Primary Problems 

As the GOP struggles to reinvent itself, Iowa and New Hampshire remain as obstacles.

"The problem with the Republican Party is Republicans." This quote is taken not from the recent report of a Republican task force but from the mind of yours truly. It is, however, the message of the 97-page "Growth & Opportunity Project" report, which urges the party to get with the program (the 21st century) on gays, immigration, corporate greed, and even same-sex marriage. The report was written by five important moderate Republicans who would like the GOP to be more like themselves. It ain't going to happen.

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Missing from the report are any critical words about the Iowa caucuses or the New Hampshire primary. These are the early contests, where, if past is prologue, the presidential candidates of the future will take positions pleasing to the ears of extraordinarily conservative and religious voters. They will call for a roundup of illegal Hispanic immigrants; condemn same-sex marriage; sing hosannas to local control of the schools; denounce the federal government in all its varied forms; promise to die for ethanol; lament the absence of God in the classroom; utter cockamamie warnings about vaccinations; vow to eradicate Planned Parenthood from planet Earth; rail against foreign aid, the United Nations, the mainstream press, the teaching of evolution, and, for good measure, the mainstream press again. Whoever does this best might win the first two contests.

The report confronts this problem by denying that it exists. While the authors want regional primaries and a truncated nominating process — so as to have an earlier nominating convention — they bow before what they call the "carve-out" states that have individual and early elections.

"It remains important to have an 'on ramp' of small states that hold unique primary days before the primary season turns into a multistate process with many states voting on one day," the report says. "The idea of a little-known candidate having a fair chance remains important."

In other words, New Hampshire and Iowa. This would be nice and warmly traditional if these two states were representative of the Republican Party as a whole. But they are not. They are far to the right, and the candidates who do best there often do poorly thereafter. Presidential hopefuls spend months in those states, and, because Iowa is the first contest, it gets a hugely disproportionate share of the news coverage — with what seems like an event (debates, etc.) per week, starting with the preposterous Ames Straw Poll, won last time by the highly incompetent Michele Bachmann.

Rudy Giuliani, a moderate who thought in 2008 that he could bypass Iowa, found out the hard way that he could not. By Florida, where he had intended to make his stand, he was already an also-ran. In 2012, Mitt Romney, an erstwhile moderate, was not going to make that mistake. He jettisoned his positions and his principles somewhere around Keokuk. It worked. He (almost) won Iowa but, in the fall, lost the rest of the nation. Cohen's Law goes like this: Republicans who win Iowa in January lose America in November.

The official winner of last year's Iowa caucuses was Rick Santorum — by 34 votes. Santorum, not one to rest on his victory margin, is due back in the state next month. He will address two fundraisers, one for Ralph Reed's Faith & Freedom Coalition, a vociferous opponent of same-sex marriage and most things fun.

Given the nature of the Iowa GOP, Santorum has to be considered the 2016 favorite there. In almost all his positions, he represents precisely what alarms moderate Republicans. He's a one-man band of losing issues.

The authors of the GOP report were aware of their Iowa-New Hampshire problem, but they are powerless to implement a remedy. The nominating calendar is set by the 168 members of the Republican National Committee. The authors were not powerless to offer recommendations — they made them galore — and yet they shied from disturbing the furiously conservative beast whose lairs are Iowa and New Hampshire. The base would have devoured them.

I am not now and never have been a Republican, so you might think it's all right with me if the party keeps serving up lame candidates with lame ideas. But I rely on the GOP to keep the Democrats honest, to challenge some of their occasionally ludicrous ideas, and, every once in a while, to come up with a candidate who gives me pause in the voting booth. For Republicans, Iowa and New Hampshire only look like the beginning. Really, they're the end.

Richard Cohen writes for the Washington Post Writers Group.



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