On the day that Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio was reelected speaker of the House for the 114th Congress, the dilemma soon to face Republican presidential candidates came into sharper focus with the prominent dissent from Rep. Steve King of Iowa.
King, one of the most outspoken conservatives in Congress, concluded that Boehner was neither sufficiently conservative nor an adequate-enough defender of the Constitution to serve as his party’s leader in the new House. He therefore cast a no vote when the roll was called. He was one of 25 Republicans to vote against Boehner.
King’s defection from the majority of his party could speak louder than the others for one important reason. In a few weeks, he will host the Iowa Freedom Summit, a weekend conclave that will draw at least half a dozen potential Republican presidential candidates for the unofficial kickoff to what will be a long pre-Iowa-caucus season.
The gathering will highlight the quadrennial challenge confronting all those who seek their party’s presidential nomination: How far can candidates go in catering to the most conservative or liberal wing of their parties without compromising their chances of winning a general election?
Because the presidential campaign begins in Iowa, with GOP caucuses that draw a smaller and more conservative group of activists, keeping a candidate balanced between nomination and general-election demands requires skill and discipline. It’s easier to say than do.
The dynamics of an intraparty contest risk triggering politically destructive behavior. In the heat of battle, candidates determined to win the nomination, and facing unexpected competition, do and say things they can come to regret.
Those whose conservative credentials may be in question are particularly susceptible to the need to prove their bona fides to the right. Mitt Romney could offer some advice on all this, having been drawn farther to the right in his 2012 nomination contest than was prudent — or necessary.
The obvious example was Romney’s infamous comment about “self-deportation” for illegal immigrants. It was a statement that haunted Romney through the rest of the campaign — though it should be noted he maintained that his language was not intended to sound punitive. Well after the election he said he was surprised by the negative reaction.
Less noticed but also damaging to Romney was his decision to advance a tax-cut plan as he faced a serious challenge from former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum ahead of the Michigan primary. He had laid out some ideas about cutting taxes early in the campaign, but in the face of a more aggressive posture from Santorum (and former House speaker Newt Gingrich), he and his advisers felt the need to go further.
He never could quite square the arithmetic on just how large his tax cut would be. Nor would he cite the deductions he would eliminate to prevent the wealthiest Americans from a gigantic windfall. Answering the questions raised about his policy would have required specificity that could have brought on other problems. He and his advisers decided it was better to stay silent than risk additional damage. It was a problem of his own making, done in the heat of battle.
The Iowa Freedom Summit has attracted prospective candidates who span the spectrum of Republicanism. Two former caucus winners — Santorum and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee — are on the schedule. So, too, are Texans Rick Perry, the outgoing governor, and Sen. Ted Cruz. Representing the establishment wing will be Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey.
Others in the mix who might become candidates include Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina. Oh, and Donald Trump and Sarah Palin also are on the docket, according to the event’s Web site.
King is not the only potential kingmaker among Iowa Republicans. Four years ago, he could not decide whom to endorse. In 2016, the support of Gov. Terry Branstad, newly elected Sen. Joni Ernst or long-serving Sen. Charles E. Grassley all will carry weight. But King is an aggressive advocate for his point of view — and his views on issues such as immigration are well known.
There will be some notable absentees at the Iowa event, the most significant being Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor. In the past month, Bush has made more overt moves in preparation for a candidacy than anyone else in the GOP field. But he has decided not to go to the Iowa event, where he could end up wading into a potentially hostile reception. No reason to poke the hornet’s nest this early.
The juxtaposition of what happened in Washington on Tuesday, with the convening of the 114th Congress and the leadership elections, and what will happen in Iowa on Jan. 24 points to the difference between those who are the current face of the Republican Party and those who will have influence in the states in the nomination process. In Washington today, it’s John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. In Iowa in a few weeks it will be Steve King winning accolades.
On a day when Republicans hoped to look outward, to show the country they are ready to govern, they were distracted by another intraparty skirmish. This one lasted only a few hours, but it served as an early look at the kinds of divisions that will play out in the nomination battle.
Prospective presidential candidates can, for now, offer deference to all parts of the party. They will seek support from as many as will give it, almost no matter their ideological leanings. But along the way, they will have to decide which course is their own and how much they resist being pulled in directions they ought not to go, rather than pulling their party where they think it needs to be. The opening event in Iowa later this month will offer the first test.