Even on past occasions when the result of the Iowa caucuses appeared to be an aberration—and whether eight votes divides relevance from irrelevance this year remains to be seen—it has set the tenor of the subsequent campaign. Four years ago, both Democrats and Republicans had a sense of voting for something (which itself was an aberration), with Mike Huckabee and Barack Obama representing the prospect of new national possibilities to different people in different ways. It’s hard to imagine how Tuesday’s result could establish more viscerally the sense of people voting against something. For the last six months, Republican Presidential Candidates Not Named Romney have played an electoral version of Russian roulette, one after another spinning the chamber and blowing him- or herself away until Senator Santorum was left alone holding the gun, corpses strewn before him. There has been about the nomination race so far the quality of a Dark Ages ritual for choosing a king, while lacking the heroism, not to mention the transcendence, of pulling a sword from a stone.
One of the popular canards argued by perfectly intelligent people over the last few years is that Barack Obama is a man lucky in his enemies. This bit of conventional wisdom is based mostly on Obama’s 2004 Senate race in Illinois, when a potentially formidable opponent was sidelined by scandal and in their desperation, state Republicans recruited conservative firebrand Alan Keyes, who was not merely prone to self-sabotage but imbued with a lust for it. Obama was hardly lucky, however, in his ’08 presidential race, facing the single most prohibitive front-runner in an open nominating contest since Bob Dole in 1996, or maybe I mean Ronald Reagan in 1980. Hillary Clinton was backed by the most daunting machine in Democratic presidential politics since the Kennedys, and John McCain probably was as strong a Republican as Obama could have run against that year. Beyond all this, at what point might we conclude that the president makes his own luck? What about him did Haley Barbour, Chris Christie, and Mitch Daniels prefer not to run against? Each had his own reasons for demurring, but you still get the feeling that in their hearts of hearts none expects Mitt Romney to be running for re-election in 2016.
All of this is to say that it’s not merely down to the president’s luck that the Republican Party is the way it is these days. Sometime in the last 20 or 30 years, the two political parties have swapped pathologies and nervous systems, as in a science-fiction movie where two patients strapped to adjacent tables in a madman’s laboratory are hooked up to the same electronic gizmo and find their personalities transposed. Within the lifetime of many of us, the 20th-century Democratic Party that Franklin Roosevelt put together remained a patchwork of working-class conservatives and upper-class liberals, intellectual socialists and Southern segregationists, and what bound them was a mix of self-interest and an emotionalism that seemed to come naturally to Democrats. Robert Kennedy in 1968 was the last presidential candidate to try to take control of such a party. The Republicans by contrast were the party of hegemony. Now the Republicans are the crazy-quilt hysterics, more or less equal parts evangelicals and Ayn Rand objectivists and hedge-fund robber barons, which is another reason why the party’s heavyweights sat out this round—not because those who are running seemed on the fringe but because, particularly in the wake of the 2010 midterms, the establishment heavyweights came to suspect that they are now the fringe. A Barbour or Christie is smart enough to know that Michele Bachmann, the waking refutation of the Daniel Patrick Moynihan maxim that you’re entitled to your own opinion but not your own facts, and six-gun-packing Fed-chairman-lynching secessionist Rick Perry, who in all his Texasanity makes George W. Bush look like Noel Coward, better embody the party.
Usually when a president has Obama’s problems, esteem for the predecessor sharply rises. Yet Bush’s presidency still strikes Americans as such a manifest and consequential failure—to such an extent that his brother, who easily would be the Republicans’ strongest nominee, can only wonder in dismay at not being named Jeb Brown—that this failure still pervades everything, including a Republican Party that now defines itself not by new ideas or adventurous thinking or anything other than a livid rage at the White House’s current incumbent. The biggest revelation of Tuesday's caucuses wasn’t any single candidate’s vote total but the sum total of people who voted at all: considerably less than expected and a little more than half the number of Democrats who turned out for the caucuses that eventually made Obama president four years ago. Even in its fury with Obama, the Republican Party struggles to rise above a profound disgruntlement with everything including itself. As anyone who knows anything about his positions can attest, the mild-mannered Rick Santorum is really only a couple of eye-twitches saner than Bachmann, effectively arguing as he does that contraception is a capital crime, but in his impressive and canny speech, he presented the one Republican candidacy so far in which one can glimpse how a party patchwork might yet be stitched. He did so by making the first concerted Republican appeal that sounds authentic—and at the least, more 99-percentish than “Corporations are people too”—to a struggling middle class. If Santorum can structurally and financially survive long enough to ransack the corpses around him for their valuables, the last viable Republican presidential candidate left who’s not named Romney will finally turn his aim on the one who is.