03 January 2008

The Iowa Way

We got trouble right here.

There’s a lovely song in Meredith Willson’s The Music Man that sums up the state of Iowa:
Oh, there’s nothing halfway
About the Iowa way
To treat you,
When we treat you —
Which we may not do at all.…
And we’re so by-God stubborn
We could stand touchin’ noses
For a week at a time
And never see eye-to-eye.
During my CBS years, around Caucus time, I couldn’t shake that song out of my head. (The feeling grew stronger the year we broadcast from the law library — just like Marion Paroo’s! — of the state capitol in Des Moines.) Yet it often struck me that it wasn’t the Iowans themselves but the candidates who were stubborn. Most of these folks aren’t remotely qualified to hold the highest office in the land; few are personally qualified to hold a lighted match. I mean, seriously. Who wants to buy a used war from any of this year’s contenders?

Most of the candidates have no chance of winning, and they know it, but they believe that by raising their profiles a little, they may wind up with any number of sweetheart deals, from PACs to book contracts to think-tank jobs. They’re not wrong. Running for office is good for your career. It looks great on a résumé.

On a more altruistic level, several of the candidates are pretty obviously running not for the White House but for somebody else’s Cabinet. They’ll take a running-mate’s slot on the ticket, if they can get it, but they’d be perfectly happy as Secretary of Agriculture. After spending months in Iowa, they know a lot about farming, and they’d hate to see that knowledge go to waste. A few candidates are running in order to set up the basis of an organization for another run in four years. And others are simply in love with the sound of their own voices.

And so the candidates persist — stubbornly — giving countless speeches, glad-handing and greeting and debating (and debating and debating), listening very carefully to the concerns of everyday Iowans and promptly forgetting them the day after the vote.

The Think System: If you think you’re a viable candidate, you are.
(But ya gotta know the territory.)

And the Iowans put up with this. Indeed, they seem to enjoy it. They enjoy being first, anyway. And they enjoy being taken seriously, for a few months every four years. Whether they take the candidates seriously is another matter, since it often seems a kind of game to the Iowans, to see what ridiculous positions they can pressure the candidates into taking. Some of the things that have been said these past weeks are stupefying and in any reasonable world would and will prove fatal to a national candidacy. You hear a Republican or Democrat say something, and you think, “Surely he doesn’t believe that.” Well, no, he doesn’t, actually, but he believes that Iowans believe it.

The Iowans are ruining a number of good candidates, and exacerbating some very bad candidates, and they are enjoying the game. It’s not only in being first that Iowans have an unfair advantage over other American voters. It’s in getting to jerk the politicians around. Most of us would like to do that, but by the time the candidates get to our neighborhoods, they’ve grown more cautious. They watch their words. They’ve been burned already. By Iowans.

There are liabilities to Iowa’s precedence, including all the political advertising, which has been especially persistent this year. For many Iowans, it will be a relief to turn on the television or radio and hear ads for toilet paper and laxative again. But the newspapers and broadcasting companies make enough money in the weeks running up to the caucuses to remain in business for another three years. Seriously, when you look at all the trouble that local papers are in, nationwide, even ones as powerful as the Los Angeles Times and the Miami Herald, there’s no other explanation for the relative health and prosperity of the Des Moines Register.

But Meredith Willson wasn’t wrong about the Iowans — he was one, and so is my father, and yes, they are stubborn. Their stubbornness reveals itself in the intricate rules (different for each party and inscrutable in any case) and the low turnout for the caucuses. After all the months of fuss, they don’t even bother to show up and vote! Some analysts are predicting a record turnout, but consider that anything more than 20 percent of registered voters in either party would leave all records in the dust. In most Southern states, this would be considered a terrible breach of manners, the equivalent of letting a man take you to dinner and not even giving him a goodnight kiss, but for the Iowans, it is perfectly natural and acceptable. It’s “the way we treat you, when we treat you, which we may not do at all.”

Sometime tonight, the Iowans will or will not go to their little meetings and express their preferences. The press will attach intense drama to these proceedings, but for the most part the results will either a) make no difference at all, no matter how shocking, or b) merely confirm what’s been obvious since the race began, and oblige the lower-tier candidates to start to drop out. “You can just about picture the Christmas card next December,” Bob Schieffer once mused about a losing candidate as we sat huddling somewhere between broadcasts. “‘We had a busy fall, as Dad ran for President; and in March, Bobby was named captain of the tennis team. Wonderful vacation in Mexico for Spring Break.’”

And by then, of course, New Hampshire will long since have made up our minds for us.