Iowa Caucuses, RIP

EDITORIAL

BY ART CULLEN

It was fun while it lasted, but Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses are toast because of a bad cellphone app. That will be good for Iowa, mostly, and bad for America. Good for Iowa because the flood of political money and malice that permeates what was a middling, pragmatic state will dry up. Bad for America because Iowa and New Hampshire force candidates to meet real voters and talk about issues that matter to them.

Iowa did its job. We winnowed the field from 25 candidates down to four or five. That always has been our function. It is not to pick a “winner.” Iowa and New Hampshire help narrow the field and sharpen the survivors. We never intended to pick a winner when the caucuses were devised in 1972 following the disastrous 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. We intended to open up the party process to everyone — everyone can help select delegates and write a platform. It was supposed to be a grassroots party-building exercise to take power out of the smoke-filled back rooms and put it with the people.

The media caught on in 1976 when Jimmy Carter, a peanut farmer from Georgia, shook hands in each of the 99 counties and vaulted his candidacy onto the national stage. Since then, the media expects Iowa to pick a winner. Every time a Democrat would lose in the general election, you would hear griping about Iowa going first. The big money would prefer to select the candidate who would campaign with TV ads and with big rallies near an airport, and not in Storm Lake. Each cycle, the state party had to defend Iowa.

Over the years, Iowans listened carefully and analyzed. Many couldn’t make up their minds because they had only met a candidate three times. It fed our egos. We became pundits, all of us. But it worked. It allowed the likes of Carter and a young upstart from Illinois, Barack Obama, to take the nation by storm. If the first primary were in California or Michigan, it is likely neither would have had a chance because they had no money. Pete Buttigieg would never have a chance, and that would be a shame because Buttigieg is a good and honest man who earned his top Iowa spot fair and square.

The caucuses are anachronistic, in that the classic Greek meeting in the public square is. They have access problems, which the state party has tried to address with special satellite caucuses in nursing homes, work sites and, in Storm Lake, for Latinos and Sudanese.

In the 2016 cycle the Bernie Sanders campaign claimed it was treated unfairly by the Iowa Democratic Party, that it somehow favored Hillary Clinton. The Democratic National Committee ordered Iowa and Nevada, another early caucus state, to do more with transparency and accessibility. In the good old days you could count heads in Fonda and phone it in to Des Moines. Now they have an app for that, imposed by the DC controllers on Iowa and Nevada, developed by a company populated by former Hillary Clinton advocates. Caucus plans developed by Iowans were rejected by the DNC.

The app didn’t work. Modern technology meets Greek exercise in civic discourse. Iowa looks incompetent. In fact, the DNC imposed a faulty reporting mechanism that the state party did not publicly test in a pre-flight for fear of hacking. As of late this week, we still did not have full reporting. Buttigieg and Sanders appear to be tied, with Elizabeth Warren in third.

To the other issues: Iowa is too white and cannot represent minority views: We give you Jesse Jackson with a strong Iowa showing years ago, and Barack Obama in 2008. That it is too rural: Democrats need to figure out how to do better along the gravel roads or lose to Trump. That it is inaccessible: The state party is fixing that with satellite caucuses (one resident showed up for the special caucus at Methodist Manor).

With all the media mania in Iowa we got a little manic ourselves. Our heels are dug in. Iowa Nice is not so nice anymore. We used to be able to have a friendly conversation about politics, now we want to punch each other. Enough. We’re tired of that. Maybe without the caucuses, we can be friendly neighbors again, once all the dark money plies its lies someplace else.

America will lose a highly informed electorate that deeply cares about issues facing everyone. The two big issues this year were health care and climate change. But the powers that be want a winner, not necessarily a reasonable discussion about how agriculture might lead us out of a climate crisis. Iowans had those sorts of discussions with presidential candidates this year, and it elevated the national debate. Civic discourse will be poorer if Iowa and New Hampshire are not helping set the tone. We will miss that.

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