You’re going to read a lot of analysis of this weekend’s Freedom Summit as the unofficial beginning of the Iowa caucus.
Whether that’s true depends entirely on how many of those who attended are still standing one long year from now—and how many of those who didn’t attend (Jeb Bush, Rand Paul) have campaigns that are still alive and well.
The event does serve as a gauge for a candidate’s willingness to pander, and it is the beginning of serious media scrutiny for all the candidates as 2016 candidates, not as quaint spectacles (Donald Trump, Ted Cruz) or interesting anomalies (Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina)…. or familiar former presidential candidates, who made up a non-shocking majority of the featured speakers (Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin).
What did we learn?
Palin is past her sell-by date.
It’s the unofficial policy of many serious political reporters (myself included) to not cover Palin speeches. So it’s entirely possible I missed a key stretch of her decline that would help make sense of, or have prepared me for, the word-salad-with-a-cup-of-moose-stew that she presented.
Sample passage: “Things must change for our government! It isn’t too big to fail, it’s too big to succeed! It’s too big to succeed, so we can afford no retreads or nothing will change, with the same people and same policies that got us into the status quo! Another Latin word, status quo, and it stands for, ‘Man, the middle class and everyday Americans are really gettin’ taken for a ride.’”
The speech (perhaps a generous description) went on 15 minutes past the 20 minutes allotted other speakers. And even as she ended it, one sensed less a crescendo than the specter of a gong, a hook to pull her off, or—a sincere thought I had—an ambulance to take her… somewhere.
No else embarrassed themselves out of the race.
The event was organized by immigration hawk Rep. Steve “Cantaloupes” King (with the help of Citizens United) and many pundits fretted (or eagerly anticipated) 47-percent-style gaffes in the service of speakers trying to out-xenophobe each other. I may have missed something, but the anti-immigration rhetoric stayed on the “self-deport” side of offensive. Santorum did some under-the-breath dog whistling in reference to legal immigration, positing that the U.S. is home to more non-native citizens than ever before. He contrasted those non-native-born workers to, ahem, “American workers.” As far as I know, if you work in America, you are an “American worker.” Unless Santorum is thinking of something else.
The soft bigotry of low expectation works!
Scott Walker continues to clear the “not Tim Pawlenty” bar, but no one seems to realize how weak of a standard that is. National journalists cooed over Walker’s relatively energetic speech, apparently forgetting they were comparing it to other Walker speeches. In a similar vein, Chris Christie did not intentionally piss anyone off or bully the audience. Christie gave what seemed a lot like a national-audience speech—probably the only speaker that played it so safe.
Sen. Mike Lee gave some sensible, serious suggestions.
I may be engaging in more expectation management, but I was pleasantly surprised by Lee’s earnest and non-applause-line-ridden speech. He beseeched the audience to look for a candidate that was “positive, principled, and proven”—all while explicitly taking himself out of the running. In what could have been a direct jab at his fellow guests, he quipped, “The principled candidate is not necessarily the guy who yells ‘Freedom!’ the loudest.” He could have been quoting Elizabeth Warren when he softened typical GOP bootstrap rhetoric: “Freedom doesn’t mean ‘You’re all on your own,’” he said, “It means, ‘We’re all in it together.’” Elizabeth Warren would approve.
The GOP is going to need to figure out how to run against someone who is not Obama.
Even Lee, who gave what might be the most forward-looking speech, hung many of his arguments on the framework of undoing what Obama has done. Every other speaker followed suit, and some of the night’s biggest applause lines had to do with the same “fake scandals” that already proved insufficiently interesting to the American people: Benghazi, with a dash of IRS. They speak of repealing Obamacare with the zest of people who think of the House’s own fifty-plus attempts as mere warm-ups. Even their foreign policy script has Obama and the specter of American decline as its primary villains—foes that have defeated them twice before.