Tim Murphy

Tim Murphy


Tim Murphy is a senior reporter in MoJo's DC bureau. His writing has been featured in Slate and the Washington Monthly. Email him with tips and insights at tmurphy [at] motherjones [dot] com.

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What You Need to Know About the Ames Straw Poll

| Fri Aug. 12, 2011 6:00 AM EDT
Mitt Romney makes a campaign appearance at the Iowa State Fair.

On Saturday morning, candidates, Republican operatives, and tens of thousands of Hawkeye State voters will descend upon Ames, about forty minutes of north of Des Moines, for the first certifiably major event of the 2012 presidential campaign: The Ames Straw Poll, a non-binding election that doubles as a fundraiser for the Iowa Republican Party. It is, to put it gently, something of a circus.

To its boosters, of which there are many, Ames carries with it a singular sense of urgency, a chance to measure where the candidates stand four months before the first real votes are cast. It can be what us Washington folks call a "game-changer." Sometimes. John McCain skipped the straw poll and the state entirely en route to the nomination in 2008—but Mike Huckabee’s strong second-place performance there was a sign that he was a force to be reckoned with (it also demonstrated the power of the home school movement).

Here's a quick primer:

Who will be there? The big question this time around is who won't be there. That would be former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, and Texas Governor-for-life Rick Perry (also-rans Gary Johnson and Buddy Roemer, who have been excluded from virtually everything else, have other plans).

The truancy of four of the major candidates has not gone unnoticed by Iowa Republicans, who are increasingly paranoid (with some merit) that New Hampshire, South Carolina, and even Florida will surpass them in influence. Romney will be in New Hampshire instead, at a house party; Perry will be kicking off his presidential campaign in South Carolina.

How does it work? It's pretty straightforward, actually. Any Iowa resident can show up and vote, provided they have proof of Iowa residency and are willing to shell out $30 for a ticket. You can only vote once, most votes win, etc. The kicker is that, because most Iowans (and everyone else for that matter) don't want to pay $30 plus gas for a non-binding vote, the campaigns sometimes offer to cover the expenses and provide buses from the far corners of the state.

Is there ice cream? Yes. And Christian rock. In an effort to convince straw poll attendees to vote for them, candidates employ a variety of ruses, usually in the form of food, drink, and live music. Pawlenty announced long ago that he would be serving Famous Dave's barbecue, and has since expanded the operations to include frozen dairy products. Mike Huckabee, who has not endorsed a candidate, will be playing bass guitar for both Pawlenty and Herman Cain (Cain will join in on vocals; If only Huntsman were there with his keyboard). Michele Bachmann has invited country music star Randy Travis to perform on her stage (unrelatedly, or perhaps not: Travis starred in the film adaptation of John Hagee's book, Jerusalem Countdown). Rick Santorum, to the delight of Dan Savage, is bringing home-made peach jelly.

So is this just a giant circus, right? In a matter of speaking: yes.

Then why do we care? To be fair, plenty of people don't. The New Republic's Jonathan Chait captured the anti-Ames backlash pretty well on Wednesday: "It's not a test of anything. It's a racket to raise money for the Iowa GOP. It's not democratic. It's not predictive. It's just a sideshow."
There's some truth to some of that, but the dirty truth is that campaigns can sometimes be as superficial as the coverage suggests. And so, while “expectations-setting” by campaigns is often inane and sometimes insufferable, many people—notably big-money donors—still put some weight into it. No one wants to waste their money on a failing candidacy, and Ames is the first, best test.

The obvious candidate to watch is Tim Pawlenty. From the start, the former Minnesota governor has attempted to seize the mantle as of the Romney Alternative. But the last few months have instead given rise to a slew of alternative Alternatives, like Cain, Bachmann, and now Perry. Pawlenty's campaign has stated that he needs a positive showing at Ames, but his definition of what such a showing would look like has fluctuated. A strong performance by Pawlenty (say, top two) would at least validate some of the millions of dollars he's poured into Iowa over the past two months, while a poor showing would only reinforce the notion that people just aren't that into him. And that's sort of the entire point of elections.

