Why did Mitt Romney win Iowa? Not because he is the ideal candidate, but because the Republican faithful will just have to settle. That the turnout was not impressive, despite grassroots exasperation with Barack Obama, is a testament to the lack of enthusiasm with which the Iowa GOP greeted the quirky field of candidates presented to it this fall.
The Republican Party is a coalition of numerous groups, but the big three as things now stand are the wealthy 1%, the religious absolutists, and the suburban and prairie libertarians. The Iowa caucasus split between candidates representing each of the three. Romney is the darling of Wall Street among the colorful Republican field. Rick Santorum has emerged as the voice of religious absolutists, mostly evangelical Protestants but including Ultramontane Catholics like himself. (He beat out Michelle Bachmann for this honor in part because religious absolutists are patriarchal and wouldn’t want to be led by a woman.) And Ron Paul is the standard bearer of the libertarians.
In the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, there was one ursine character whose utensils, furniture, and other accoutrements were just right. For Republicans, none of these three is the Golden Mean.
Libertarians suspect Romney of believing in big government. Evangelicals see Romney, a Mormon, as a cultist who believes that Satan is the brother of Jesus. Wall Street fears Ron Paul’s fundamentalist Libertarianism, his antagonism to the Federal Reserve and to TARP and other bailouts.
Now that Rick Santorum has announced that his foreign policy plan is to bomb Iran, the more level-headed elements in New York’s financial community are surely scared to death of him, as are the libertarians who are weary of perpetual war (which always benefits big government). Romney has refused to be stampeded into pledging a bombing campaign on Isfahan if he is elected. America’s 1% may decide that they want a war on Iran; but rich people like to keep their options open. They won’t want a religious absolutist announcing a jihad publicly beforehand and in such a way as to lock the policy in.
It has for some time been apparent that Romney is most likely going to be the Republican standard bearer. This expectation is bolstered by his having won (if only by 8 votes) among the notoriously conservative Iowa Republicans (Iowans as a whole are liberals but their Republicans are the raptors of the Right). Still, it seems clear that there was a three-way division, the same one that exists in the country as a whole.
Romney is not the front runner because he is, from a Republican point of view, “just right.” Ideologically at least, he is what the Victorians would have called a “wet.” He just is not an uber-conservative. He is the front runner because he has a well-heeled, disciplined, national organization of a sort that Rick Santorum signally lacks. He is the front runner because Santorum’s religious absolutism frightens country club Republicans and his warmongering frightens Libertarians, and, well, just the sane in general. He is the front runner because Ron Paul wants to do things like get out of South Korea and slash foreign aid, leaving long-time US allies vulnerable and defenseless. The Republican Party is the party of big business, and big business has interests in the Pacific Rim that would be poorly served by isolationism.
Romney represents the 1% and is a member of that group, being worth a quarter of a billion dollars. They will be happier with him. But he is not the ideal candidate to run against Barack Obama, who is an Eisenhower Republican himself. He cannot credibly attack Obama’s health care law, since it was modeled on Romney’s own, in Massachusetts. His pledge to impose more financial sanctions on Iran than Obama is not credible, and is just me- tooism. He cannot attack Obama as weak on national defense, given that he is a chicken hawk and Obama has been commander-in-chief for several years now. I wrote at Truthdig on Romney’s many flip-flops and inconsistencies on foreign policy.
Since Romney’s record and instincts are highly unlikely to appeal to the Libertarians, they may well become progressively less enthusiastic about the 2012 race. Despite their not being that big a group within the party, they are a bigger proportion of independents, who are the ones that actually elect presidents. Although the vast majority of evangelicals maintain to pollsters that they would vote for a Mormon candidate if they like his politics, they may not be being honest with themselves, much less with the pollsters. (34% of evangelicals admit that they would be less likely to vote for a Mormon). Likewise there are many evangelical independents (a quarter of evangelicals voted Democrat in the last election). If substantial numbers of these two Republican constituencies stay home next November, that insouciance could well throw the election to Obama.