Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Register Endorses Fallon

Register Fallon Endorsement May Be Boswell's Price For Not Debating

It seems like a surprise on the surface, but the Des Moines Register endorsed Ed Fallon Tuesday in the 3rd Congressional District, over incumbent Leonard Boswell.

Why alienate an incumbent who, according to all public polls, is likely to win re-nomination by a two to one margin? Let me help you think like journalists.

We've got this weird mix of cynicism and idealism, always looking for the motivations behind seemingly straightforward moves, yet still wishing for the Mr. Smith Goes To Washington vision of how government and politics are really supposed to work. Think John Stewart meets Jimmy Stewart, and you'll get the idea.

Ed Fallon, in his own way, plays into that vision, telling the Register editorial board that he wants to bike to work and grow tomatoes while serving in Congress. Fallon is different, thus making him interesting, and the true bias of the press is toward the interesting story.

Fallon's independent streak, his "I don't play ball attitude," is annoying to party insiders and legislative colleagues. But it plays well to the press paradigm of "objectivity," which sees independent thinking, within reason, as morally superior to voting a party line. The question here is defining "within reason." "Fallon is aware of mistakes he's made," the Register writes in its endorsement. "He joked, for example, about being overzealous in introducing bills during his early years in the Iowa Legislature." How many stories were padded by one line from 1993 to 2006 for having to include the phrase, The lone nay vote was Rep. Ed Fallon, D-Des Moines? Just enough? Too many?

The Register describes Boswell as "out of touch" on several key issues, particularly Medicare spending. Editorial board in general love those dull gray, doom-and-gloom budgetary issues that play out so convincingly in long print articles, and can't be simplified into soundbites. The Registers David Yepsen calls those the "pour another cup of coffee" stories (presumably, not a latte from an Iowa City coffee house).

But perhaps the most significant reason, not even mentioned in the endorsement piece itself, has nothing to do with Fallon or with a concrete federal issue. My sense is this endorsement is a shot across Leonard Boswell's bow for not debating Ed Fallon. The incumbent cited a busy Congressional schedule, but nevertheless had plenty of time to attend events in the district.

It may have been smart politics, in the conventional sense. If you're an incumbent who's well ahead, why give your opponent a break by putting him on an equal footing? A debate might have turned the dialogue in the race from "Why did you vote for Ralph Nader, Ed?" to "Why did you vote for the war, Leonard?"

But playing it safe involves some trade-offs, and perhaps this endorsement is the price Boswell paid for not debating. Debates are good stories, and they're one of the rituals of the campaign trail that journalists believe in. Boswell will probably learn his lesson and agree to debate Republican Kim Schmett in the fall.

In the end, the Register endorsement isn't likely to mean much. Boswell's gotten almost every other endorsement that matters in this race, from organized labor and party insiders. Even Senator Tom Harkin, who usually stays out of primaries, has placed the stamp of approval on Boswell. Only a handful of left-side groups, such as Move On, are with Fallon.

More importantly, Secretary of State Mike Mauro is predicting very low turnout next Tuesday. That means most of the voters will be the diehard party activists who vote in every election, who know Leonard Boswell, and who are receptive, or perhaps susceptible, to the Nader! Nader! Nader! rhetoric the Boswell campaign has offered.

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