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Friday, August 12, 2011

Ames Iowa Straw Poll Prelude To White House; But Rhetoric Turns Off Many Voters

Debate Showed Why Americans Hate Government

If you really want to know why voters keep dumping incumbents of both parties and registering an alarming disdain for Washington generally, then go back and watch a scene from last night’s Republican debate in Iowa.

Specifically, fast forward to somewhere around the 48-minute mark, when the moderator, Bret Baier, asked the eight candidates on stage whether any of them would walk away from a “real spending cuts deal” that required one dollar in new tax revenue for every 10 dollars’ worth of reductions. To put this in perspective, Mr. Baier’s hypothetical deal, if it entailed rescinding the Bush-era tax cuts only on Americans earning more than $1 million annually, would yield something like $6 trillion in spending cuts — a lot more than anyone is actually talking about.

Let’s remember that three of the candidates who heard this question were former governors, and two of them, Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty, governed in predominately Democratic states where compromise was an essential part of doing business. Another man standing on stage was a former House speaker who once worked with a Democratic president, however contentiously, to balance the budget and enact long-awaited reform of the welfare system.

And yet every one of the Republican candidates instantly and emphatically raised his or her hand, as if Mr. Baier had just asked whether they liked puppies or whether they had voted for Ronald Reagan. Not a single candidate gave any hint that he or she would even entertain such a totally one-sided compromise.

In other words, all the candidates were essentially saying that they wouldn’t embrace fiscal reform if it included even a penny of additional taxation. No compromise could possibly be favorable enough to earn their support.

Now, to be clear, I don’t believe most of them for a second on this, and neither should you. Maybe, possibly, Herman Cain or Michele Bachmann might actually reject that deal. But a President Romney or a President Jon M. Huntsman Jr. would no sooner spurn such a compromise than he would shave his head on national television.

For anyone serious about governing, it’s a no-brainer. They name bridges and airports for presidents who make deals like that, maybe even in their lifetimes. (Just look at Reagan, who, Democrats never tire of pointing out, signed plenty of tax increases during his tenure.)

But that’s just it — what any independent-minded voter saw in that moment were eight people who were not, in fact, serious about governing. They were serious about pandering to the marginal elements of their party. That’s about it.

If this were merely a Republican phenomenon, the party would be alone in suffering the wrath of the average American voter. But it isn’t. You could have put a lot of Washington Democrats up on that stage, and asked them if they would have accepted $10 in new taxes or new stimulus in exchange for $1 in cuts to Social Security, and you probably would have gotten much the same response: hell, no.

And this is the central disconnect between Washington and the broad center of the country, the source of all that fury you see in the polls. Fewer and fewer Americans engage as activists in either party, which means that primaries are financed and waged primarily by the ideological extremes on either side. Meanwhile, a growing number of American voters identify themselves as independent and demand a government that functions — not by the triumph of one dogmatic doctrine over another, but by the triumph of reason and realism.

We’re not talking about finding the mushy middle on every issue here. We’re talking about knowing a good deal when you see one and having the courage to say so.

President Obama gives every indication that he understands this, but he has not proved himself able to transcend the endemic intransigence in Washington. Voters are not losing faith in Mr. Obama because he was too far left or too centrist on the debt ceiling. They’re losing faith because he got rolled, and they’re still looking for someone — as they were in 2008 — who has the strength and shrewdness to reform the system.

What should give Mr. Obama hope is that no one on stage in Ames looked like much of a reformer, either. At least Mr. Obama seems determined to seek a grand compromise on cuts and revenues that would change the nation’s fiscal trajectory. Remarkably, not a single one of his challengers, no matter how favorable the terms, can yet summon the seriousness to do the same.

Crucial three days in Iowa

From the first Republican presidential debate in two months, to the state fair, which is a must stop for any White House contender, to a crucial GOP straw poll, the campaign spotlight is firmly shining on Iowa the next three days. And after the three days are over, the race for the White House may not be the same.

Thursday night the eight major GOP candidates face off in the first presidential debate since a CNN/WMUR/New Hampshire Union Leader showdown nearly two months ago. There will be a lot on the line at the debate for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, and Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota as it's the first head to head clash for the candidates in Iowa, the state that votes first in the primary and caucus calendar.

Just about all the White House hopefuls are also making stops at the state fair, which is a picture perfect example of retail politics. From taking questions directly from Iowa voters at the famous Soap Box, to walking the fair grounds and shaking hands, to eating fried Twinkies and any kind of meat on a stick, the Iowa State Fair has become a top item on the to-do list for presidential candidates. Romney and former Utah Gov. and former U.S. ambassador to China Jon Huntsman made stops at the fair Thursday, with Romney getting a taste what can be a lively give and take with Iowans.

"You asked your question and now I am going to give my answer. If you don't like my answer then you can vote for someone else. But now it is my turn to give my answer," Romney said to cheers, as he answered a contentious question from a member of the crowd.

Most of the other White House hopefuls, as well as Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who's closer and closer to formally entering the race, and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who's flirting with a run for the nomination, are also showing up at the state fair over the next few days.

And then there's the Ames Straw Poll, which traditionally alters the battle for the Republican nomination. The event, on Saturday on the Iowa State campus in nearby Ames, is part straw poll, part party, and part fundraiser. And for the campaigns, "it's truly an organizational test on all fronts," says Mary Cownie, former communications director for the Iowa GOP. "It's unique because it's an all day event, where all the candidates can come, where all Iowans can go and speak to each of the candidates, and then vote in the straw poll."

The straw poll, which takes place the August before the start of the caucus and primary season, in election cycles without a sitting Republican president running for re-election, was first held in 1979. While there are numerous straw polls in the Hawkeye state, the one in Ames is the main attraction, because it draws voters from across Iowa, and because it attracts the national political press corps.

Here's how the event, which is also known as the Iowa Straw Poll, works: In advance campaigns bid for tent spaces surrounding the Hilton Coliseum, where they set up camp, providing food and entertainment for their supporters. This year Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who's making his third run for the presidency, shelled out $31,000 for the best piece of real estate, closest to the coliseum. It's the same spot that Romney, who's not taking part in the straw poll this time around, secured four years ago for his first bid for the White House.

The arena is where the candidates speak and where those participating vote. Campaigns are allowed to bus in supporters and pay their $35 entrance fee to allow them to vote in the straw poll. The only rule, those voting must prove they live or go to school in Iowa. Because of this, the event is a good barometer of a campaign's organization and grassroots outreach.

In 2007, just over 14,000 voted, down significantly for the previous straw poll four years earlier. Because of the drop in participation, and because all money raised from the straw poll goes directly to the Iowa GOP, making the gathering a large fundraiser for the party, the event has come in for criticism.

But one thing's for sure, it has an impact on the battle for the nomination. It can boost a candidate, as it did with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee four years ago, or knock one out, as it did to former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson in 2007.

The big question this weekend is which candidates will be boosted, and which ones may fall, this time around.

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Sources: CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, NY Times, Politico, Youtube, Google Maps

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