Steve Paul

Steve Paul: From freak week in Iowa to what?

Republican presidential candidate Gov. John Kasich of Ohio spoke earlier this month at a meeting of the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Abuse in Concord.
Republican presidential candidate Gov. John Kasich of Ohio spoke earlier this month at a meeting of the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Abuse in Concord. The Associated Press

If the GOP race for president hadn’t already seemed like a freak show, along came Sarah Palin.

And if you didn’t already question Donald Trump’s judgment, let alone the supercharged emptiness of his rhetorical campaign, then you now have a new reason to wonder how inept and unpredictable his presidency would be.

Trotting out Palin was perfect, if by “perfect” I refer to the ultimate embarrasment of Trump’s campaign. Her maniacal appearance served to perform the basest of appeals to whatever base the Trump-Palin movement represents. Sure, the angry and frustrated Americans deserve to be heard. But they also deserve to be represented by politicians and public servants who can do more for them in reality than slather on the huckster oil.

Frankly, I’m so depressed I would rather not hear about one more Iowa poll. I would rather not hear another squirrely word from either one of the Republican Party’s current flame-throwing standard bearers.

The GOP is in a fright, with good reason. What is the establishment and who represents it are not just questions prompting another campaign mud fight. They speak to the foundational identity of the currently hijacked party of Abraham Lincoln.

Iowans caucus on Feb. 1. It really makes no difference who wins the day — in either party — as history has shown. So why, dear people, have we expended so much energy and endless oxygen on the affair? (I know, blame it on the media.)

A week later, the primary action begins for real in New Hampshire, which holds, for the Republicans at least, some possible surprises. The primary news from there last week was far less farcical than the Iowa show.

On the Republican side, the emergence of Ohio Gov. John Kasich from the lower depths of the polls has caught people’s attention. Kasich’s more sensible centrism puts him apart from most of the yawpers he is running against. That he is gaining some traction in New Hampshire, though, is not all that surprising. Several of the party’s more “establishment” candidates — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Jeb Bush — have been banking on a New Hampshire bounce. Sen. Marco Rubio also remains in the low double digits in the state, which is close to second place behind Trump and roughly on a par with Ted Cruz and Kasich.

I was intrigued to learn from a friend in New Hampshire that the most prominent issue there right now is the horrible toll being taken by opiates and opioids. Kasich and Christie addressed the problem when they spoke last week at the New Hampshire House. This is a bipartisan crisis and a complicated one. The fact that several candidates in both parties are addressing it on the stump might indicate that something other than pandering was in the air.

It’s a substantial topic, in other words, the kind of thing that too often is drowned out by the ground-game noise and the shoulder-fired attack-ad volleys.

Some big questions for mainstream Republicans are why they have allowed their party to descend into this testosterone-fueled “cage fight,” as the National Review put it last week, and whether they can return to a place of conservative, centrist stability and sanity. Will Trump’s juggernaut lead to a crack-up? Will, ultimately, Cruz and Rubio wind up in an epic battle for the conservative soul for the party? as the magazine’s Eliana Johnson concludes in an enlightening analysis.

Of course, other big questions remain as the road to the November election speeds up: How much damage will Bernie Sanders do to Hillary Clinton in Iowa (remember, it doesn’t much matter) and New Hampshire, where he’s been the neighboring favorite all along? And, presuming Clinton survives as the Democratic campaign heads southward, can anyone in the Republican cage fight take her on successfully?

Steve Paul: paul@kcstar.com, @sbpaul

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