Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Iowa Caucuses--Gotta Know the Territory, Territory, Territory

Here we are, January 3, 2012. It’s Iowa Caucus night. It’s the night Republican contenders/wannabes/candidates have been anticipating for months now. Regrettably the preening and posturing is just getting into high gear.

Most Americans, I think, wonder why the process of nominating a candidate starts in such an unassuming state like Iowa or New Hampshire. After all, these places really “don’t count”. Or do they?

And, Iowa’s not even a primary. It’s a damned caucus for crying out loud. What’s a caucus anyway? I did the Iowa caucuses 3 times over a 12 year period of living in Iowa. They were a fascinating experience. All 3 of them were as a Republican even though I was almost invariably the most liberal person in the room. (In Iowa a pro-choice Republican is like being a fiscally conservative Democrat).

But wouldn’t it be nice to have some sort of rule that says the candidates can’t even begin to posture and preen and sling manure until after Halloween the year before primary season? If that were the case, the only “losers” would be the media—both “news” and advertising.

Here’s the thing as far as I’m concerned: Meredith Wilson wrote a wonderful musical set in Iowa (he was from Mason City, after-all) called “The Music Man”. Professor Harold Hill gave all traveling salesmen a bad name. Why? Because as the opening number in the musical said, “he doesn’t know the territory, territory, territory.”

But I digress. Yes, indeed Iowa’s caucuses count. I remember the caucus season in 1983 (damn, I’m old, aren’t I?) when I was living and running the local Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development Corporation in Algona, Iowa—population 6,000. This was the year that Democrats were trying to wrest the White House from Ronald Reagan who had defeated incumbent Jimmy Carter in 1980. Walter Mondale, Carter’s VP, secured the nomination.

One of the things I remember best was John Glenn coming into town to a gathering at the Chrome Country Café—a truck stop at the junction of Highways 169 and 18. There were about 20 people who showed up—mostly older farmers and their families along with a smattering of business types from town. Glenn showed up in a van, with a retinue of maybe 3 people accompanying him. And no media—other than the local reporters from newspaper and radio station.

It was a conversation over coffee. What were people actually thinking? What did they want? How was Glenn going to help provide that? It was a time for a very short “stump speech” and lots of feedback. And that’s what the caucuses are all about—putting a human face on the candidate; expecting the candidate to do this thing called listening.

Now, the expectation is for the candidate to strut their stuff and address their “core” or their “base”. Hell if they want to do something with their core, they should do crunches and planks.

Yeah, Iowa is a largely rural state (unless you live in Des Moines or Waterloo or Cedar Rapids and think the world revolves around your city). And indeed, many in the larger cities started out in small towns. But the caucuses are about interaction. They’ve been bastardized by the changes in the process over the years.

My last caucus was in the late 90’s when “W” was going after the nomination. By then the process had become totally centered on the media and mean-spirited. And it has only gotten worse.

Here’s the thing—Iowans tend to be “what you see is what you get”. They have a fairly low bullshit tolerance. This is a state which has consistently re-elected arguably one of the U.S. Senate’s most liberal members, Tom Harkin and one of it’s most conservative members, Chuck Grassley to term after term.

Why? Because each, in his own way, speaks to the people of this state. Each is passionate about his beliefs and yet shares the root values of the state. The cross-over vote each time one is up for re-election is phenomenal. Republicans routinely vote for Harkin and Democrats for Grassley.

Yeah, Iowa counts. But I don’t think the current crop of contenders really understand the how or why of it. Wouldn’t it be nice if they made an effort to know the “territory, territory, territory.” Maybe then they’d be able to muster the ability to actually do something productive and positive.

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