by Herb Strentz and Gil Cranberg
U.S. is ill served by far right Iowa caucuses
The nation needs and deserves better than the Iowa presidential caucuses.
Unless you are a fan of the Theater of the Absurd, there is no reason to look forward to the caucuses, about a year from now — Feb. 6, 2012.
Religious zeal and absurdity mark the Iowa political landscape today. Whether those characteristics are an asset or a liability in selecting nominees for President may be a matter of opinion. But Iowa’s role in the process should be more suspect than ever.
Presidential campaigns aside, the caucuses are part of the routine operating systems of the Iowa Democratic and Republican parties, so the caucuses cannot be called off. But it’s questionable why anyone should pay much attention to them nowadays, and why the national press should spend much money covering them.
The state’s credentials as a candidate-maker have been questioned because of its relatively small and homogenous population — 3 million and 92.3 percent white. In the byzantine caucus process, thousands of votes for a Democratic candidate may be ignored if that candidate’s support is less than 15 percent at many of the almost 1,800 caucus sites. On the GOP side, a pre-caucus ’11 August “straw vote” on party nominees is little more than a fund-raiser for Iowa Republicans — candidates in effect buy votes — but the “poll” has been accorded some political legitimacy by many reporters.
Iowa was certified as a nominee bellwether with the Jimmy Carter presidential candidacy in 1976. Carter came from figuratively nowhere to finish second after “uncommitted” in the Iowa caucuses. The logic was, and is, that the Iowa setting provides an opportunity for qualified candidates to show their merit. Candidates meet plain folks face-to-face, talk with informed citizens in kitchens and living rooms and get attention even if they have not attracted the financial backing necessary to mount a campaign that would be treated seriously by the news media.
If candidates are not treated seriously by the political press, the caucuses are. So, over the years, a candidate who does not do as well as the news media predict may as well pack his or her bags for home and not for New Hampshire, the next stop for presidential wannabes.
While Iowa’s population has changed little, the political atmosphere in the state has changed markedly. The caucuses served the nation best in 2008 by affirming that a black presidential candidate could garner substantial support from white voters. On the other hand:
• The religious right now is in such control of the Iowa Republican Party that the GOP 2012 caucuses will be a modified limbo contest, seeing how far to the right each candidate can lean. For example, Steve Sheffler, Iowa’s national GOP committeeman, is president of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, formerly the Iowa Christian Alliance.
• Iowa’s deserved reputation for fairness and the role of its courts in protecting civil rights had been enhanced in April 2009 when the Iowa Supreme Court ruled 7-0 that a state law banning same sex marriages was unconstitutional because it advanced religious — not public — interests. But in November 2010, Iowa voters led by the religious right voted not to retain the three Supreme Court justices on the ballot. Republican Bob Vander Plaats, who led the anti-retention campaign, now heads a group intent on influencing the caucuses. In his 2010 bid for his party’s nomination for governor, in an op-ed piece in The Des Moines Register, he invoked Jesus Christ as a reason not to compromise or yield on core principles, writing: “…a ‘lukewarm’ commitment makes Him want to vomit.”
• Gov. Terry Branstad, the winner of the GOP gubernatorial primary and the November election, also was governor from 1982-1998, years when the right took control of the party and the law banning same-sex marriage was passed (1998). At a news conference on Dec. 6, then Gov.-elect Branstad characterized the Supreme Court decision as a “tragic mistake” and said “restraint is vital” for the court on matters of strong public opinion.
• The Iowa GOP platform is bizarre, containing as it does planks calling for the right to carry concealed weapons in K-12 public schools and doing away with smoking bans, no-fault divorce and minimum wage laws — for openers. The Iowa news media generally ignore the platform and some GOP candidates distanced themselves from it. The only Republicans who take the platform seriously are those who will dominate the 2012 caucuses and the screening of their party’s candidates.
• Because Democrats have the incumbent President and because of losses suffered in the 2010 election, their caucuses will be mostly an exercise in party building and generating hope.
The Iowa presidential caucuses — Why bother? CV
Herb Strentz is a retired administrator and professor in the Drake School of Journalism and Mass Communication and writes occasional columns for Cityview.
Gil Cranberg is the former editor of The Des Moines Register’s opinion pages.