Iowa’s Republican Rep. Steve King has always been a controversial figure, a condition he earned as a result of his penchant for saying controversial things. The supposed toxicity of associating with him, however, has been absurdly overstated by members of the political press who are happy to help King cast himself as the standard-bearer for the GOP’s most conservative wing. Few in the press find Democratic politicians associating with the ethically-challenged Reps. Charlie Rangel (D-NY) or Maxine Waters (D-CA) equally problematic for their party’s presidential aspirants.
There is no doubt, however, that King’s tendency to eschew diplomatic language when talking about issues relating to illegal immigration has made him a lightning rod for the press. That alone makes him a figure of some relevance for the GOP’s eventual 2016 presidential nominee who will resume the work of rebranding the party so as to increase its appeal to minority voters. The scale of the fracas that erupted over Rep. Steve Scalise’s (R-LA) alleged decision to accept an invitation to speak at a white nationalist conference in 2002, an accusation which is now in doubt and subsequently no longer enjoys saturation coverage on cable news, is testament to the scope of the challenge facing Republicans.
The media yields to the preconception that Republicans, particularly those of the Southern variety, are tainted by their party’s racial politics. In the same way that the University of Virginia “gang rape” fable appealed to the media’s biases regarding fraternity culture, the male libido, and Southern colleges, the press defaulted to a position of credulity with regards to the Scalise tale because it conformed to their already fixed prejudices (including my own). Like it or not, Republicans have to overcome the narrative propagated by a gullible and unhelpful press that their party is unfriendly to minorities in order to form the coalition of voters they need to win back the White House.
The latest source of controversy for Republican 2016 hopefuls seeking to navigate this frustrating set of circumstances is the King-sponsored Iowa Freedom Summit. Republicans who have chosen to either accept or decline their invitations to attend have seen the significance of this decision inflated to ridiculous levels by the Fourth Estate. Clearly, the political press’ editorial culture sees participation in or avoidance of this minor event as a proxy for how individual GOP aspirants will approach the process of appealing to Hispanic voters.
On Friday, barrels of ink were spilt over former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s decision to decline his invitation to speak at the Iowa Freedom Summit – a move that was cleverly leaked to the press via an aide. At once, this decision became either a noble display of defiance or a show of abject cowardice.
“Bush has said that a candidate has to be willing to “lose the primary to win the general” — a signal that he doesn’t intend to pander to base voters or bend from his centrist positions on immigration and Common Core education standards in 2016, even if it costs him support with grassroots conservatives,” The Hill reported. “Still, his absence will further highlight the rift on immigration between himself and others in the party who say he’s too soft on the issue.”
“If a party is trying to polish its image with minorities, one would think it best not to generate ready-made oppo material of presidential candidatess [sic] metaphorically (and maybe otherwise) standing shoulder to shoulder with King,” The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin wrote after noting that Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) has also declined to attend the summit this year. “He is no David Duke, but his distasteful and flamboyant attacks on illegal immigrants are well known. This is not an association that presidential hopefuls want to take on.”
If attendance at this event disqualifies Republican presidential candidates from holding higher office, we will have to write off Texas Gov. Rick Perry and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Both will be speaking at the event. Christie even had the gall to call King a personal “friend.” Clearly, this blue state governor, immigration reform advocate, and criminal justice reformer has forever alienated Hispanics. Similarly, the Texas governor who won nearly 40 percent of the Latino vote in the last election and who called his opponents heartless for opposing in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrants will not imperil his political career with a Freedom Summit appearance.
Moreover, analysis like that above does not take into account the fact that Mitt Romney declined to attend the Iowa Freedom Summit in 2011. His 2012 performance among Hispanic voters indicated that he had not earned much goodwill from that decision.
On the other end of the ledger are those like the author Shane Vander Hart, who savaged Bush for his decision in the blog Caffeinated Thoughts. “Some think showing up to an event and meeting with grassroots Republicans is somehow pandering to them,” he wrote. “No, it’s going out and earning their vote.”
Avoiding the base so you don’t have answer tough questions is not noble It’s cowardly. A candidate won’t win the general election if the base of the party stays home. Ask Mitt Romney how well that strategy worked out for him after all.
Governor Bush has cleared his plate so he can explore a presidential campaign. This is a first test and it’s one he failed. You don’t win people over by avoiding them.
Fair point, but just how relevant will this kerfuffle be in six months’ time? It’s debatable whether anyone will even remember who attended an off-year Iowa Freedom Summit by March let alone when Hawkeye State caucus-goers assemble next year. King’s controversial status is not purely an invention of the press, but his outsize influence over the presidential nominating process sure is.
Maybe it is just a slow news day after the New Year holiday but, barring a scandalous sound bite emerging from this conference, it is hard to see the effect that attendance or non-attendance will have on the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.