They may have flirted with other, spicier candidates, but Republican voters will return to the one who is stable, reasonable, and thoroughly unexciting.
Other than the losing candidates themselves, the people unhappiest with the Iowa results must be journalists and Democrats.
Journalists for the simple and obvious reason that a fierce battle is a lot more interesting to watch, and to write about, than a triumphal march. And Democrats because, even though Mitt Romney didn't emerge from the caucuses entirely unscathed, what he suffered was, as they used to say in old cowboy movies, "just a flesh wound." And since Democrats know Romney is the most dangerous -- arguably the only dangerous -- Republican presidential candidate in the field, they would like to have seen him injured far more grievously than actually occurred. An eight-vote win isn't much of a win (his margin of victory was even narrower than Al Gore's in the 2000 presidential election), but no one can call it a defeat.
Perhaps the best way to think about Republican primary voters this year is to imagine them as the bride in an arranged marriage. Her parents have chosen well for her, better than she had any right to expect; she has no grounds for complaint and knows it. The groom they have found for her is responsible, decent, reliable, a good provider, and even very handsome. But he just doesn't excite her. There's nothing about him that makes her heart beat faster. When she contemplates a future being wedded to him, something inside her shrivels up and dies.
So in the months before the marriage she goes a little crazy. Spends her nights at the bars in a bad section of town. Lets inappropriate strangers buy her drinks, and goes home with more than a few of them. Deep in her heart, she knows her behavior isn't merely ill advised, it's foolhardy. These guys (and even one woman!) won't make her happy even for a night, let alone a lifetime. They're all wrong, and some of them are even a little nuts. But they're dashing and dangerous and transgressive, and she's in that heedless mood where she just doesn't give a damn. By morning, she always realizes she's made a dreadful mistake. But that's desperation for you: She doesn't want to be reasonable, she wants to rebel. And this is looking like her last chance. Of course, on some level, she's aware she's going to be marching down the aisle with Mr. Sensible soon enough.
For those of us watching this matrimonial crisis closely, the only question remaining prior to Iowa was whether there was time for one more folly before she came to her senses. We knew the identity of the one guy on a bar stool she hadn't hooked up with, we just didn't know if she'd have an opportunity to plant herself on the back of his Harley before reality set in. Well, as became evident in the last week before the Republicans caucused, the answer was yes.
As with each of her previous flings, she didn't begin to know enough about this fellow before deciding he might be worth a tumble. Rick Santorum appears personable, boyish, and pleasant. He gives every indication of being an upright sort of person. But his politics are genuinely abhorrent, so far outside the American mainstream as to be almost Falangist. Once his views become more widely known, he would drive voters away in droves; with sufficient exposure, it's unlikely he could carry a single state outside the deep South. The only reasons he did so well in Iowa are a) he was the last alternative still standing, and b) while he's known to be conservative, a buzzword that makes Republicans salivate without requesting a definition, the full extent of his views aren't well known at all, and would not survive scrutiny.
The battle isn't quite over. Santorum hasn't yet undergone the sort of examination that undid, in turn, Trump, Bachmann, Cain, Perry, and Gingrich. He might have time to make a little mischief in New Hampshire before that happens, and South Carolina might be congenial territory for him regardless. And he has a spirited, spiteful ally in Newt Gingrich. Gingrich feels aggrieved, and when Gingrich feels aggrieved, he gets mean. Or perhaps it's more accurate to say he gets meaner. He must know he's going down, but he's going to do everything he can to pull Mitt Romney down with him. Pure personal vengeance. Many of Romney's vulnerabilities are well enough known by now to occasion no surprise, but I think we're going to see him suffer some serious new knife wounds, front and back, during the next few debates.
Romney is going to be the Republican nominee. But he will be a damaged nominee. Which isn't to say he will lose -- it's much too early for those kinds of predictions -- but it does mean his path to victory is steeper and more tortuous than it had to be.
Two other thoughts: President Obama's recess appointment of Richard Cordray was, yes, an appropriate and justified exercise of executive power. But it was also, in a modest and opening-gambit sort of way, an announcement of how he is going to run for re-election this year: Like Harry Truman in 1948. His opponent will be not only Mitt Romney, but the Congressional Republican Party.
And most interestingly, I suspect Iowa may mark the turning point in the way the country views the Supreme Court's recent, indefensible decision, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. It was a decision most conservatives embraced when first issued, but the mischievous and entirely foreseeable consequences of this idiotic piece of jurisprudence are now visible for all to see. The fact that the State Supreme Court of a conservative state like Montana seems to agree has to be taken as a great big fat straw in the wind.