The Family Table Restaurant is a small, dingy diner in Atlantic, Iowa, the state known as the Hawkeye State, that claims to be the corn capital of the world. It sits opposite a gas station on a road leading through acres of cornfields, now razed to bristly rows and pale with frost, in what has been an unseasonably warm winter. Occasionally, people passing through pause to fill up on spicy ham specials, or to sample one of the pies – homemade apple, cherry or pumpkin with four-cream raisin or chocolate mint ice-cream – or butterscotch, cherry, chocolate or strawberry cheesecake.
But on New Year’s Day, 2012, few were there to eat. The Family Table Restaurant was brimming with reporters, Republicans and interested Iowans, who were jammed into crevices, behind soft-drink machines, ice-cream counters and cash registers, trying to position themselves for at least a partial view of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. The former Massachusetts governor was considered to be the man most likely – and yet while the crowd was curious, it was oddly passionless. A sentiment that, despite the hype, obsessive media coverage and real anger among Americans, encapsulates the presidential debate so far. And it is the line-up of candidates who are to blame.
New Year’s Day was just a couple of days before the Iowa caucus that would kick off the round of contests to determine which Republican would step into the ring to fight Barack Obama in November’s election. A wealthy Mormon and son of a former governor, Romney had a successful run as governor and an unsuccessful bid for president in 2008.
Smooth, with white teeth, tanned skin, window-pane shirts and an easy manner, Romney looks like a clean politician – one who has produced five tall, chiselled sons, and has been devoted to the woman he introduces as his “high-school sweetheart”, Ann Romney, since the moment he met her. Now, in 2012, he is the best funded, best looking and highest polling candidate – bookies rate his chances of becoming the Republican nominee at roughly 80%.
Still, for all the buzz and speculation, Romney remains strangely unloved. As people crowded in to catch a glimpse of him on the first day of 2012, outside a man bearing an American flag emblazoned with the word ‘Welcome’ shouted to passers-by: “Yes, welcome! I don’t support Romney, but hey! Whatever.”
The 2008 campaign was about hope, and who could inspire it the best. The 2012 campaign is about anger, and who can fight the hardest. Asked to choose from a historically weak line-up of Republican candidates, many will say they would prefer someone else, but believe that Romney – as one with proven financial experience in the midst of a recession – has the best chance of beating Obama. Many mourn those who almost ran, especially the other former and current state governors who flirted with the idea: Chris Christie (New Jersey); Jeb Bush, brother of George W (Florida); Tim Pawlenty (Minnesota); and Mitch Daniels (Indiana).
Instead, in the field with Romney has been Rick Santorum, a conservative Catholic with seven children (most of whom are home-schooled) – who suffered a spectacular defeat in 2006 when running for a third term as senator for Pennsylvania, and who is regularly called homophobic for his provocative remarks on homosexuality – whose blue-collar populism and tireless campaigning have earned him some respect. Then there is the intellectual and occasionally compelling long-serving Republican politician Newt Gingrich, whose ‘baggage’ includes cheating on his first two wives (while leading the attack against Bill Clinton over his dalliance with Monica Lewinsky, he was in the thick of a six-year affair with his current wife Callista, then a junior staffer on Capitol Hill). Tea Party darling Michele Bachmann, an evangelical lawyer, congresswoman and mother of five from Minnesota, lacks substance – which may be why she tried to align herself with Margaret Thatcher before the vote, running ads where she described herself as “America’s Iron Lady”, with a “titanium spine”. Rick Perry, the governor of Texas, is likeable and more charismatic than the rest – but had run a weak, gaffe-ridden campaign, with a key moment in a debate where he forgot one his major policies.
