Monday, May 16, 2011

On The Diminishing Relevance of the Iowa GOP Caucuses

Two items in the Op-Ed pages of the May 15, 2011 Des Moines Register intrigued me enough to comment. There is a trend linking the two, though my guess is that the authors would disagree with me on that.

The first was a piece written by Fergus Cullen, the former Republican Party Chair for the State of New Hampshire. The article is titled Iowa losing clout because of people 'in tinfoil hats'? I have to admit, I am not sure why Cullen phrases this as a question; the “tinfoil hats” have absolutely established themselves as the controlling factor of the Republican caucuses, as the author goes on to prove in his essay.

For those not familiar with this political idiosyncrasy, the caucuses in Iowa are as demonstrative of the adage "all politics is local" as it is possible to be. They are face to face question and answer sessions to which candidates have to come prepared not only with any number of possible answers, but a healthy dose of honesty and sincerity. Glib glad-handers do not do well in Iowa – just ask the Mike Huckabee-singed Mitt Romney in 2008. Iowans pride themselves on their ability to solicit from the candidates a real picture of how they will respond if and when in office. To give you but one example, I saw Joe Biden respond to my question about an obscure Senate resolution regarding the Military Code of Justice and private military contractors with a knowledge that impressed everyone in the room. In states where larger populations require more ad buys than personal appearances, true pictures of candidates are harder to emerge. This is why Iowa and New Hampshire are so important to this process – we may not be truly representative of the American public, but there are no better first lines of defense in this battle that the Presidential process has become.

Cullen knows this, and he laments the diminution of the defense Iowa can offer this election cycle. To be clear, despite his being from New Hampshire, this essay does smugly assert that his state should supersede Iowa as first in the nation; Cullen seems perfectly fine with the arrangement as it is. Iowa and New Hampshire were, as Cullen calls them at the outset, "childhood friends," who only recently have grown apart.

Why has Iowa fallen as a power-broker in the Republican nominating process? Because of those wearing their "tinfoil hats." Cullen does not name names, but the leader of these folks is none other than Bob Vander Plaats. While Iowa has always had a significant evangelical element of the party (see Huckabee over Romney, for example), it is the recent success in not retaining three Iowa Supreme Court justices involved in the decision to legalize same sex marriage in the state that has emboldened this group and is therefore forcing any candidate seeking to win the Republican Presidential Caucuses to kowtow to the Vander Plaats-led crazy hordes. Forget biofuels; forget debt ceilings; forget the fight against terrorism. If you want to win Iowa you better see two men kissing as the single greatest threat this nation has ever encountered. And you best be prepared to go public with that sentiment. And that’s the problem; going public with this ultra-social conservative position in this state makes it quite difficult to move to the political center once the general election gets underway.

The easier route then, for any candidate wishing to strongly challenge President Obama is to skip Iowa. The state that basically put Jimmy Carter into office in 1976, and which gave Barack Obama a leg up on Hillary Clinton in 2008 (despite her taking New Hampshire that year), has rendered itself irrelevant this year because of its dogged adherence to the social, Christian conservative agenda.

But wait, you say. What about the election of the somewhat moderate Terry Branstad for Governor in 2010? Branstad was the beneficiary of a number of factors in his win. Vander Plaats and Rod Roberts, his challengers for the nomination, were behind from the start because of the former Governor’s widespread name recognition as well as the money he was able to accumulate from the moment he threw his hat into the proverbial ring. Once the general election came about – with the months since the caucus giving the former Governor ample opportunities to raise even more funds – Branstad benefitted by going up against Chet Culver, who may go down as one of, if not the worst campaigner in state history. It remains hard to imagine a more bumbling campaign than that run by Culver; even the John McCain choice of Sarah Palin for running mate pales in comparison to the missteps taken by the Culver camp. It is therefore inaccurate to believe that the Branstad victory proves Cullen wrong.

I said there were two things in the Sunday Register that were worth pointing out, and the second is a letter to the editor that just goes to prove Cullen’s assertions correct. One of the Register’s resident letter-writing cranks, and Third Reformed Church Elder Lyle D. Horman of Pella, Iowa – responds to a previous column wondering if there are any common political bonds among Iowans with a resounding "No." Horman writes: "Public reaction to the Varnum decision legalizing same-sex marriage is emblematic of a tear in Iowa's social fabric that will not be mended soon. But I see Varnum as more an effect of social disintegration than a cause. Only a culture already deeply corrupted could have produced such a ghastly outcome." He later goes on to wish that he could snap his fingers and have all liberals vanish so that "The social and political progress we would make would be breathtaking." I'm not sure what he means by social progress – I thought Varnum was social progress, but then I'm a raging liberal.

I am not going to address that last thought in this post though. My point in mentioning this letter is to demonstrate how correct Cullen is in illustrating the demise of relevance Iowa suffers this election cycle. And as a voter who did not caucus for Obama because I thought, despite the great symbolism of his campaign he was the most conservative of the Democrats seeking the nomination; but one who will vote for him in 2012, let me just say this: I could not be more delighted to see the Iowa Republican Party and caucus process in such disarray.


Bob said...

I suspect that it is not so much Iowa is irrelevant as Iowas is delaying the entry of serious candidates. They need an excuse for losing Iowa, like they did not enter the race in time to put together the "grass roots" campaign necessary to win. It is better to have a good excuse than to have a catalog of intemporate comments to explain.

Ralph Siddall said...

This may be true, Bob; a symptom of playing the expectations game.

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