled remove from the bracing, unpleasant realities all around them. Of course, the metaphor would be even more apt if the people of downtown Des Moines were being chased after by superfluous bodyguards with little wires in their ears.

This morning, it was the tender souls of several hundred West Des Moines high school students, many of them seniors eligible to vote this year, that absorbed the candidates’ phantasm, which centered mostly around the fiscal calamity that Barack Obama was wreaking on the students' generation. First up to speak in the school gym was Michele Bachmann, who demonstrated that having helped raise five biological children and 23 foster children was no guarantee of having a clue about how to talk to young people. Bachmann started out by congratulating the students for the “very impressive” accomplishment of having “made it to 18,” as if 21st century Iowa was war-torn Somalia or Europe during the Bubonic plague. She then proceeded to offer proof, if any more is needed, that claiming roots in evangelical Christianity and value-based politics is no barrier to preaching crass materialism. “I think one thing that almost anyone here would say is they want to make sure they make a lot of money when they get out of school. How many people want to do that?” she bellowed at the kids, who, to their immense credit, mostly sat on their hands for this applause line.  Refusing to pick up the hint, Bachmann plowed on with a paean to the riches of entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates and declared in conclusion that she would implement a “pro-growth tax code so you can wildly succeed with your future.” Yes, because today’s high school seniors are clearly worrying about that 15 percent rate on long-term capital gains.

Next up: four of the five Romney brothers. Taking the lead, Tagg Romney skipped his joke from yesterday about “getting wasted” and instead told the heartwarming story of how his father was so “extraordinarily cheap” that he made his sons spend six Saturdays building a fence outside their big house in Belmont, Mass. rather than spend a sliver of his millions on local workmen. “He wanted us to build that fence to teach his sons the importance of the value of hard work,” said Tagg, leaving out how the $100 million trust fund that Romney bequeathed his sons fit into this character-building.

Next up: the man in the sweater vest. Rick Santorum told the students that, as the youngest senator when he was first elected at age 36, he had always felt an obligation to reach out to younger people. He then demonstrated that this outreach had done little to teach him how to connect with such an audience, as he rattled on, in his characteristic eat-your-peas earnestness, about the threats that would “crush your pocketbooks in the future,” notably “the systemic problem of exploding entitlements.”

Right about this point, the thought occurred to me: in 2008, Barack Obama beat John McCain decisively thanks in large part to a huge margin among younger voters. Republican strategists recognized this. And three years later the party has produced as a response to this generational dilemma…this crew?

Ah, but that was before the rock star arrived. The roar went up before I could even see him stepping gingerly onto the stage, gray and slight, wearing a black shirt, looking for all the world like the drummer in a Johnny Cash cover band on reunion tour. The young libertarians in the bleachers – every high school has them! – went nuts. But even they faded somewhat during Paul’s rant, a virtually unbroken stream that began with Kelly Clarkson and then swerved through the Constitution, war, “the nature of money,” “sound money,” and Internet freedom and privacy. A sample riff: “The challenge will be if you want to live in a free society, if you want to live in a prosperous society, are you going to think about the materialism of a free society? No, you have to think about the principles of liberty – if you have a free society with property right and sound money, believe me, the prosperity will come.” Rock on!

That was it for the high schoolers, but I had one more stop to make: Rick Perry, who was holding captive a different audience, several hundred employees of the Principal Financial Group, the big investment manager based in Des Moines.  As usual, the event was depressing for the disconnect between Perry’s poor prospects and high gloss of his operation – a slick intro promotional video, a bevy of notable supporters (Bobby Jindal, Sam Brownback and former Navy SEAL hero/best-selling author Marcus Luttrell, not necessarily in that order.) Perry, it must be said, was looser than when I saw him stumble through a stump speech in Boone over the weekend – he spoke mostly without notes, and bounded around the stage in an almost antic manner, occasionally squaring around to face the audience with feet spread and his knees bent, as if about to draw that pistol that he shot the (apocryphal?) coyote with. His speech was equally antic, a formless mishmash of his original job-creation stump speech and his more recent religious shtick (today’s Biblical references were Joshua 1:9 and the Prophet Isaiah.) The politician as snake-oil salesman is a hoary cliché, but Perry has reached the point, here in the presumable endgame of his campaign, where one truly expects him to pull out of the pocket of his too-shiny suit not his Constitution or his postcard-sized sample tax-return, but a bottle of the special curative stuff. When it came time for questions, one man asked about the proposed legislation on increasing Internet regulation, which prompted this delightful line: “There are certain activities that reach a level of…as I think the Supreme Court justice said, the concept of pornography he would know it when he saw it. It’s true of the Internet as well.” Yes, it is. Actually, it’s even easier to know it when you see it on the Internet.

It was pulling teeth from the audience to even get a third question out of them before Perry wrapped up. But really, what was left to say? When the historians come back to this screwy primary season, more than studying the contest among the candidates themselves they will need to answer the question that has hung over this gang from the get-go: how did it come to be that this was all there was?

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