Tuesday, January 17, 2012


January 12, 2012

Oh, there's nothing half-way
About the Iowa way to treat you,
When we treat you,
Which we may not do at all....
You really ought to give Iowa a try.

So sang the townspeople of River City to that conniving Music Man, Pseudo-professor Harold Hill, fresh off the train from Gary, Indiana, to perpetrate his latest scam.

There was nothing half-way about Iowa's treatment of Republican presidential aspirants this season, either. Seven of these traveling salespersons gave Iowa a try, descending on the state like four-year locusts, pitching their politics retail and jostling for customers by debating the merits of their snake-oils ("Ya can bicker-bicker-bicker, ya can talk all ya want.").

Four of them were thrown out on their ears. Pizza godfather Herman Cain made an early surge among these prudent Christian people with his 9-9-9 tax plan, only to turn his numerals upside- down and become the personification of 6-6-6, the Sign of the Beast; they shoved his own pie into his face. Michelle Bachmann, an Iowa native no less, won the straw poll in the fall and then came a cropper, so to speak, at the caucuses, returning to Minnesota a sadder but (possibly) wiser girl. Pseudo-professor Newton Gingrich popped into town with a suitcase full of trumpets and uniforms, touting his innovative "Think Method," but the voters concluded he was carrying too much baggage, was fleecing the citizens, and couldn't even shape up a boys' band, much less a country. And Rick Perry, despite looking a lot like Robert Preston, flubbed up all the patter-songs, and the audience gave him the hook.

But what the heck, you're welcome,
Glad to have you with us,
Even though we may not ever mention it again.

Only three of the bunch seemed to know the territory well enough to make a modest sale. Ron Paul appealed to Iowan contrarianism ("And we're so by-God stubborn / We could stand touchin' noses / For a week at a time / And never see eye-to- eye."). Mitt Romney promised miraculous (that is, undefined) salvation from Democrat-caused economic disaster ("Oh-ho, the Wells Fargo wagon is a-comin' down the street, / Oh please, don't foreclose on me!"). Rick Santorum whipped up a citizenry alarmed at the rejection of family values, crying trouble-trouble- trouble: "Libertine men and scarlet women! / And ragtime, shameless music / That'll grab your son, your daughter / With the arms of a jungle animal instinct! / Mass-'steria!".

Trouble, all right, with a capital T and that rhymes with P and that stands for Pols.

Well, they all gave Iowa a try, except John the Huntsman, who sensibly realized he didn't know the territory. Instead he focused on New Hampshire, where people practice extreme moderation and at least some of them around Dartmouth speak Chinese. Having carved out a tidy niche for himself and his prospects, he lay in wait for his competitors, who abandoned Iowa on election night with hardly a thank-you and headed for the Granite State, packing their posters and pollsters, invading the coffee shops and nursing homes, and spinning their stories in the climate-changed, snowless streets.

To those stoic New England souls, who are either living free or dead, Paul preached his gospel of self-reliance ("If any would not work, neither should he eat."), Santorum endured the jeers of skeptics and idolaters, Perry babbled on about Babylon-on-the- Potomac, and Gingrich appealed to the angels of our better nature while simultaneously unleashing his fire-breathing PAC on Romney, who like his own angel Moroni sounded the golden trumpet high above the fray. Through it all, the Huntsman held his fire, hoping against hope that his foes would eat each other up.

Iowa and New Hampshire — two quirky states elbowing to be king-makers. How they ever got there is an equally quirky matter of history, but they've come to be the winnowing-fan of presidential politics, as Tuesday's results showed.

Regardless of how skewed the social demographics of these states are (and by the way, TV pundits, the word is not "skewered" — that's what Gingrich tried to do to Romney with his PAC ads), their elections work psychologically on primary voters down the line, either supportive or reactive. The pundits may think that with a faux victory in Iowa and a real one in New Hampshire Romney has skewered his opponents, but that's far from certain.

And that's why even the bottom-most candidates press on to South Carolina. Like Harold Hill, they hope a miracle will happen before the citizens see through them and pummel them out of town.

The lyrics above, with one satyrical modification, are excerpted from The Music Man by Meredith Willson, copyright 1957.

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