Paul, for one, isn't downplaying the importance of the event: "We’d better do better than the last go around or I will be very disappointed," he told supporters on Thursday morning. He's playing up his credentials as a home-school advocate (as well as more niche issues, like support for the sale of raw milk) in the run-up to the vote.

How do I follow it? We'll be offering live updates here and on twitter @timothypmurphy. You can watch the speeches on C-Span. Or you can hitch a ride on one of Pawlenty’s buses and enjoy some free barbecue yourself.

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Pawlenty: This Isn't the Soviet Union

| Thu Aug. 11, 2011 1:11 PM EDT

When former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty entered the back room for a meet-and-greet at Cronk's Café in Denison, Iowa on Wednesday afternoon, my neighbor offered a blunt assessment: "They had a much bigger crowd here Monday." That was when Herman Cain, the former Godfather's Pizza CEO, stopped by.

That's just the way things have been going for Pawlenty, who, despite more or less entering the race as soon as the last one ended at Grant Park, has been going backwards in the nation's first primary state. With three days to go until the Ames Straw Poll, Pawlenty's ratcheting up his rhetoric and taking less thinly veiled shots at his competitors. (He is also offering an enticement of a different sort to prospective straw poll attendees: free barbecue and ice cream.)

Pawlenty showed up on time, which counts for something perhaps, but, as my neighbor noted, it was hardly an overflow crowd. About 30 people showed up—restaurant staff included—mostly elderly, many of them still undecided and less than enthusiastic at the Governor's message. Pawlenty begins with the same message he closes with: Republicans need to go with the sure thing, not the flavor of the month. As he explains it, every candidate on the GOP ballot will support spending cuts, oppose abortion, and vow to appoint conservative judges; he's the only one who's actually done these things. "The hour is late, and the country is in big trouble," he said. "We need to get it done."

But the knock on Pawlenty, at least among Republicans, and there may be something to that. He speaks with a directness that his supporters would likely cast as unsparing and tough, but which can also come across as earnest and perhaps a little pleading (also: loud). He doesn't so much deliver his stump speech as paraphrase it in a long series of bullet-pointed resume items. Listen for a little while and you can start to see why his campaign sets all of his commercials to action-movie music.

There wasn't a lack of red meat. On the Environmental Protection Agency? He'd keep it (unlike Bachmann) but "the woman who runs it should be fired." On Social Security? "They running a Ponzi scheme." Responding to a question about the National Labor Relations Board's decision to intervene in a Boeing plant in South Carolina, he pulls the red card: "This isn't the Soviet Union in the 1950s. This is America." Which is true. He describes the government's purchase of treasury bills as "taking their Visa card to pay off their Discover card."

Not everyone was persuaded. "I agree with him—I mean, what's not to agree with?" said Cyrila Roberts of Dunlap, Iowa. "But does he have the strength of character and fortitude to do what he says he'll do? That's what I'm wondering." Having seen both candidates now, she's more impressed by Cain. Her top issue, she says, is "the illegals." Cain, who has promised to build a Great Wall of China-style barrier on the border along with a alligator-filled moat, would seem to have that one down. Michael Peters, a 26-year-old from Denison and one of the few young people in attendance, appreciated Pawlenty's answer to his question about Obamacare (he's against it). But he still likes Cain: "He's not so much a politician. He came down to the working man. When he was CEO of Godfather's, he came down to the working man."

After first casting himself as the alternative to Mitt Romney, Pawlenty has been successively one-upped by a series of alternatives to the alternative: first Cain, then fellow Minnesotan Rep. Michele Bachmann, and—coming soon!—Texas Gov. Rick Perry. His message now is clear: Don't make the same mistake Democrats made; go with the sure thing. The question is, is anyone listening?

Flashback: Rick Perry Supports Criminalizing Gay Sex

| Thu Aug. 11, 2011 9:42 AM EDT
Gov. Rick Perry (R-Texas) says the Supreme Court was wrong to knock down a Texas law that criminalized "homosexual conduct."

Dan Hirschhorn reports that former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Penn.) is continuing to hammer likely GOP presidential candidate Rick Perry on gay marriage—even after the Texas governor announced that he would support an effort to ban gay marriage nationwide:

"When someone who is a serious candidate for president is doing things that will be destructive not just for the Republican Party, but for the country, I'm going to point that out any chance I get," Santorum told POLITICO.

