Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) is running for president.
It's tough to get inside Michele Bachmann's tent at the Ames Straw Poll. Just a few yards away from Herman Cain's headquarters, where you can walk right up and grab a slice of Godfather's Pizza, the line stretches well out the door—and it's moving especially slowly because only Bachmann supporters are allowed in. It's also where I found Rick Green talking about "moral relativism."
Green, dressed in blue jeans, glasses, and an American-flag polo shirt, is the co-founder of Wallbuilders, the Texas-based organization that's "dedicated to presenting America's forgotten history and heroes, with an emphasis on the moral, religious, and constitutional foundation." The name is a reference to the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem in the Book of Nehemiah. If you know the organization at all, though, you know it as the home of David Barton, whose revisionist history about the faith of the Founders has made him a certified celebrity on the Right. (Mike Huckabee says Barton's he's one of the most important authors in America.) In their literature and on their radio show, they construct a clear narrative: America is a fundamentally Christian nation, divinely inspired.
That's the gospel Green is preaching today in the Bachmann tent. "We're not just gonna say, 'oooh everybody's equal and moral relativism for all!," he tells the crowd, cowbells ringing. Instead, we need to take a stand, and there is no one better to do that than Michele Bachmann: "She's got a backbone that'll make a freight train take a back road."
Green launches into a short allegory about the Battles of Lexington and Concord, and then, with members of the audience holding up their hands in prayer, revival-style, returns back to the situation at hand: "This is the hour, my friends, that you get to stand guard at the watchtower of freedom."
Darwin Hofmeister of Ackley, Iowa is standing just a few dozen feet away from the stage. He was a Tim Pawlenty supporter before he switched to Bachmann. "Are you familiar with the Family Leader?" Hofmeister asks me, referring to Iowa’s leading social conservative group. Last month the Family Leader unveiled a pledge that candidates would be required to sign to be eligible for the group's endorsement—in included, among other things, a vow to oppose gay marriage, fight pornography, and ban Islamic Sharia law (it also suggested that black families were more stable under slavery). "Her and Rick Santorum were the only ones that signed the pledge. And to me that made all the difference"
"I think that's probably one of the most important issues," Hofmeister tells me. "All you have to do is look at the riots in London and state fairs and you'll see a bunch of kids with no values." So does he agree with Green's statement that moral relativism is ruining America? "Definitely."
Yes, that's a stuffed buck in the background of this photo of Texas Gov. Rick Perry pointing at something.
The Values Voters Bus Tour kicked off with a good deal of hullabaloo on Tuesday with a rally in Des Moines starring Tim Pawlenty. But by the time the bus pulled up for at the central square in Atlantic, about an hour east of Omaha, it had petered out. Just 10 supporters showed up to hear Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) speak along with representatives of the tour's sponsors—the Family Research Council, the Susan B. Anthony List, the Iowa Values Alliance Faith Family Freedom Fund, and the National Organization for Marriage. They were joined by 10 protesters (with signs like "if you cut off my reproductive choice, can I cut off yours?") who heckled the speakers and challenged them on their opposition to gay marriage.
And, as has been a trend at events here in Iowa for the last week, there were five volunteers for a campaign that does not currently exist—that of Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Nate Crain, the national finance chairman for Americans for Rick Perry, has been driving around an otherwise unmarked white van plastered with homemade "Rick Perry 2012" signs, attempting to sell Iowans on the candidate with whom (per FEC rules) he is allowed no formal contact. At Atlantic, Crain bounded out of the van in a button-down shirt patterned on the Texas flag and introduced himself. "This is a grassroots effort, man," he said. "Those guys, Bachmann, Pawlenty—those guys, they're busing people in. This is all grassroots. I mean, look at our damn signs! The kids made 'em with markers in the hotel room."
The kids, as he calls them, are his volunteers: Three female undergraduates from the University of Texas at Austin, all dressed in jogging shorts and identical burnt-orange, "Americans for Rick Perry" t-shirts. "People really love the shirts," Crain says. They are, save for one protester, the only young people in attendance.
Perry has not made any appearance in Iowa this week, but his presence has been felt at every event I've attended. "I'm really up on Rick Perry," said Thersa Wig of Des Moines when I asked her whom she'll be voting for at the Iowa State Fair. "He held the prayer thing, and I did see him on TBN. I dunno, I've got to see more, but he looks presidential. I think his physical looks are important." Wig voted for Fred Thompson in 2008, a candidate to whom Perry is (unfavorably) compared. Donna Oakley, a Missourian I spoke with a the Iowa State Fair, said much the same thing: "So far he looks the best. He's ringin' my bell. He just comes on strong to me on what my values are. I liked his record on the jobs in his state—and I like that he has God in his life."
