Portsmouth, N.H. April is not the cruelest month, August is.
It was August when the military machinery of two world wars cranked into gear, August when Germany and Soviet Russia signed their pact of cynicism and militarism, August when the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when the Tonkin Gulf resolution was passed, when the tanks moved into Czechoslovakia, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, when President Bill Clinton faced the nation with an awful truth he thought he had hidden.
And so we began this month with the follies in Washington and continue this week with the follies of Ames.
The debt-ceiling episode in Washington, unworthy of the American people, is one of those historical markers whose meaning will become clear only as the years pass. Both sides turned a debate about nothing into a debate about everything, and in the course of doing so alienated everybody.
The result is that the 2012 election, 15 months away, is now seen as the crucible of decision, and it is sadly fitting that its first test is Saturday in Ames, Iowa, where Republicans are holding a straw poll, which also means nothing but somehow will be interpreted to mean something, if not everything.
The Iowa Straw Poll, held on the baking plains in the oven-heat of summer, is even less democratic than the Iowa caucuses, which usually occur on the coldest night of the year. It is an event where issues are barely spoken but displays of political power — none of which has anything to do with the budget deficit, the debate about taxes, the future of entitlements, the role of American power in the world or the fate of democracy around the globe — are rewarded.
If you doubt the lack of soundness and sense inherent in this event, let me remind you that the Rev. Pat Robertson won this spectacle in 1987 and that Sen. Phil Gramm tied for the lead in 1995. Such worthy figures as Sen. Lamar Alexander and Sen. Elizabeth H. Dole dropped out of the GOP race after poor showings in this event, which is a tractor pull for policy wonks.
This year’s straw poll comes amid an especially silly season — but a soberly serious juncture — in the Republican presidential race. It has begun to heat up in Iowa, which likely will hold its caucuses in early February, and here in New Hampshire, which likely will hold the first primaries eight days later.
Already, the contests in Iowa and New Hampshire have taken on unusually distinct characteristics, though there have been tinges of this in the past.
In the 1988 Democratic race, Iowa was about protectionism and New Hampshire was about competence in governance. In the Republican race, Iowa was about faith and family values and New Hampshire was about job creation.
But the gulf between the Iowa and New Hampshire contests has never been as great as it is this time.
Iowa is about abortion and fealty to a new Republican ideal of conservatism that melds social issues with ferocious fiscal discipline. New Hampshire, days later, reacts to Iowa — and so it is about whether the tea party impulses that are so strong in Iowa will resonate here and whether the verities of old New England conservatism (thrift, rectitude, even such nonpolitical elements as modesty and character) still have a place in a state that is swiftly becoming suburbanized and in a country that seems determined to remain polarized.
As Washington burned last week, Republicans here in New Hampshire were conferring quietly by telephone with Gov. Rick Perry of Texas — he was 40 minutes on the horn with freshman U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, according to one account — and debating whether former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts was a wiz or a dud as a job creator during his years as governor between 2003 and 2007.
This tells us that as Iowa leans toward its Saturday appointment with pointlessness, the race in New Hampshire has yet to take shape. The principles are there — Obama is a disaster and the national economy is still in the doldrums, despite a state unemployment rate that is unusually low, around 5 percent — but the principals are not.
It’s not that anyone here is pining for former Gov. Sarah Palin — she attracts remarkably little interest in New Hampshire — or even that desperate for Perry, who as a Texan is the very definition of an alien to these parts, to join the fray. It’s simply that it will likely boil down to a struggle between Romney, who owns a vacation home here, and whoever is selected by Iowa.
The big unknown is the character of the electorate in this state, where independents can vote in the Republican primary.
Will Republican regulars line up with Romney for his familiarity, his dependability, his acceptability? Or will they look at Romney as an opportunist drawn to the center, or even the left, by the poisoned political atmosphere of Massachusetts and then drawn to the center, or really the right, by his sense that that’s where the votes are in Republican primaries? Or will they gravitate to the new, untested and unsullied philosophers of the tea party right and embrace, as their Democratic rivals did in 2008 when they salvaged Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign, a tough-talking woman, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota?
Will the independents, some of whom voted for Ralph Nader in 2000 and helped deny Al Gore the presidency, play the cerebral game of sabotaging the Republicans by voting for the most moderate contender in the race, probably former Gov. Jon Huntsman of Utah, or play the more cynical game of sabotaging the Republicans by voting for the most strident Republican in the field, probably Bachmann, whose intelligence and intensity they underestimate and whom they think Obama would defeat easily?
But what is lingering in the brisk air of a New Hampshire summer is the possibility that Iowa’s straw poll and its caucuses will send Bachmann, whose style and rhetoric are smoking hot, to face off against Romney, whose style and rhetoric are Utah and Winnipesaukee cool. Which brings us to the final question of a Granite State August, posed as Iowa prepares for its test of strength in straw: Could this be the gravest, greatest New Hampshire primary ever?