Santorum is upset, or at least pretend campaign-upset, that Perry told Colorado GOPers in July that New York's decision to legalize gay marriage was their right. "That's New York, and that's their business, and that's fine with me.”

But next to Santorum, Perry might be the least lgbt-friendly candidate in the race. More so than former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who warns we face an existential threat from "gay and secular fascism"; more so, even, than Rep. Michele Bachmann, who once feared that the Lion King would corrupt children because its soundtrack was created by Elton John.

So what exactly has Perry done? Well, for one, he is (still) a supporter of the Texas "homosexual conduct" statute, an archaic law that made it a crime for two consenting, unrelated adults to have sex if they were of the same gender. The law was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in the landmark 2002 case Lawrence v. Texas, but, despite repeated efforts, Texas has yet to formally repeal the statute. When Perry was asked about the Lawrence case in 2002, he defended the anti-sodomy statute: "I think our law is appropriate that we have on the books." He wrote about the case in his 2011 book Fed Up, too, citing the Lawrence decision as the product of "nine oligarchs in robes" and an example of what's wrong with our judicial system. And last spring, when Perry ran for his third full term as governor, he did so on a state GOP platform that exlicitly stated "we oppose the legalization of sodomy."

The irony is that the Lawrence case was the impetus for Santorum's famous comparison of gay sex to "man on dog" relations—which, in turn, was the impetus for Santorum becoming, well, "santorum." He can try to carve out some space to the right of Rick Perry on this issue, but there's really not that much room.

Why Tea Partiers Are Scared of Hobbits

| Wed Aug. 10, 2011 11:05 AM EDT
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.)

Congress is out of session in August, which means that America's senators and representatives are touring their home states and districts, meeting with constituents at town hall forums. It is an American tradition of sorts, in which constituents attempt to make the case that Washington politicians are irresponsible, uncivil, and ill-suited for the task of governing—by yelling insults and shouting really loudly while other people are talking, sometimes at the behest of corporate astroturf groups. Democracy!

To wit: Josh Marshall flags this gem from Arizona Sen. GOP John McCain's event earlier this week:

Kelly Townsend, a Gilbert resident and member of the Greater Phoenix Tea Party, demanded that McCain apologize for a comment made last month on the Senate floor about "tea party hobbits."

As well he should; the more apt Lord of the Rings/debt ceiling analogy would have been to this scene. Continuing on:

Tea-party activists called McCain "out of touch" when the senator said he didn't know about United Nations "Agenda 21."One man described the initiative as a "takeover of the United States of America by taking over our farms."

"First, our firearms, then our farms," another man added.

McCain said no Congress would allow that to happen, but that didn't satisfy several in the room who subscribed to the theory.

As it happens, "hobbit" is an especially sensitive term for tea partiers for reasons that go well beyond name-calling (they prefer "halfling," I believe). As I explained last week, a not insignificant number of conservatives (including, to a certain degree at least, Michele Bachmann), believe that the federal government has basically handed over our future sovereignty to the United Nations through a treaty called Agenda 21. Never mind that the agreement, which broadly outlined a number of goals to promote sustainable development, was never ratified by Senate; the fear is that rural Americans will be booted from their land and forced to, as Bachmann put it, "move to the urban core, live in tenements, [and] take light rail to their government jobs." (David Samuels captured this fear quite well in his piece on the Montana bison reserve.)

So what would these urban dwellings look like? Some activists speculate that we will be forced to live in what London mayor Boris Johnson calls "hobbit homes." He means this is in a nice way, of course—ultra-sustainable dwellings that make use of the natural environment and would probably be quite comfortable, provided they’re built to scale; think some sort of combination of an Earthship and Bilbo Baggins' Bag End. But Johnson's description may have been a poor choice of words, and the anti-Agenda 21 activists have taken off with it. Unbeknownst to McCain, his use of the "h-word" hit a particularly sore spot for tea partiers.

Anyways, this all sounds kind of loopy—and it is—but it's worth keeping in mind that these views are entrenched among many on the far-right. Bachmann warned against Agenda 21 as a state senator; Glenn Beck brought the issue to Fox News; it's yet another way in which their ascendance marks a mainstreaming of the fringe.

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