Thursday, August 28, 2008

Calendar "reform" risky for Iowa, mistake for Democrats

Calendar "reform" risky for Iowa, mistake for Democrats

In the end, the Michigan and Florida delegate seating that was at the center of the political universe at the end of May sailed through without notice, on a quick credentials vote Monday before the delegates were even though the security lines.

"Unity," it seems, mattered more than loyalty, and the Michigan and Florida pols who heaped vitriol on Barack Obama for standing by the rules, and for taking his name off the Michigan ballot, mattered more than the Iowans who actually caucused for him.

Instead of getting tossed out of the Democratic National Convention for breaking the rules, Michigan and Florida were rewarded with front row seats. "Florida's Rebel Stand Pays Off," bragged the Fort Myers News-Press. You could almost see Michigan's Carl Levin sticking out his tongue and wiggling his fingers in his ears at Iowa, and at the rules.

True, we Iowans were up front too. As we damn well oughta, after giving Barack Obama that critical first win on Jan. 3. But what did we get in return? A "reform commission" (that's Floridian for "Screw Iowa") led by Debbie Dingell of Michigan, one of Iowa's biggest foes.

Hell, even Iowa's most prominent speaking role at this week's convention went to a Republican.

So what can Iowa expect out of "reform?" The Republican rules committee voted Wednesday to keep Iowa first, but Republicans don't share the Democrats' obsession with rules and process. They dealt with their rule breakers swiftly and without controversy, and took away half their delegates. A fine tradeoff, said Michigan and Florida, and everybody just went on campaigning. Iowa can expect little help from a President McCain who has essentially skipped the state in both his nomination bids.

On the Democratic side, if Obama loses, we can expect enraged "told ya so"s from Hillary Clinton's supporters and from a netroots still mad that we scuttled Howard Dean. We can expect a low-key contest tacked onto our June primaries for state and courthouse offices, last in line.

But even if Obama wins, there are big questions. Is his retreat from a solid pro-Iowa stance to backing this calendar commission sincere change or a tactical maneuver, part of the peace negotiations with the Clinton camp? It's hard to keep everyone happy when Michigan sees it as a zero-sum game where they only win if Iowa and New Hampshire lose.

Let's assume that a President Obama decides to dance with them who brung him (that would be us). Even then, look for some changes. At the very minimum, the town meeting nature of the caucuses will end. It really has already. For all the anticipation, the actual magic moment of caucus alignment is crowded and miserable, too many people in too little space with too much noise.

As hard as it is for an Iowan -to admit, Hillary Clinton's backers had a point when they argued that caucuses left some folks out. Shut-ins and shift workers and soldiers who couldn't show up in one place at one time were excluded.

Absentee voting at Democratic Party caucuses and conventions has been barred since the McGovern reforms of the early 1970s. It's considered "proxy voting." Back in the bad old days the way proxy voting worked was, Boss Hogg cast all the proxy votes for everyone who didn't show up for the meeting, which was usually held, conveniently, in the back room of Boss Hogg's saloon and carefully guarded by Boss Hogg's cousin, Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane. That's why they were banned.

But now the pendulum is swinging the other way and some kind of absentee procedure is likely. Will it be limited to people with a hard and fast reason for their absence and a notarized excuse? Or will it work like Iowa's absentee ballots, where anyone can vote early for any reason? That would fundamentally change the caucuses from an in-person gathering to an absentee ballot drive. Every absentee ballot cast is one less person to call on caucus night, and the earlier the votes are cast, the more that name ID will matter and the harder it will be for an outsider to emerge. (Clinton's backers may have figured that one out.)

How would realignment work for the bodies who aren't there? Will the precinct captains morph into cleaned up and sincere versions of a modern Boss Hogg, shuffling the proxies around like so many playing cards in a game of real-life poker? What if a candidate drops out before caucus night? (Ask the Super Tuesday voters who cast absentees for John Edwards.)

And if the caucuses turn into a general election style get out the absentee vote operation, will our erstwhile allies in New Hampshire decide that it's too much like a primary, and try to move in front of Iowa?

It's not just being first that makes Iowa and New Hampshire special. It's the soil we grow the voters in: the fertile, idea-rich prairie loam of Iowa and the ornery rocky granite of New Hampshire. The Democrats tried transplanting the caucuses into the desert sand of Nevada this year, and the process dried up and withered under accusations and counter-accusations. We experienced and more or less fair and sincere Iowans had a few problems, an overzealous precinct captain here, an overcrowded room there, maybe, but we got it done. Then the old-timers among us watched in horror as Nevada melted down with misinformation about locations, last-minute legal challenges, and finally a Clark County convention that collapsed under its own weight and had to reconvene.

Iowans have been at this for two generations. We know how to run a meeting, and we know how to look a would-be president in the eye and ask a tough question in a nice way. The attacks on our "lack of diversity" are an insult to our open-mindedness, and our willingness to look at all the candidates as people and choose them based on their merits rather than identity politics. We're sized at a human scale, "the last place you can campaign without tens of millions of dollars" as Joe Biden put it. What if the rotating national calendar that Michigan says it wants lands on California first? Say goodbye to the Hamburg Inn and the crossroads cafes, and welcome to the era of the airport rally.

You can rotate your nomination calendar, the way Michigan wants, but we Iowans know you can't rotate your crops to just any random field and expect them to grow. If the ground isn't fertile, you won't get the same yield. And whether it's corn or candidates, Iowa's got the richest soil in the world.

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