Most expected Romney to win easily. He had the fattest war chest and his supporters were running the most feral attack ads, effectively neutering Newt Gingrich, who had been considered the greatest threat in the first round of the race. Despite this, days before the vote, substantial numbers remained undecided on whom to support. Many I spoke to said they were not motivated by a love of any particular candidate – they were motivated by a hate for Obama, the Harvard-educated African American president who is daily accused of being incompetent, un-American, un-patriotic and Muslim. They were, then, trying to decide who might be the best of an average bunch to take him on.
“I wish I could put ’em all in a bag, shake it and bring out the perfect candidates,” an elderly truck driver told me. Another Romney supporter, who stood talking in the Des Moines Marriott bar, shrugged when speaking of the Republican field: “They all have warts.”
The libertarian Ron Paul, who is not considered a serious GOP candidate because of his anti-war and extremist views, inspired the only fervour evident in the campaign, with his anti-war, anti-government and anti–Federal Reserve rhetoric attracting hordes of young people, independents, soldiers and the less wealthy. He has been called the “intellectual godfather” of the amorphous Tea Party movement. At his event in Des Moines, Korean War veterans stood alongside men with multiple piercings and death metal shirts who were chanting Paul’s name. They clapped and shouted when he spoke about war, about cutting a trillion from the budget, and about what the president has done wrong. And then, suddenly, in the thick of the excitement, a jarring note: “Skin Obama!” yelled one man. And you remember the hatred.
Standing just inside the doors of the Family Table Restaurant as Romney faced the throng was Loren A Spivak, of Massachusetts. Spivak, who describes himself as “basically a right-wing activist”, was trying to sell copies of his book for $20 each. Called The New Democrat, the Dr Seuss–inspired book depicts Obama as the Cat in the Hat. He wrote it, he said, after he had “an epiphany” that Barack Obama’s personality is the same as that of the famously wicked feline: “The Cat in the Hat burst into the middle of the house and destroyed the place, never getting that anything was his fault,” he said. “The story of our times is page for page parallel.” It is, simply, a wordy anti-Obama screed. One page, for example, reads:
I’m their socialist king!
Nothing will stop me
From being their hero!
Why I bet I can come out
For a mosque at ground zero!
The resentment of Obama’s once-stratospheric popularity is palpable. As is the imputation that Obama is Muslim, or at least overtly sympathetic to Islam (in the first year and a half of Obama’s presidency, the number of people who thought he was Muslim went up from 11% to 18%). The hate is fed by lies, and is visceral.
Much of the resentment of Obama, of course, is driven by the recession, an unemployment rate hovering above 8% and the fact that he is widely perceived to have mismanaged the economy. Since World War II, only one American president has been re-elected when the unemployment rate was above 6% (Reagan won his second term in 1984 with a rate of 7.2%). Obama has lost the support of many Democrats since becoming president. Last September, a Washington Post poll found half of all Americans thought Obama’s economic plan was not affecting the economy. A third thought he was making it worse – two-thirds, among Republicans – an increase of 23% since January 2011.
The promise, charge and energy of the last campaign has dissipated with the sight of a Wall Street bailed out by taxpayer money and seemingly untouched by the devastating recession that has seen more than 3 million houses foreclosed on since the end of the housing boom in 2006, municipal libraries shut, public pools emptied, streetlights switched off and police patrols severely cut in a range of counties across the United States.
The anger of 2012 is the rage of impotence; it may have unexpected political results. It is not being directed at a desire to regulate banks more strictly, or to protect consumers from bankruptcy, but at the government. And at leaders who promise hope in a time of despair. The number of Americans who believe that big government (not big labour or big business) is the greatest threat to the future is at an almost-record level.
After I listened to Ron Paul speak, I talked to a dozen of his supporters asking them what they actually wanted him to do if he were to become president. “A lot less,” said one. “I want him to do less than everyone else.” This is what has the candidates in such rhetorical knots – if the government is the problem, so is Washington, and so are politicians. Who is left to vote for?