One of the big arguments against the Ames straw poll is that the race is just too unsettled for the event to mean much of anything: Candidates haven't quite figured out how to connect, voters haven't really started paying attention, donors are still looking for something more, and the field isn't even set yet. Rarely has that problem been more pronounced than this year, with Perry scheduled to announce his candidacy today, some 1,500 miles away in South Carolina, right as the candidates are heading onstage at Hilton Coliseum to make their pitches to straw poll voters. That's why today's winner, whether it's Michele Bachmann, Ron Paul, or Tim Pawlenty, won't have much time to gloat; Perry's about to hit the restart button on the whole thing.
Say what you will about Rick Santorum (odds are people have said worse), but he has undeniably put an enormous amount of effort into the Iowa straw poll. As he tells anyone who will listen—at Thursday’s debate, and again on the soapbox at the Iowa State Fair on Friday—he has spent more time in the Hawkeye State than any other candidate. He has visited 51 cites over the last three weeks, and believes his message that liberals "will put you in chains" is finally starting to resonate. Ames, he tells supporters, is where he's going to shock the world.
So that's Rick Santorum's goal for the today in Ames. But as I mentioned yesterday, the Straw Poll is about much, much more than actual voting. It's like a mini-county fair, in which the various candidates try to offer the most enticing culinary and entertainment options. And Santorum has come up with…well he's come up with this:
Photo: Tim MurphyHe will host the "Santorum Summer Dance Party" with Big Bopper Jr. and The Crickets. The name of the event comes from the "Winter Dance Party," which was the last show that Big Bopper Sr. played before dying in a fiery plane crash. Apparently "Rick Santorum’s Custer's Last Stand" was too clunky.
One of the more candid moments in Thursday's Republican presidential debate here in Ames, Iowa came when the Washington Examiner's Byron York asked Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) if she submits to her husband. The normal response when confronted with an uncomfortable query is to segue to talking points about "jobs" instead, but of course that's hard to do in this case, and so Bachmann didn't. Instead, after waiting for the booing audience to quiet down, she came up with this:
Marcus and I will be married for 33 years this September 10th. I'm in love with him, I'm so proud of him. And what submission means to us—if that's what your question is—is respect. I respect my husband...and he respects me as his wife. That's how we operate our marriage. We respect each other, we love each other.
The context is that Bachmann has previously said, at least when she's speaking to Christian audiences, that she took orders from her husband about whether to pursue a degree in tax law, noting that Ephesians 5:21-33 calls for women to be submissive to their husbands. But there are varying arguments about just what "submission" looks like. Here's how Janice Shaw Crouse explained it in the Washington Post in July:
In the context of women in leadership, it is important to note that biblical submission is about harmony and well-being within the home and the relationship between a husband and a wife; it has nothing to do with leadership responsibilities, except that no one—even the president of the United States—should treat others with disrespect, expect a subservient spirit from anyone or demand total surrender of another person’s will. Thus, a woman who willingly submits to her husband—and enjoys his equal submission, nurturing and cherishing—does not have a similar relationship with the men at work.
Right. Another way to think of it in that context is that it's the opposite of "domination," which is not really recommended for long-term relationships anyhow. Crouse is specifically frustrated with the notion that submissive wives are depicted as "Stepford wives"—a stereotype that's been promoted by at least one Bachmann chronicler. In this case it's clear that Bachmann's "submission" hasn't kept her down, in the sense that she's a successful politician who's now a plausible candidate for the most powerful job in the world (her husband, Marcus, is neither of those things.)
It's the role of older women to help her understand her priorities. Those priorities may include rising early to feed the family, being available anytime to satisfy a husband's desires (barring a few "ungodly" or "homosexual" acts), seeking his approval regarding work, appearance, and leisure, and accepting that he has the "burden" of final say in arguments. After a wife has respectfully appealed her spouse's decision—a privilege she should not abuse—she must accept his final answer as "God's will for her at that time," Peace advises.
That sounds a bit different, right? It's not unheard of for this to become a political issue: Last summer, when Rep. Dan Webster (R-Fla.) was running to unseat Democrat Alan Grayson, Webster's endorsement of Christian patriarchy prompted Grayson to dub him "Taliban Dan." York is defending his question, and that's fine; as he noted, it would be kind of shocking if no one asked Bachmann about this over the next year or so.
Still, given the pointed, gotcha nature of the questions last night (I mean that in a good way), this might have been a missed opportunity. Bachmann has been cutting off interviews left and right when the subject turns to homosexuality. Why not ask her whether she still believes gays are attempting to indoctrinate young children?
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.