Held Hostage in Iowa

Posted: Jan 04, 2008 12:01 AM
Held Hostage in Iowa

I'm writing this just hours before Iowans head to the caucuses to pick their party's nominee. The day before the caucuses, Hillary Clinton proclaimed the "eyes of the world" were on Iowa. This is something of an overstatement, of course. Something tells me very few of the women around the village well in some shanty outside Lahore are, at this moment, debating whether Joe Biden will have enough drivers to get his people to the Martin Memorial Library, at 406 Packwaukee St., in New Hartford on caucus night. And the cafes in Saigon are hardly abuzz with the question of whether Mike Huckabee nailed his closing argument to the guests of the Council Bluffs Cracker Barrel.

Still, the Iowa caucuses are important, enormously, absurdly, outlandishly - scandalously! - important. And here's the thing: If we are going to drive a stake through the Iowa caucuses, now is the moment to do it. Regardless of Thursday's results, come Monday of next week some other twisted soul is going to start scouting Des Moines locations for his 2012 campaign office. And not long after that, a whole passel of politicians will find it in their interest to protect the Iowa caucuses in a craven attempt to win sympathy from the Hawkeye State political machine.

Don't get me wrong. I like Iowa. I've been there many times. I would argue that one of the three best steakhouses in the world is Rube's in humble Montour. Iowans are as nice as the land is flat. Given a choice between having the first-in-the-nation caucus thingamajig in Iowa every four years and having it in some other state, I think Iowa wins pretty handily.

But that's the thing. No state should have this much power every four years. (Sorry, that goes for New Hampshire, too.)

Before we get to that, let us also note for the record how stupid the process of "caucusing" is compared with this other ancient custom known as "voting." The system, particularly on the Democratic side, is a mix of Chinese fire drill, Politburo theatrics and Roman priestly ceremony. Caucusers get no secret ballot, but must instead vote with their feet. Democrats actually have to stand in a corner. The caucuses (cauci?), in the words of the Wall Street Journal's John Fund, "were designed as an insiders' game to attract party activists, donors and political junkies and give them a disproportionate influence in the process. In other words, they are designed not to be overly democratic."

Defenders of Iowa's racket make it sound like theirs is a tradition hallowed by time consecrated, a custom straight from the bosom of the American heartland, like maypole dancing and barn raising. Poppycock. Iowa's first-in-the-nation boondoggle began in 1972, and according to Mark Stricherz, author of "Why the Democrats are Blue: Secular Liberalism and the Decline of the People's Party," has its roots in the New Left, not Norman Rockwell. The "participatory democracy" of the Port Huron Statement informs the arcane procedures that eschew "one man, one-vote" and discriminate against people who can't afford to spend two hours jibber-jabbering about whether Barack Obama's nationalized health-care plan is better than John Edwards' nationalized health-care plan.

Iowans claim that they deserve to be kingmakers because they take the "process" so seriously, measuring the candidates, debating every issue, etc. Uh huh. Then why has turnout, at least until this year, hovered around 6 percent of registered voters? Is that a benchmark to which no other state could aspire?

More important, if Iowans are so deadly serious about the issues, why is ethanol the third rail of Iowa politics? It's hard to reconcile the idea that Iowans are exemplary custodians of civil virtue with the fact that they are rabid defenders of welfare checks for government moonshine.

This is not to say that Iowans don't take their role in the selection process seriously. But do you want to know why they take their responsibilities seriously? Because they've been given an important responsibility. Are we really to believe that if North Dakota were given the first-in-the-nation gig, it would fumble the ball? Are Montanans such mouth-breathing morons that they can't put on a caucus or primary?

Iowa's party and press hacks say they have the machinery and procedures in place to run things smoothly. Of course they say that; they're party hacks and they get rich and famous off that machinery and those procedures. My guess is that other hacks in other states would rise to the challenge - and incentives! - of such an opportunity.

That's why the first-in-the-nation primary elections should rotate. Pick some formula in which two different states get picked every four years. You could have rules accounting for geographic diversity - back-to-back events in North and South Carolina, for example, would be silly. But move it around so that the country isn't held hostage by the same left-wing and right-wing populists every four years.

But we'd better act now. Because by next week, the Iowans start taking hostages again.