GOP campaign messaging needs a reality check

Iowa Capital Dispatch

It’s been a while since I attended an Iowa caucus cattle call. After spending most of Saturday at Sen. Joni Ernst’s Roast and Ride event at the Iowa State fairgrounds, featuring eight GOP presidential candidates, I was most surprised by how little things change.

In a lot of ways, it could have been the summer of 2015. Just like this year, the rhetoric from Republican candidates running for the 2016 caucuses was heavy on immigration and government overspending, energy costs, crime at home and dangers abroad.

The national media, this year as in 2015, were obsessed with the wonder of retail politics and wrote very little about what candidates actually said. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis brought his kids and a bouncy house, gave away ice cream and managed to have a few conversations with voters that weren’t painfully awkward. Sen. Chuck Grassley wore socks given to him by Sen. Tim Scott. (Is that some kind of new endorsement by footwear?)

The décor at the Iowa State Fairgrounds featured a tractor and straw bales. The media tables were plied with rubber stress balls in the shape of pigs but reporters scrambled for chairs and extension cords. Par for the course.

There were a few differences, of course. No one vowed Saturday to “end Obamacare,” a common refrain in the 2016 campaign. As campaign promises go, that one would ring particularly false given how many times GOP majorities in Congress have tried and failed to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

In fact, no one spent much time talking about health care, an issue that continues to significantly affect life in Iowa, especially in rural communities. Sure, DeSantis and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson crowed about flouting public health advice on COVID, and several others dedicated themselves to denying gender-affirming health care to minors, but that won’t help moms-to-be in towns that have stopped delivering babies.

Maybe the candidates are afraid if they start talking about health care, someone will eventually ask them about their party’s interest in cutting Medicare and Medicaid (not to mention Social Security). Nobody wants to answer that question, at least not in white-haired Iowa.

In fact, with a few exceptions, the candidates spent little time talking about real-life, pocketbook issues. They complained about inflation, naturally, but the 1,000 Iowans who paid $20 for a ticket to attend didn’t hear many ideas for dealing with it. Even Perry Johnson, a wealthy Michigan businessman who wrote a free book about his economic policies, only touched on the economy before shifting to complaints about debate criteria.

That’s not new, either. The GOP historically has two economic ideas: Cut taxes and cut the federal budget. Never mind that cutting taxes on the wealthy increases the deficit and drastic spending cuts could lead to recession.

It’s much easier to fight culture wars. In 2016, Republicans were all wound up about people kneeling during the National Anthem. This year, they’re fear-mongering about transgender girls competing in school sports. Former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley, coincidentally the only woman in the GOP field, called it “the greatest women’s issue of our time.”

Really, Ambassador? A greater issue than the wage gap, lack of access to women’s health care, lack of affordable child care, domestic violence? How many of those issues are more likely to affect the average Iowa woman than a handful of trans kids running track? I’ll give you a hint – all of them.

We also heard about DeSantis’ war on “wokeness,” whatever that means. “As president, I recognize that the woke mind virus represents a war on truth,” DeSantis said Saturday. “So we will wage a war on the woke. We will fight the woke in education, we will fight the woke in the corporations, we will fight the woke in the halls of Congress. We will never ever surrender to the woke mob.”

That’s an issue made for conservative broadcasting, not for real life. If anyone took it seriously, they would find it seriously disturbing. The thought of a president dedicating himself to rooting out a “mind virus” and waging “war” on people with a different philosophy is chilling, to say the least.

All of that bluster and Donald Trump didn’t even attend. He wasn’t at the 2015 Roast and Ride, either, but unlike that year, he was omnipresent at Saturday’s event. No one on the stage mentioned his name, but he was  on the minds of many in the audience. Iowa Republicans, whether they still support Trump or not, are comparing all other candidates to him.

A different comparison is in order. Iowa GOP caucusgoers could do a real service to the rest of the country if they took a minute to consider which candidate has the best ideas for solving the problems that actually affect their lives instead of who sounds the best on conservative cable. Don’t settle for a rubber pig when what you really need is some power.

Iowa Capital Dispatch is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Iowa Capital Dispatch maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Kathie Obradovich for questions: Follow Iowa Capital Dispatch on Facebook and Twitter.

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