This GOP race is a minute-to-minute contest for media heat and Internet hits, where positive and negative attention are almost equally valuable.
He went on to explain that even the unborn were entitled to rights of "due process and equal protection." The attendant reporters all glanced sideways at one another. The idea of using the 14th Amendment, designed to protect the rights of ex-slaves, as a tool to outlaw abortion in the 21st century clearly would have its own dark appeal to the Fox crowd. But it occurred to me that Huckabee might have had more in mind.
"Are we talking about sending the FBI or the National Guard to close abortion clinics?" I asked.
"We'll see when I get to be president," he answered.
Huckabee smiled. Perhaps alone among all the non-Trump candidates, Huckabee knows what kind of fight he's in. This GOP race is not about policy or electability or even raising money. Instead, it's about Nielsen ratings or trending. It's a minute-to-minute contest for media heat and Internet hits, where positive and negative attention are almost equally valuable.
In late July, in a cramped conference room of a Marriott in West Des Moines, Graham showed up to introduce himself to voters. In person, he's an odd character, like an oversize ventriloquist's dummy, with too-bright eyes and cheeks frozen in a half-grin.
Waterloo, Iowa, August 1st. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie showed up at Lincoln Park downtown to attend the Cedar Valley Irish fest, a multiday fair with street cuisine, tents full of hand-made crafts, live music and a 5K road race. In a state where a more typical event is a stale VFW hall buffet or a visit to the world's largest truck stop (the I-80 meet-and-greet is a staple of Iowa campaigning), the Irish fest is a happening scene, featuring good food and sizable numbers of people under the age of 60.
Trump has perversely restored democracy to the process, turning the race into a pure high school popularity contest conducted in the media.
Right, but how? "What happens in August stays in August," he said mysteriously, then vanished to his next event. He had, like, 11 events in three days, far more than most other candidates.
Santorum actually won the Iowa race four years ago with his overcaffeinated, kiss-the-most-babies approach. But watching both he and Christie put their chips on the shoe-leather approach to campaigning feels like watching a pair of Neanderthals scout for mammoth. In the Age of Trump, this stuff doesn't play anymore.
Not that the old guard will go down without a fight. The much-anticipated inaugural Clown Debate in Cleveland was an ambush. Fox kicked off the festivities by twice whacking Trump, Buford Pusser-style, asking him to promise not to make a third-party run (he wouldn't) and sandbagging him with questions about his history of calling women "fat pigs" ("Only Rosie O'Donnell," Trump quipped). After the show, Fox had Republican pollster Frank Luntz organize a focus group that universally panned Trump's performance. "A total setup," one of Trump's aides complained on Twitter.
Trump didn't seem to care. Hell, he didn't even prepare for the debate. "Trump doesn't rehearse," an aide told reporters. All he did was show up and do what he always does: hog everything in sight, including airtime. As hard as Fox tried to knock him out, the network couldn't take its eyes off him. He ended up with almost two full minutes more airtime than the other "contestants," as he hilariously called them on the Today show the morning after the debate. It's the scorpion nature of television, come back to haunt the "reality-makers" at Fox: The cameras can't resist a good show.
Politics used to be a simple, predictable con. Every four years, the money men in D.C. teamed up with party hacks to throw their weight behind whatever half-bright fraud of a candidate proved most adept at snowing the population into buying a warmed-over version of the same crappy policies they've always bought.
Pundits always complained that there wasn't enough talk about issues during these races, but in reality, issues were still everything. Behind the scenes, where donors gave millions for concrete favors, there was always still plenty of policy. And skilled political pitchmen like Christie, who could deftly deliver on those back-room promises to crush labor and hand out transportation contracts or whatever while still acting like a man of the people, were highly valued commodities.
Not anymore. Trump has blown up even the backroom version of the issues-driven campaign. There are no secret donors that we know of. Trump himself appears to be the largest financial backer of the Trump campaign. A financial report disclosed that Trump lent his own campaign $1.8 million while raising just $100,000.
There's no hidden platform behind the shallow facade. With Trump, the facade is the whole deal. If old-school policy hucksters like Christie can't find a way to beat a media master like Trump at the ratings game, they will soon die out.
In a perverse way, Trump has restored a more pure democracy to this process. He's taken the Beltway thinkfluencers out of the game and turned the presidency into a pure high-school-style popularity contest conducted entirely in the media. Everything we do is a consumer choice now, from picking our shoes to an online streaming platform to a presidential nominee.
The irony, of course, is that when America finally wrested control of the political process from the backroom oligarchs, the very first place where we spent our newfound freedom and power was on the campaign of the world's most unapologetic asshole. It may not seem funny now, because it's happening to us, but centuries from this moment, people will laugh in wonder.
America is ceasing to be a nation, and turning into a giant television show. And this Republican race is our first and most brutal casting call.