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June 1st, 2013

The Iowa Republican Bookshelf

Shortly after the first of the year, I proposed a monthly book review column to Craig Robinson, editor in chief of the Iowa Republican. He took me up on the idea and I am excited to launch the inaugural column today.  As a contributing writer for TIR over the past several years, I have covered news events and also written color commentary including reviews on films with a political theme.

On the first Saturday of each month (with an occasional extra Saturday thrown in now and then) TIR’s Bookshelf will feature reviews on books of interest to conservatives. For the most part, books selected will be newer releases. However, I am already working on a collection of reviews of some hallmark works by William F. Buckley, Jr., Edmund Burke, T. S. Eliot, F. A. Hayek, Russell Kirk, Richard Weaver and some others that every conservative should read.

If you have ideas for books you think should be reviewed, please let me hear from you. If you disagree or like a column, please post a comment. Let me state at the outset that I am not as interested in promoting books by popular conservative talking heads just because they may be on the bestseller list at the moment as I am in looking at books that allow us, as readers, to dig deeper into conservative thought and to understand the political, cultural and social time we live in.

Sometimes books written by folks “on the other side of the asile” will be reviewed because conservatives can not just listen to themselves in an echo chamber. Some books will be reviewed thematically, others because of the timeliness of their publication date, and some books will be reviewed because I’ve had an itch to read them—and I am a voracious reader. The first book I have chosen takes us back to the 2012 campaign. This isn’t about wound licking. It is about figuring out the path ahead.

OB BookBarack Obama and the New America: The 2012 Election and the Changing Face of Politics. Ed. Larry J. Sabato. [Rowman and Littlefield; 2013, pages 241, $19.05 paper/$13.19 Kindle]

Larry Sabato, the Robert Kent Gooch Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia, and director of its Center for Politics, is a face familiar to many as an election-time political analyst. Professor Sabato’s newest book is a collection of 13 essays analyzing the outcome of Barack Obama’s narrow defeat of Mitt Romney in the 2012 election.

Chock full of charts, graphs and footnotes, this book is candy for political geeks who want to dig into a myriad of issues—demographics, election financing, federal election laws, the role of incumbency, old and new media, the cultural divide—that affected the outcome of the 2012 election.

The contributors are academics, political observers and election experts. Their analysis provides insights that must be considered as candidates and campaigns move forward toward 2016. According to Sabato, “This is a book Democrats will love reading – but it’s a book Republicans need to read. If Republicans don’t understand the immediate past election, they are doomed to repeat it.”

Some of the analysis is sobering and doesn’t taste good going down, such as Robert Costa’s critique of the Romney-Ryan ticket. “Romney struggled to make the Ryan pick an election-defining moment. Romney and Ryan enjoyed a personal rapport, but they rarely managed to present a coherent message about what they (emphasis mine) represented…In short, the campaign never found its political footing.”

While I was energized by the Ryan pick, Costa’s critique has merit. Romney “unsuccessfully strove to be simultaneously and ideological conservative to his base and a centrist to undecided voters” and in the end, it didn’t work. The three areas that Republicans have to get their ducks in a row on in preparation for 2016, according to Costa’s essay, are policy, demographics and leadership. The focus on policy must include entitlements, taxes and social issues. While demographic issues are far more complex than race and ethnicity and include geographical and aging shifts, “growing numbers of secular, younger and minority voters are staying away from the GOP.” In terms of leadership, Costa points out that there is no GOP standard bearer right now, nor is there any one obvious person in the wings, but there are some emerging prospects who may be able to step forward to fill the void as the party comes to terms with defining its platform and its identity.

Diane Owen’s essay “Voters to the Sidelines” looks at how the media frame the horse race of political campaigns and compares differences in the use of social media between 2008 and 2012. According to Owen, in 2012 voters were treated more as campaign spectators through micro-targeting than in 2008 when new media was used to engage voters. “Candidates’ use of social media was aimed less at encouraging active voter engagement and more at pushing out information and fund-raising aggressively.” And while campaigns are quick to adopt the next new media thing—“Tumblr, Pinterest, Instagram, and Reddit”—campaign managers working on local, state and national campaigns have to ask themselves how to strike the right balance in 2014 and 2016?

One area where voters did engage was as citizen journalists, an area where campaigns are at a loss to try to control their message. Anyone at a campaign event can take a photo or a video of a candidate and then distribute that via social media – such as the video which went viral of Romney saying that he was not concerned about the 47 percent of Americans who are dependent on government.  That video damaged the Romney campaign and there was little the candidate could do once that horse left the barn.

Owen addresses how real-time fact-checking and counter fact checking has become a part of both the media narrative and the political spin in campaign coverage. She cites the example of how the press jumped on Paul Ryan for the way he characterized presidential candidate Barack Obama’s campaign comments in 2008 about a closed GM plant in Ryan’s hometown still being open for 100 more years.  In a speech at the Republican National Convention, Ryan cited the president’s campaign rhetoric from four-year earlier as a promise broken. As fact-checking went into over-drive, the media characterized Ryan’s remarks “as the most dishonest convention speech ever.”

Not only do the media cover campaigns, but the media insert themselves and become part of the narrative. According to Owen, “Candidates and their representatives are rarely given the opportunity to clarify or expand upon their points before the fact-check goes public.”  While not every word from every speech can be vetted by a campaign before it is uttered, Republican candidates have to realize that the media will neither give them the benefit of the doubt nor cut them any slack when it comes to inaccurate data or misspoken words. Being loose with facts or making an inartful remark can quickly affect polling numbers and ultimately sink a candidate’s chances of winning a campaign in today’s media saturated 24/7 news culture.

It may be almost seven months since the 2012 elections, but Republicans have not finished the work of studying the losses of 2012, and when the lessons of history are not studied, mistakes are repeated. As we gear up for the 2014 midterm elections and look ahead to 2016, the essays in Sabato’s book are worth the read for candidates, campaign managers, and policy advisors, not to mention conservative voters and political geeks alike.


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About the Author

Polly Twocents
Polly Twocents is the pseudonym for the political commentary of Patti Brown, a partner in the Iowa Policy Institute, a research and analysis firm specializing in public policy issues. Patti is an Iowa mother of five who has a masters degree in journalism with a minor in political science from Iowa State University and an masters in social work from the University of Iowa. Patti worked for many years as a social worker in hospital, hospice and mental health settings. In addition she has also been a staff writer and columnist for The Catholic Mirror and a writer for The Des Moines Register. She is unabashedly and consistently pro-life and pro-family. As a bleeding heart conservative, Patti believes in a limited, representative government, personal responsibility, individual opportunity, and free enterprise.

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