Thursday, November 21, 2013

Does Clinton Bandwagon Mean End of Caucuses?

Sen. Claire McCaskill admitted that she and her fellow Missourians are jealous of Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status.

“Why Iowa?” she said at the Linn County Democratic Hall of Fame Dinner Saturday night. “We’ve got corn. We’ve got pigs. We’ve got people who want to be talked to over and over again. We have all of that. But you all have the corner of the market.”

But the second-term senator had some bad news for Iowa.

“You’re not going to have as much action” in 2016,” she said.

That’s because as unusual as it is, the Democratic Party, she believes, already has found a nominee: Hillary Clinton.

“When she announces, for the first time I can remember when we have an open seat for the presidency, we won’t have a primary and she will be the consensus choice,” McCaskill said.

It was a good thing I skipped last weekend's Linn County Hall of Fame dinner.  I'm a long-time McCaskill fan but it almost seems like her words were calculated to send shivers up the spines of us locals who cherish, and frankly are very good at, our role as retail stand-ins for the nation when it comes time to choose presidents.

The caucuses are literally what brought me to Iowa, more than two decades ago, as an eager grad student intending to write the definitive academic study of them. I got sidetracked into participation instead, found the place that feels like home, and in the process wound up friends with the guy who wrote the book instead. And even in the off-cycle I'm busily getting ready for caucuses, two months from today.

So as an adoptive Iowan I defend Iowa's role, maybe more fiercely than the native-born. And McCaskill's remarks were especially unnerving for a contrarian like me, who bucked the current the last time there was a "consensus" nominee, the last time we heard people saying "we want to avoid a primary."  I love hopeless causes, as any reader knows, and it didn't make much difference, but I'm still proud that Bill Bradley carried MY county.

McCaskill's remarks came just two weeks after another senator, New York's Chuck Schumer, rolled out his own Clinton endorsement, delivered in Des Moines at the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner.

It's hard not to notice that even though it's insanely early, Iowa Republicans are not just getting surrogates visiting the state, they're getting actual potential candidates: Paul Ryan, Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul.

Hillary Clinton, however, has literally not set foot in Iowa since January 3, 2008, the night she finished third in the caucuses, and shows no signs of doing so. Her huge looming shadow is also keeping other potential presidents away, save for the indefatigable Joe Biden.

As an overwhelming front runner it serves Hillary's interest to keep would-be rivals guessing, to keep people from committing, to delay as long as possible. She wanted to delay longer in 2007, until the dynamic that became Yes We Can 2008 started building to the point where it could no longer be ignored, and she had to launch when not quite ready.

And one of the biggest failures in that launch was the Clinton campaign's shocking lack of preparation for the logistics of caucus states and the retail realities of Iowa.  As famously quoted in Game Change:
If Hillary was going to be competitive in Iowa, she would need to go all out. The problem was, she hated it there….

She found the Iowans diffident and presumptuous; she felt they were making her grovel. Hillary detested pleading for anything, from money to endorsements, and in Iowa it was no different. She resisted calling the local politicos whose support she needed.

One time, she spent forty-five minutes on the phone wooing an activist, only to be told at the call’s end that the woman was still deciding between her and another candidate. Hillary hung up in a huff. “I can’t believe this!” she said. “How many times am I going to have to meet these same people?”
Anti-caucus and anti-Iowa rhetoric started from the Clinton campaign long before the caucuses themselves. There was the widely publicized and denied Screw Iowa strategy memo. There was the Clinton campaign's flirtation with campaigning in Michigan and Florida, states that had broken the party's calendar rules in a challenge to Iowa and New Hampshire. There was results spin in the last days before the caucuses, implying that a caucus process was inherently unfair.

Finally, worst of all, there were the whispered accusations. The infamous caucus night quotes from Game Change are loosely attributed but capture the flavor:
How did this happen?… The turnout figures made no sense to them: some 239,000 caucus-goers had shown up, nearly double the figure from four years earlier. Where did all these people come from? Bill asked. Were they really all Iowans? The Obama campaign must have cheated, he said, must have bussed in supporters from Illinois.

Hillary had been worried about that possibility for weeks; now she egged her husband on. Bill’s right, she said. We need to investigate the cheating. “It’s a rigged deal,” Bill groused. Hillary was trying to rein in her emotions. The former president was not. Red-faced and simmering, he sat in the living room venting his frustrations.
After the national attention was gone and we locals were left to clean up, the accusations were quietly disproven. Only one, now off-line Register article noted that of the tens of thousands of new voter cards were mailed out post-caucus, only tiny handfuls came back with bad addresses. In my town that was mostly simple mistakes like missing apartment numbers. But the hard feelings about caucuses in general and Iowa in particular lingered late into that endless nomination process.

And apparently they linger still. Hillary Clinton is doing her best to maintain an Above Politics, Rose Garden type of strategy, which serves her purposes well because the longer she delays, the less traction a potential rival can get. But Bill speaks his mind, people make assumptions, and no one ever seems to take exception these days. Just a couple months ago, Clinton 42 told his old consigliere George Stephanopoulos:
I still think we have way too many caucuses. They’re not democratic. And unlike primaries, they have no legal enforcement. You can break the rules, nobody’s gonna say anything. I think there are way too many of them.
So it's not a stretch to imagine that the Clintons still have a bit of a chip on their shoulders about Iowa.

