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Guest Commentary

The Iowa caucus: silk purse or sow’s ear?

1/27/2016

Iowa lore has it that after Monday the only ones still caucus-minded will be hotels and motels and car-rental agencies wondering if they will ever collect money owed by candidates whose campaigns fizzled during their Iowa ordeal.

For the rest of us, caucus 2016 — and how it was trumped — can be summed up in four timeworn expressions:

Just when you think it couldn’t get any worse, it does.

Be careful what you wish for.

Make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.You get what you deserve.

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It couldn’t get any worse?
As the caucus reached the home stretch, a Des Moines Register headline noted, “Next two weeks could get nastier.” Talk about a sure thing! After all, we’ve already endured a campaign in which one’s standing in the polls only seems to improve by labeling American prisoners of war as losers and a significant minority group as racists and thugs. And speaking of polls, recall the one in June, which led a Register editorial to rhapsodize that religious views would have little effect on the Feb. 1 outcome. Well, we now have GOP candidates running for Chaplain in Chief, not Commander in Chief, to the cheers of Hallelujah! and Amen! from would-be caucus goers!

Press groups and others calling themselves “fact-checkers” are exhausted in trying to keep up with the misstatements in campaign promises, accusations and boasts.

“Establishment candidates” — read that as the sane ones among GOP contenders — will do well to reach double figures in their share of the votes, collectively!

Be careful what you wish for
In previous caucuses, reporters would complain they were bored.  They had nothing to cover but the same, tired old discussion of issues that should be of importance to voters. Boy, the gripes would go, Gore, Bradley, Kemp, McCain and other “establishment candidates” sure are boring. The “bored” reporters would blow off responses that the caucuses were supposed to inform voters, not to amuse reporters or make candidates “fun” to cover because you couldn’t believe what nonsense they would utter next.

The many adjectives that describe the caucus field in 2016 do not include “boring.”

Make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear; after all, this is Iowa
But Iowans did get good some press in articles like that in a New York Times Sunday Travel section. Robert Draper wrapped up his travels around the state with an assessment of what he found in the heartland: “This was the Iowa I had not known, the America I knew in my bones was there all along. Its votes came first for good reason.” (Granted, in its current issue, Harper’s magazine takes Iowa to task for — among other things — the politics of the religious right, awful water pollution and a governor who “serves primarily as a shill for Big Ag.”) Be that as it may, by late Feb. 1 or early Feb. 2, press and TV coverage will wrap up democracy-in-action in Iowa, tie a pretty bow around what we think were our travails and send the whole package off to New Hampshire for that state’s Feb. 9 primary. And in only nine months, speculation will begin on who is prepping for the Iowa caucus of 2020, should Iowa retain its first-in-the-nation status.

Besides, you get what you deserve
Thoughts critical of politics today prompt the rejoinder that voters get the government and the office holders they deserve. H.L. Mencken put it in a less than civil way in 1920: “As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”

That’s too harsh and cynical for most of us.

So let’s turn to our civic saint, George Washington, who in 1783, in his Circular to the States, wrote of all the good fortune the new nation had going for it “and if their Citizens should not be completely free and happy, the fault will be entirely their own.”

If you want a reason to go to your precinct caucus, you can’t beat that one. CV

Herb Strentz is a retired administrator and professor in the Drake School of Journalism and Mass Communication and writes occasional columns for Cityview.

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