In the 2008 campaign, Obama promised change and inspired a devotion and fervour for the hope he offered. Since then, the country – historically centre-right – has shifted even further to the right. According to Gallup, in 2008, 37% of Americans identified or leaned Republican. In mid 2011, this had crept up to 40%. With so much belief, and such stratospheric expectations, Obama was always going to disappoint; the narrative was written for him on election night. It was only ever going to be a question of degree.
When Romney arrived at the Family Table Restaurant, to the cricket-clicks of recorder buttons, and heat of camera lights, the media crush became so intense that one girl fainted; an ambulance was called.
Romney was tired but buoyant. “This is an election about the soul of America,” he said to cheers, as his minders, clear wires coiled behind their ears, herded reporters out of his exit path and whispered into their sleeves. “Our rights come from our creator.”
He repeated the words he says in most stump speeches, taken from the hymn ‘America the Beautiful’: “O beautiful for patriot dream / That sees beyond the years”. This is a “merit society, and opportunity nation”, he said, the “shining city on the hill”.
He then slammed Obama’s spending, debt to China, ‘Obamacare’ (which is almost identical to the health care program he backed as governor of Massachusetts), unemployment and the drop in the median American income (which he says was 10% in the last four years).
This should be the “shining city on the hill!” he said again, his face shining under the lights as seasoned reporters rolled their eyes at the repetition of the phrase. The scrum then followed him through the tiny diner, as he shook hands and signed autographs with a grin: “OK, but do I get a hug?”
Iowa is a curious choice for the starting point of the presidential nomination process. Locals are acutely conscious of their reputation as a state with little to offer tourists but bitter winters, corn and good steak. T-shirts for sale read: ‘We are just outside the middle of nowhere, actually’, or ‘Iowa – wave as you fly over!’
Although it’s the first Republican caucus, Iowa’s demographics do not represent the average American, especially as only about 100,000 people vote. Last December Stephen Bloom, a University of Iowa professor, wrote a piece for the Atlantic where he charged that Iowa – which as the first caucus is arguably disproportionately influential in the selection of presidents – was unrepresentative due to its poverty, religious fervour and white-male homogeneity. It’s a touchy subject. NBC anchor Andrea Mitchell got in trouble just before the vote for saying in an interview with a Republican strategist that the “rap” on Iowa is that “it doesn’t represent the rest of the country – too white, too evangelical, too rural.”
This may be partly why Iowa does not always pick the ultimate winner. Last time it chose Mike Huckabee, ordained Southern Baptist minister, bass guitarist, former governor of Arkansas and author of Quit Digging Your Grave With a Knife and Fork, who is now a Fox TV host. Yet this state does provide a way to gauge the mood of the country – and to test the heat in the Republican heartland.
On the night of 3 January, Romney won Iowa by eight votes, with men, over-65s and those most concerned with beating Obama nudging him just an inch ahead of Rick Santorum. It was one of the closest votes in recent history – and a turnout that was not that much higher than that of 2008, when the Republicans knew the Democrats had the edge and the energy. This is the greatest puzzle of the election year so far – and it does not reflect well on the candidates: Americans are furious, but unenthused.
Angry, older men delivered Iowa to Romney. It remains to be seen whether they can deliver him the country.
There is nowhere quite like The Monthly. We are told that we live in a time of diminished attention spans; a time where the 24-hour-news-cycle has produced a collective desire for hot takes and brief summaries of the news and ideas that effect us. But we don’t believe it. The need for considered, reflective, long-form journalism has never been greater, and for almost 20 years, that’s what The Monthly has offered, from some of our finest writers.
That kind of quality writing costs money, and requires the support of our readers. Your subscription to The Monthly allows us to be the home for the best, most considered, most substantial perspectives on the state of the world. It’s Australia’s only current affairs magazine, an indispensable home for cultural commentary, criticism and reviews, and home to personal and reflective essays that celebrate and elevate our humanity.
The Monthly doesn’t just comment on our culture, our society and our politics: it shapes it. And your subscription makes you part of that.
Select your digital subscription