WASHINGTON – For most people, summer is a treasured time to cool your heels in a cottage by a lake or in a hammock in the backyard.
It’s not so simple for politicians. For them, deciding when and where to vacation can be perilous. Repair to a beach on the East Coast and you’re an out-of-touch elitist; stay away too long and you’ll be asked who’s minding the store.
Take President Barack Obama. How dare he go away while he’s dropping bombs in Iraq, even though he can order them to be dropped from wherever he happens to be? He’s taking the political hit of returning to Martha’s Vineyard. He had skipped a visit while running for re-election in 2012. His opponent, Mitt Romney, didn’t have that foresight: He was photographed jet-skiing past his lakeside mansion, reinforcing his image as the kind of plutocrat who hides money in the Cayman Islands.
This time, it’s the term-limited Obama who is taking a chance by playing among the canape eaters and white-wine sippers. He might kill any chance he has to restore his formerly high numbers for “understanding the problems of people like you.” People like you don’t summer among tenured Ivy League professors – or use “summer” as a verb – in a 17-room house on 10 acres worth an estimated $12 million.
He probably should allow a decent interval before that next speech on income inequality.
Perhaps worse, this two-week sojourn on One-Percenter Island probably won’t even score him any points with the fat cats, whose jets have to abide by an elaborate set of security restrictions as long as Obama’s bigger jet is there. (How much more can they endure?)
Republicans are at home in a 10-gallon hat and boots. The outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man, Ronald Reagan explained as he blithely broke the then-record for days spent away from the White House at his California ranch (349 days). Reagan kept his title until another cowboy, George W. Bush, came along and spent 490 days at his ranch in Crawford, Texas.
Democrats just can’t pull off the spurs-and-chaps look and seem able to let down their hair only in places that are cool in the summer, warm in the winter and inaccessible except by private plane. Trying to wipe the wussy liberal elitist cast off his vacations, Bill Clinton polled to find out where the family should go and got the message to saddle up, buckaroos. They headed to a campfire and a chuck wagon in Wyoming, forswearing the swells, ocean and otherwise, of the Vineyard. Once was enough, apparently.
Romney’s sacrifice wasn’t in vain, however. If you’re a Republican running for Obama’s job, the former Massachusetts governor’s missteps are a cautionary tale: Apparently, the safest vacation is no vacation at all. So welcome to Iowa in August, two years before the presidential election but not too soon to forgo the semblance of normality in favor of multiple trips to the site of the first-in-the-country caucuses.
That’s why instead of vacationing like normal Americans, Sen. Rand Paul, Sen. Ted Cruz (his sixth trip), Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee are swamping the Hawkeye State. Gov. Bobby Jindal is hauling his whole family there for the Iowa State Fair.
No offense intended to Iowa and its stellar fair, but a nonpolitician, given the choice, might head someplace cooler, such as a beach. Deep-fried Twinkies on a stick and butter sculptures are worth a visit, but maybe not when temperatures are so high the emergency tent is crowded with victims of heat exhaustion. That explains the custom of candidates who can afford air-conditioned tents, where they serve barbecue and country music before the quadrennial Ames straw poll.
Just because the clothes are casual, the food down-home and the sun is shining doesn’t mean it’s a picnic.
Paul dropped his hamburger mid-bite and skedaddled when a Dreamer, a teenager who’d come to the United States with her undocumented parents, walked up to his table to talk immigration and arch-conservative Rep. Steve King proceeded to insult her.
There’s bound to be a few bad moments when you squeeze in 10 stops over three days as you try to build a bigger tent. Perry, who is trying to show that he gets it on immigration by calling up the Texas National Guard to deal with the border crisis, is spending four days in the state, attending 11 events, and he hasn’t found a diner he doesn’t want to eat in. Along with Cruz, Jindal, Santorum and Huckabee, Perry spent last Saturday wooing evangelicals at the Family Leadership Summit.
All this forgoing of regular summer fun, even though success in Iowa doesn’t get you much (see the nonpresidencies of Michele Bachmann, Huckabee and Santorum).
Storming Iowa isn’t usually a Republicans-only event. It’s just that the presumptive Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, probably won’t face a primary challenge. She doesn’t need to rub shoulders with horses out West or gobble down deep-fried trans fats in Iowa.
This August, she’s thrown caution to the wind, or to the breeze off Gardiner’s Bay, renting an $18 million property in the Hamptons to frolic (Katie Holmes helicoptered in) and do a little politicking. Ink’s been spilled over the cost, given how “dead broke” she claimed her family was a few years ago. The restorative powers of $250,000 speaking fees can’t be overstated. But it’s not all play; there are fundraisers. You can’t soak the rich for campaign money if you don’t go where the rich are soaking.
How someone spends their time when freed from shirt, tie, pantsuit and handlers could give us a rare glimpse of who they really are. But not this year, and not these people. They are so warped by their career choice they can no longer mimic how regular people behave, even when they are supposed to be at rest.
• Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.