Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Fallon and Libertarians Gaming The Caucuses

Fallon and Libertarians Gaming The Caucuses

I'm not one of those Democrats who'll mindlessly bash Ed Fallon at the slightest excuse. As a lefty Democrat I was hoping for single payer health care and the troops home now, too. And frankly, if I had lived in the district I would have voted for him over Leonard Boswell in the 2008 primary.

But Fallon is making some strange alliances for some misguided reasons. He believes that the first in the nation slot for the Iowa caucuses is at risk. Which is true -- it's always true. We have one tenuous ally in New Hampshire and 48 enemies.

But the reason Fallon believes the caucuses are in extra special danger this cycle is the hard-right direction of the Iowa Republican Party. The argument points to "sane" Republicans avoiding Iowa: Jon Huntsman running with a full Screw Iowa strategy and Mitt Romney making a token effort compared to his all-out 2007-08 straw poll and caucus run.

So Fallon proposes that Democrats become "Republicans for a day" and meddle in -- oops, cross over to -- the Republican caucuses. Convinced that an Iowa win by one of the non "grownups" will irreparably damage our reputation and thus Iowa's special status in both parties, he hopes to save the Republicans from themselves. (Thus violating one of the core principles of politics: never interfere with the enemy when he is in the process of destroying himself.)

Fallon's allies in this effort are Ron Paul supporters. On Friday, Fallon is hosting Coralville's Dustin Krutsinger on his radio show. Krutsinger attended 2008 caucuses and conventions as a Ron Paul Republican, but left the party in 2010 to run as a Libertarian legislative candidate. (That's how damaged the Republican brand is here in Johnson County; an unopposed Democratic legislator, and a candidate quits a major party to run on a third party ticket.)

Krutsinger and company at least have a more understandable motivation: boosting a candidate. Libertarian Republicans are hoping anti-war Democrats will support Ron Paul, or perhaps Gary Johnson.

I've seen this in reverse for years, on a local level. We get a lot of "Democrats for a day" in Johnson County, which hasn't elected a Republican supervisor in 50 years. (Locals call it "the real election." Classic statistic: 1000 more votes for county recorder in the 1998 primary than for governor.) Such gaming the system always bothers me. Political parties deserve the right to choose their own candidates, without interference from the other team.

But that's goody-goody idealism, so let's look at some more pragmatic reasons why Fallon has a bad idea here.

The Iowa Republican caucuses have survived goofy results before, most notably Pat Robertson finishing ahead of the sitting vice president in 1988. Even the 2008 result was atypical, as Mike Huckabee failed to repeat his Iowa success in the rest of the country. Democrats, too, survived Tom Harkin's favorite son run, but only because unlike the other 1992 candidates he got on board with Bill Clinton right away. (I'm still convinced Jerry Brown wrote himself in that fall.)

And in the Tea Party era Iowa Republicans are, sadly, not that atypical. The Iowa polls showing Michele Bachmann pulling even with, or even ahead of, Mitt Romney are now being echoed in national surveys.

Fallon's effort may do more harm than good. Supreme Court rulings from the 1980s give political parties wide latitude in setting their own nomination rules. The Democratic Party has a strong preference for closed primaries, where registration with the party is required.

Iowa is what I call closed primary lite, allowing changes on election day or caucus night. But if the game playing becomes too blatant, the national parties have every right and ability to crack down on us. Is it really worth the risk?

This might seem like inside baseball this far out. But Iowa law gives party central committees and conventions a lot of power. If there's a special election, there is no primary. Delegates and/or precinct chairs (depending on the office) choose the party nominee. There's also a convention if no candidate wins the required 35 percent in the primary. It's only been a decade since a couple hundred votes at a district convention sent Steve King to Congress.

If you're a Democrat who decides to be A Republican For A Day, and your congressman dies or your state senator resigns or your mid-term county supervisor gets elected to the legislature, you're not in the room. You're not a Democratic delegate or committee member, because those people are elected on caucus night, and you were down the hall at the Republican caucus.

Granted, it would be kind of fun to mess with the Republican platform committee. But other anti-war and progressive Democrats are pursuing a more honorable approach: an uncommitted Democratic effort. I'm not with them -- as we say in Obama world, I'm In -- but I wish them well.

There were problems with accurately and honestly reporting uncommitted results against Bill Clinton in 1996, but now that results are reported directly from the caucus site to the state party, rather than through county party chairs, those issues should be resolved. A Kim Jong Il 100 percent result would strain credibility, and I'm sure the president will be just fine with 99.6. Whatever that small uncommitted Democratic percentage is, it will stand on its own as a clear message, rather than getting buried as an indistinguishable factor in the Republican results.

Caucusing as an uncommitted Democrat, rather than as an insincere Republican, also gets you a seat at the table for the Democratic platform (whatever that's worth; I'm more a GOTV guy myself) and any special conventions.

But the best thing you can do to protect the caucuses is to support the candidate whose Iowa win made history in the most important caucuses ever, shattered the myth that a black candidate couldn't draw white votes, and set him on the road to the White House. The president has not forgotten his debt to Iowa, and a re-elected Barack Obama will protect Iowa's first in the nation role for 2016.

Some day a Screw Iowa candidate is gong to be elected president and the caucuses will die. We'll quietly vote for Presumptive Nominee as we pick our local candidates in the June primary. But there's no reason to hasten that fate by gaming the system.

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