Saturday, December 19, 2009

The overwrought Hawkeye

This post isn't about Obama, who's governing no better or worse than Hillary Clinton would have. It's not about David Plouffe, either. It's about Iowa.

My current read is The Audacity to Win, the campaign trail memoir by David Plouffe, manager of Barack Obama's winning presidential campaign. My interest in this book is threefold: simple curiosity for an insider's view of this novel campaign, piqued interest on the basis of Jerome Armstrong's posts over at MyDD, and the knowledge that the author is today directing the re-election campaign of Deval Patrick.

As with many victory lap memoirs, there are a few interesting but ultimately unshocking tidbits mixed in with loving recounting of victories and rationalizaton of mistakes. There is a three-page extended excuse about Obama's (correct) decision to back out of public financing for his campaign. Why not admit that Obama's promise to follow the regime was made when the money wasn't there, and now that it was, the federal campaign would hamper it? Bill Richardson is ignored save for a cheap shot about his weight, John Edwards ignored aside from the revelation that Obama's people pushed the expensive haircut story. Hilary Clinton and Ted Kennedy are the only Democrats for whom David Plouffe demonstrates anything resembling respect. John McCain receives more praise (I haven't gotten to the part about Sarah Palin yet).

However, the most overwhelming aspect of the book is the careful, loving, almost obsessive attention given by Barack Obama and his campaign to Iowa. This obsession is reflected in an exhaustive and exhausting recounting of the Iowa adventures and strategy, which outweighs attention given to Super Tuesday. I am unaware of any electoral system in the world that places such a pivotal role on such an idiosyncratic, unrepresentative, and small population that Iowa enjoys in the American system. The culmination of this courting period is the caucus process, an exercise that is self-limiting and violates the fundamental democratic principle of the secret ballot. After the primary process faded, the spitefully undemocratic nature and overall enormous suckitude of caucuses and baffling centrality of Iowa were forgotten.

Reading this book has reminded me. It reminded me that individual, smaller counties in Iowa were the subject of more discussion, candidate time, infrastructure, focus, and planning in the primary campaign than the entire state of Massachusetts was. Linn County, Iowa was a more important audience for the Obama campaign that was California, in all probability. The crafting of message, and quite arguably policy, balanced on the point of Iowa. (Parallel statements could be made about the Edwards and Hillary Clinton campaigns, as well.)

Sadly, the entitlement of this state will go unchallenged, as the Democratic Rules Committee is seeking to further enshrine the inexplicable privilege of Iowa in their upcoming recommendations. As a time when this reform process would be as apolitical as it would ever get, inertia has apparently taken over, untroubled by the lack of leadership that has been the hallmark of Tim Kaine's tenure as chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

Four or eight years from now, we're going to witness this all over again, as millions of dollars and hours are spent on every nook and cranny of the Hawkeye State, while Massachusetts receives about as much primary attention as Manitoba.


James Patrick Conway said...

To be fair-I had a lot more fun campaigning in IA than I ever have in MA.

During 06 when I doorknocked for Patrick most people in my neighborhood in Cambridge didn't even know who he was two months before the primary, or that there was a primary, or that Romney was not the Republican nominee.

In Iowa every door I knocked I had a nice, nearly five minute discussion with the head of the house who was highly educated about the issues and excited to vote. Now this does leave a chicken and the egg question. Are Iowans (and arguably New Hampshireites) more politically attuned people so they should have disproportionate influence or are they more politically attuned people because they have disproportionate influence? I am not sure. Either way MA will never get the attention it deserves, especially with Teddy gone.

James Patrick Conway said...

Also arguably it is more democratic to have contests partly decided on personal interactions with the candidates, to have a smaller state force old fashioned retail politics, etc. Also the fact that both of these states are nominal swing states, and how NH has a lot of independent voters, also is a point in their favor.

That said the caucus is entirely undemocratic and outdated, and in reality both campaigns these days tend to become media wars anyway, so a saner system might make more sense.

Quriltai said...

Two things:

I also enjoyed campaigning in Iowa until about 5 days out from the caucus, when everyone (including me) had gotten sick of the whole process. Given the amount of time lavished on Iowa, I would hope their voters would be very attuned to what's happening; I would say that any state would react similarly.

The thing I don't get is that retail politics in IA and NH aren't mirrored in the realities of campaigning and governing overall. It's like saying that your ability to farm is a good indication of your ability to cook.

And finally, I could even stomach this baffling adoration of Iowa if the caucus process were spiked. It's baffling, mathematically intricate, chaotic, and undemocratic -- democracy if it had been invented in a Moroccan bazaar.