Friday, January 04, 2008

Iowa's Fate In The Hands Of Others

Iowa's Fate In The Hands Of Others

As Iowans turn into pumpkins the morning after the ball, some of us are already wondering if we’ll get the first dance again in four years. We had to fight harder, go earlier, and endure more crowded conditions than ever before to keep our coveted spot, and right now is our moment of greatest vulnerability. Our future is entirely in the hands of the results from here on out.

It’s hard to see Republican winner Mike Huckabee cruising to a nomination. The last candidate to break out of an evangelical base, Pat Robertson, went nowhere after Iowa in 1988. Anybody who didn’t go there last night isn’t going to go there, and the GOP race will quickly consolidate into Huckabee vs. Not Huckabee (my bet is Not Huckabee will be John McCain.).

The fate of Iowa rests more on results on the Democratic side. The entire post-Vietnam era reform process, which pushed the start of the nomination season from a traditional second Tuesday in March New Hampshire primary to a Yuletide Iowa caucus, has been driven by Democratic rule changes. Republicans have always been less process-obsessed than the Democrats, more states rights oriented, and for the most part have tagged along with the Democrats.

A Republican win in November would mean a GOP incumbent seeking re-election, and a new round of Democratic navel-gazing and procedure battles. And a Democratic win would leave a Democratic incumbent in charge of the party, with an unprecedented opportunity to impose her or his will on the process.

Iowa is at greater risk than it has been since 1992, when Tom Harkin’s candidacy took us out of the loop. Harkin saved our butts by quickly jumping on Bill Clinton’s bandwagon when his own candidacy faded, in contrast to the other 1992 Democrats who could barely hide their contempt for Clinton. (Jerry Brown and Bob Kerrey probably wrote themselves in that November). Clinton 42 defended Iowa’s role in his 1996 re-elect and in 2000 when he backed his vice president (who failed to return the favor that fall).

The worst thing that can happen to the Iowa Caucuses at this point is a Hillary Clinton presidency. She never seemed at ease with the retail process and Iowa was consistently her weakest state in polling. Before the caucuses even met, Team Clinton was already spinning against the process, arguing that she would have done well with night-shift workers who couldn’t attend.

This is a weakness that caucus defenders genuinely need to address. The process has grown so big that it has outstripped the size of the biggest rooms and parking lots in the precincts, and the reality of the Magic Minute of alignment was stuffy and unpleasant. I was repeatedly contacted by residents of one Iowa City care center, begging for a “sub-caucus” site at their facility and arguing that the negotiations of realignment could be handled by cell phone. But the rules don’t allow that. At some point, Iowa is vulnerable to an ADA lawsuit.

After last night’s results, Hillary Clinton owes Iowa nothing. A President Clinton 44 could choose to leave her mark on the Democratic Party by tearing up the nomination calendar and starting over. If she struggles in the early states but recovers with a Tsunami Tuesday win, then that’s the kind of process we’ll see next time, and Iowans will be voting in a low-turnout June primary, choosing between President Hillary Clinton and a Stassen-like Dennis Kucinich.

But a Barack Obama win – sorry, John, but Obama won the Not Hillary Primary – would help Iowa hold its ground. We catapulted him to a big first win, proved an African American can win an overwhelmingly white state, and we’re next door to his home state to boot. It’s easy to see President Obama standing up for Iowa First in his 2012 re-election race.

However, if Obama is nominated but loses, Swift-Boated the way Hillary Clinton warned, we’re in tough shape. The Howard Dean loving blogosphere pointed at us and said “told ya so” for foisting John Kerry onto the country in 2004, and if we back a nominee who loses again our string may have run out.

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