Eric Alterman: What Liberals Want From Iowa’s Caucuses

What a liberal should wish for in Tuesday’s Iowa caucus: maximum GOP chaos.

Well, this is odd: 62 percent of those surveyed say they’re optimistic about what 2012 will bring for the country according to a survey published Thursday. But if you listen to the Republican presidential candidates scrambling around Iowa this weekend, America is not headed to hell in a handbasket. We are already there. Our Kenyan-born, socialist, anti-colonialist, white-hating, teleprompter-reading president is delivering us there according, undoubtedly, to Satan’s plan. “I only exist because the country is in trouble,” Newt Gingrich said in a New York Times Magazine profile that was already out of date before it was published. “If we had 4 percent unemployment and no foreign threat, I couldn’t be a candidate. It would be absurd.”

Actually, it was always absurd. Gingrich’s brief moment in the sun like Michele Bachmann’s, Herman Cain’s, Rick Perry’s, and now possibly Rick Santorum’s, should it materialize, have all proven a reflection of two related phenomena: first, most Republican voters neither trust nor like the party’s presumptive nominee, Mitt Romney, and second, nothing was too nutty for a candidate to say (and apparently believe) and still be taken seriously by the media as a potential nominee.

Liberals can’t say it hasn’t been fun. Imagine running a campaign against almost any of these folks. Each presents such a cornucopia of opportunity, it would be hard to know where to begin. Would it be the crazy policy statements? The funny family arrangements? The ignorance of history? The rejection of science? The oppression of women and gays? The xenophobic hysteria over immigrants? Even the more plausible candidates have been forced by the primary process to take positions almost custom-designed to scare off moderates. How many apolitical housewives or office workers are going to look favorably upon a candidate who pledges to outlaw abortion even in the case of rape and incest, as Perry, Bachmann, Gingrich, and Santorum have now pledged? How many yuppies are willing to be characterized as criminals and see their lives disrupted because they employ undocumented workers to help out at home? (To say nothing of Hispanic voters.) And with the success of the Occupy Wall Street protests in focusing attention on inequality, how many voters are looking for a candidate whose policies so faithfully represented the interests of the “1 percent.”

But as the pre-game show comes to a close, it’s no easy task for liberals to figure out just what would be a good result in Tuesday’s caucus. It’s a given that since Jon Huntsman consistently proved too sensible to interest more than one in a 100 Republicans in almost any poll, Mitt Romney remains the only candidate left standing who looks to be a credible alternative to the president in a general election. Furthermore, given the still stillborn state of the long-promised economic recovery, coupled with the fact that no president since Franklin Roosevelt has ever been reelected with anything like the level of unemployment the U.S. will likely face next November, along with the new post–“Citizens United” rules that encourage the dispersal of countless millions in unaccountable spending by the likes of the Koch brothers and their buddies, a merely “credible alternative” to Obama is not a bad thing to be. This is particularly the case given that should Romney wrap up the nomination early, almost all of the coverage will focus on the candidate’s personality, likes and dislikes, family history, etc., and next to none of it on the now dangerously extremist party his election will usher into power with him.

Even so, it is hard to know how to score this thing. If Ron Paul beats Romney, that might be nice because it will weaken Romney for New Hampshire and slow down his progress in wrapping up the race. But one has to worry that if it slows him down too much, and opens up New Hampshire to a possible upset by say, Huntsman, the Republicans will emerge with a much stronger candidate than they now have, as judged by moderates. Or it could open the door to say, Rick Perry, whose extremist views on abortion, gays, and whether the United States should remain a country, would probably make him unelectable. Santorum’s people might like to fool themselves that he is emerging as the alternative to Romney. This too is nonsense and not only because of his Google notoriety. Not only are his views too far right to play in, say, Pennsylvania, he has no organization or money to challenge Romney down the road.

Then there is the Ron Paul wildcard. Much like that of Eugene McCarthy in 1968, Paul’s campaign has been consistently underestimated by the media and is only growing in strength. The CNN poll cited above that appears to presage a Santorum boomlet excludes Democrats and independents, who are eligible to vote in the caucus and remain a good bet to put Paul over the top. Is this a comforting prospect? Perhaps it is, if it leads Paul to go the third-party route and play the role of a Ross Perot or a Republican Ralph Nader. Giving disaffected Obama voters—of whom there are millions—an alternative, whether credible or not, to the Republican candidate will likely help the president in swing states. But will Paul really go this route with a son who is currently a senator from Kentucky and a potential presidential candidate in the future? And if he does, can we be sure that left-wing disaffected types, particularly young people, will not be attracted to his anti-war, anti-establishment pose regardless of the goofiness of some of the rest of his positions? These are, according to a recent study, among the most vulnerable aspects of Obama’s reelection strategy and the one he has alienated perhaps most profoundly.

So where are we? Given that the nominee will almost certainly be Romney—and almost anybody still standing except the extremely unlikely Huntsman will be a weaker candidate in the general election than Romney—then one has to say, simply, the bloodier the better. The more work Republicans put into weakening Romney’s appeal both to moderates and to their own, the less work Obama will have to do when he runs what will almost certainly have to be a negative campaign in the fall. (“You think I was bad. Look at this guy …”) Given the threat liberals see posed by a Tea Party–dominated Republican Party to the economy, the environment, the Constitution and our own personal liberties, what candidate Obama said so memorably four years ago about his own campaign today goes at least doubly for the country at large: “This shit would be really interesting if we weren’t in the middle of it.”