The problem with Iowa


Two political stories caught our eye over the weekend: First, Hillary Clinton thinks James Comey, along with the Russians, queered her election. Second, Democrats are rethinking the Iowa Caucuses as they always do, but this time they might think harder. You cannot talk about presidential politics, including a Clinton post-mortem, outside an Iowa context. We do not exaggerate, unfortunately.

James Comey did not beat Hillary Clinton. He is the FBI director, not Donald Trump.

Hillary Clinton beat Hillary Clinton. Hear it, once and for all.

She did not ask Iowa for its vote. If a Democrat can’t win Iowa, she can’t win the nation. Win Iowa, you are likely to win Wisconsin and Ohio. Ask John Kerry. Or Barack Obama. One lost, one won. Kerry did not pay as much attention to Iowa as Obama did.

Hillary Clinton did not campaign in Storm Lake despite its lode of Latinos, many of whom are registered to vote, and its college students. She didn’t campaign hardly anywhere in Iowa. She thought she had us.

She never asked us for our vote. It boils down to retail politics.

Trump did. He had surrogates everywhere in Iowa. Branstad. King. Grassley. That’s enough. The Democrats had who?

Which brings us to our second point:

We used to be zealous in guarding the Iowa Caucuses. No more. We may be better off without them. They have corrupted Iowa politics — our cleanliness was our godliness in guarding the integrity of the caucuses for the rest of the nation — and nobody believes in our integrity anymore. A former state senator is in jail for graft related to the caucuses. The Iowa Straw Poll turned into a cash bath at Iowa State University that has permanently soiled the state Republican Party. It has eroded the Iowa Democratic Party from the inside as all the cash is funneled to prop up a tired-out status quo that has lost touch with working voters. Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama are the two successful Iowa candidates. The Republican caucuses have produced clowns like Mike Huckabee or kooks like Pat Robertson.

Meantime, our politics is destructive and coarse.

The legislature is driving the state into the ditch in the absence of a two-party system. Steve King is driven by the machine to ratchet up his vitriol. The airwaves are saturated with untraceable lies and malice. Nobody in control wants to admit that the flood of money seeking to buy support is the problem because they are devouring the money.

If we were the 38th primary state, maybe our politics could return to some semblance of civility. Maybe we would read more carefully if the din of the blather were not in our ears. Maybe we could be more discerning and rational if the circus were not throwing us cotton candy.

Who can honestly say that Iowa is a deliberative and thoughtful process anymore?

Time was when you could sit down with John Glenn and have a serious conversation in someone’s living room on Seneca Street. Gary Hart would ask if you had read his book — not unless it has pictures, senator. Howard Baker would invite you to watch him shave at the Super 8. And he would tell you what he thought of Richard Nixon. Then we would all sit down in that living room on Seneca Street on a February night and someone would serve coffee and we would talk about watching Howard Baker shave. And then after having talked with him for a half hour, we might be inclined to caucus for him. It was lovely.

But it’s not that way anymore. It’s campaign by airport rally. It’s saturate the airwaves. It’s pay off elected officials to keep them out of competing campaigns. It’s ugly, it’s dishonest, it’s unbecoming of Iowa and, most important, it normally does not select a winner. It winnows the field to three or four or not at all, as we just witnessed. It did not show who had the best turnout apparatus — nobody thought Trump had one until he was elected president. So it has become a façade for something else. That something else is power and money.

Clinton had both. She thought she could buy Iowa by trashing Trump over the airwaves. She did not campaign here. Kaine did not campaign here. There was nobody. That’s why she lost. The alternative, Bernie Sanders, probably would not have won Iowa, either, and certainly not the White House. He could not beat Hillary Clinton, after all, not even in Iowa. He tied her.

The money kept other winning candidates out. That’s the problem with Iowa. Then one day Hillary Clinton looks back and says: I had the power, the money and the organization, but the FBI and the Russians beat me. It could not have been that Iowa was the problem. But it was.