Going back two decades, Bill Clinton never did the real Iowa caucus thing, because Tom Harkin ran in the same cycle. Harkin's enthusiastic endorsement of Bill was unique among the other 1992 candidates; I still bet that Bob Kerrey and Jerry Brown wrote themselves in that fall. That Harkin support probably saved Iowa for the next couple cycles.

But that lack of a Bill Clinton 1992 caucus campaign meant there weren't the same kind of Clinton roots in the Iowa soil as Bill and by extension Hillary had in New Hampshire and other early states. Hillary's biggest allies from 2008 are gone now, the Vilsacks decamped for DC, Leonard Boswell in involuntary retirement.

And of course there's Iowa's almost unique history, shared only with Mississippi, of never electing a woman to Congress or a governorship. That's probably due more to the details of specific races than to special innate sexism above and beyond other similar states, but it stands out.

I don't want to sound all Vince Foster paranoid here. But the Cintons keep score, reward friends, shut out non-friends. Everyone in politics does to some extent, and the Clintons aren't quite Nixonian in their enemy list, but they have long memories. Hillary was out of the ball game doing her job in 2010 and 2012, but Clinton 42 made countless campaign appearances - almost invariably for people who had supported Hillary over Barack in spring 2008.

A lot of my discussion of 2016 and beyond is getting seen as an anti-Hillary thing, Absolutely not. I was for Obama in 2008, and I had crossed Hillary off my list early, not long after she said of her Iraq War vote “If the most important thing to any of you is choosing someone who did not cast that vote or has said his vote was a mistake, then there are others to choose from.” So I did.

So did a lot of other people. The context of election 2008 changed radically in the fall when the housing bubble went supernova, but in the trenches of Iowa in 2007 the Iraq War was Topic A.

Caucuses aren't inherently "unfair." Elections reward raw numbers but caucuses reward something different - strength among the most committed. It's the strength you need to fill the phone banks and walking lists that eventually fill the booths with the like minded but less committed.

And that was and is exactly where Hillary Clinton is weakest. Not that she didn't and doesn't have deeply committed supporters, both on issue specifics and on persona and experience and biography. We had a Solomon's Choice in 2008 of which historic barrier to break first, and that deep desire to shatter the last glass ceiling has grown stronger in the past six years.

Now after a stellar term as Secretary of State her foreign policy credentials are unassailable. But in a cruel irony, her weaknesses are now on the economic issues that were once her strength. In 2007 the left was defined by the war. But in 2013 it's defined by the terms raised by Occupy Wall Street: Too Big To Fail, the 99% vs. the 1%. It's a vulnerable spot an Elizabeth Warren could exploit.

None of this is to say I'm crossing Clinton off my 2016  list. I'll give her every consideration, even if the Overwhelming Favorite dynamic is such that my "every consideration" is just a tiny joke. I still expect someone else to step in, even if just to play the Bill Bradley role.

But for me, the caucuses are an issue in the caucuses. Parochial? Perhaps. But it's not just or even mostly about 2016. It's about 2020 and 2024 and beyond.

Iowan's fates are tied together, Democrats and Republicans, and an incumbent president has near-absolute influence over internal party politics. (Witness the squashing of the Middle East platform plank at the 2012 Democratic convention. Remember the "booing God" controversy? The boos weren't for the God reference. They were for Netanyahu.)

A president determined to change a nominating process to, say, ban ALL caucuses and require primaries only, could probably make it happen, at least in her own party, and often parties follow suit within states.

On some anti-caucus issues Clinton had some high ground. Caucuses are a party meeting, not an election. But caucus states need SOME very limited provision for the truly absent: not as easy as the no fault absentee voting we have in Iowa's elections, because that would turn the town meeting into a months long absentee chase. But enough that the troops and the true shut-ins could participate by proxy.

The problem is, New Hampshire is as determined to hang onto its co-First In The Nation status as Iowa. And any process that involves absentee voting, or that releases a hard vote count like Iowa Republicans have tied to a delegate count like Iowa Democrats have, gets close enough to an "election" that New Hampshire declares war. And probably wins, because the national media hates Iowa's process and distance from DC.

I'm concerned that the combination of Hillary Clinton's dislike of caucuses per se and her poor relationship with Iowa, based on her past statements and actions, means that a President Clinton 45 would move to change the nomination process to ban caucuses, which would mean Iowa would be voting in a meaningless June primary in 2020, 2024 and forever.
Our well-honed skills at questioning and evaluating candidates up close, which despite recent Republican stumbles have served the nation well in the long run, will be wasted in 2024 on a vote between Presumptive Nominee Chelsea Clinton and the ghost of Lyndon LaRouche.

There's a real shot that, between the second coming of Hillary Inevitability and the general dysfunction in Iowa's other party, that we may be at the end of our run, that the caucuses may no longer matter, that we'll be just another flyover state again. Which might make some Beltway types happy, but our rivals like Florida and Michigan are too big for one to one politics. It would be a loss for democracy to close down the last retail store on the town square and exchange our intimate events for tarmac rallies, completing the Walmartization of the national process.

Sure, we're used to lavish attention, and we get that Hillary doesn't "need" to do that. But a lot of this anxiety could be eased by just a few kind words. Iowans are a forgiving folk. If Hillary is willing to let bygones be bygones, so are we. Fair warning: we'll give everyone else a fair shot, too. Madame Secretary, if you're reading, we've got a barbecue scheduled for October 4, 2014. You're warmly invited, and bring Bill.

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