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Donald Trump speaks during the Iowa Republican Party's Lincoln Dinner, on May 16, 2015, in Des Moines, Iowa.
Donald Trump speaks during the Iowa Republican Party's Lincoln Dinner, on May 16, 2015, in Des Moines, Iowa. Charlie Neibergall—AP

Energized Republicans Put On a Campaign Show in Iowa

May 17, 2015

DES MOINES—I’m a little worried about burying the lead here. Saturday night was the annual Lincoln Day dinner in Iowa, a major cattle call for Republicans who wish to be President. Twelve candidates attended. And Senator Lindsey Graham…no, wait.

The candidates ranged from very serious and plausible like Jeb Bush, who performed admirably, to has-beens (Rick Santorum), never was’s (George Pataki, the very former governor of New York, was there), to never-will-be’s (Rick Perry), to …to Lindsey Graham, who told a joke…no, wait.

As I was saying, the candidates ranged from Bush, to a soft-spoken and very accomplished surgeon named Dr. Ben Carson—whose slightly bemused presence seemed that of a Buddhist monk in a leather bar—to the inevitable Donald Trump, who was the only one to make a complete fool of himself: he announced that he, personally, somehow, contra the Constitution would—did I mention, personally?—slap—that is, without the Congress, and seemingly overnight, mind you—the Ford Motor company with a 35% tax on products imported from Mexico.

But Lindsey Graham, the Senator from South Carolina, came on like a cabaret act, encouraging the crowd to drink up, “The more you drink, the better I sound…” And then, after a series of energetic one-liners—this was like a post-modern deconstructionist version of a political speech—told one about his first case as a lawyer in South Carolina. It was a divorce case. “The husband asked,” the Senator said. “If we get divorced, can we still be cousins?”

Okay, it was somewhat bowdlerized. The version I first heard some years ago, was, “Can she still be my niece?” But still. Senator Lindsey Graham told an incest joke at a Republican Party dinner in Iowa, where the evangelical legions are assumed to be in control. In fairness, the 1,400 GOP activists assembled seemed more from the banker-businessman sector of the party, but still—I’ve been doing this for 46 years and I don’t think I ever heard a presidential candidate tell an incest joke before.

Actually, Graham—who was allotted 10 minutes, as were the other candidates—was wildly entertaining throughout. He ragged Iowa’s famously abstemious farmer-Senator, Chuck Grassley: “You know Chuck’s not paying tonight, or he wouldn’t be here.” He said he wanted to be President because “you get a house, a car and a plane.” He said that if you’re a jihadist who attacks us, “I’m not gonna call a judge”—a slap at civil libertarians—“I’m gonna call a drone and it will kill you.”

In the course of an evening during which every one of the Republicans decried Islamic terrorism without really saying what they’d do about it, Graham said he would put boots on the ground in Iraq and keep them there in Afghanistan. (Before tonight, he was better known for his bellicosity than his humor.) “How many of you think the Iranians want to build a peaceful nuclear power plant and how many think they want to build a weapon?” He said that those who believed the former “shouldn’t be allowed to drive in Iowa.” He also said he was convinced that as soon as the Supreme Leader got the bomb, he would use it against Israel. This is utter nonsense—and afterwards Graham told me he was more concerned about the Iranians leaking the technology to groups like Hizballah than a frontal assault on Israel (which would result in the almost-immediately evaporation of the city of Tehran, 12 million strong). But still, Senator, the ground rules are that you’re not supposed to say mega-scary things in public if you don’t really believe them.

I must say that Lindsey Graham is the cheeriest superhawk I’ve ever seen and while I’m pretty sure he won’t be nominated by the Republicans, I’m really glad he’s in the race.

As for the others, there was a pattern. They talked about an economy constrained by a nonsensical tax code and web of regulations; they talked about the threat of Islamic radicalism—and the seemingly more outrageous fact that the President refuses to call it that. There was much less anger and pessimism than in the Republican class of 2012. Rick Perry, the only one to attempt real churchified oratory, kept saying over and over again, with slightly scary fervor—an evangelist on Ecstasy?—how optimistic he was. And most of the others paid lip service to optimism—which used to be the true American religion—as well. (I should mention that Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee and Chris Christie, who might have added even more juice to the proceedings, were absent.)

Rand Paul distinguished himself from the pack, as he almost always does, because he is different from the pack: he devoted much of his speech to the coming debate over the Patriot Act, which he sees as an infringement of First Amendment rights. And he launched a particularly effective attack on Hillary Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State: “Someone needs to ask Hillary Clinton if it was a good idea to topple Qaddafi in Libya,” he suggested, noting that Qaddafi has been replaced by “chaos,” with a significant slice of the (former) country in danger of falling under the control of ISIS.

OK, I’ll admit it: I was expecting a fairly endless evening of predictable and highly-processed red meat. But this was…fun. There is energy and irreverence—without the Limbaugh-Hannity bitterness—in this crop of candidates, although the field could certainly use some pruning. That will come in good time, of course. For now, though, I suspect Lindsey Graham is ready for Vegas…if not for the Nevada primary. He’s crazy good.

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