The last hurrah

With all deference to the good people of Iowa, whose common sense in most things including politics is exceeded only by the richness of the state’s soil, there is really no good reason that they should have such an overridingly important role in the presidential selection process. Yet in two months they will meet in caucus, not even a primary, and give at least one Democrat and one Republican a considerable boost toward the nomination.

Add the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries to whatever happens in Iowa and a tiny percentage of the population will have once again decided the issue no matter how many other state’s smarting from a lack of attention have moved up their own primary dates. There is a blessing in all this irrationality. The entire stultifying, expensive-beyond-reason business probably will be completed before most Americans are over their New Year’s hangovers.

Meanwhile, the candidates, contributing mightily to the basic Hawkeye farm economy, are setting up dozens upon dozens of offices. Even Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut, who doesn’t even register in the polls, has 11 and reportedly is going for more. And they are pouring untold millions of dollars more into a 60-day media blitz. That, of course, doesn’t count all the money spent there in the last 18 months.

The explanation for Iowa’s importance isn’t entirely clear, other than the fact that it acts as a clearinghouse for those running for their party’s brass ring. When it is over there probably will be several fewer Democrat and Republican hopefuls left to bore us. Also it offers sort of a folksy, old-time campaigning approach that reminds us of the days when this was basically a rural society and things were kinder and gentler, even politics. Let’s all go down to the park for fried chicken and listen to the speaking. What could be more American?

Historically, these improbable caucuses burst on the scene only 30 years ago. That’s when an obscure former Southern governor, Jimmy Carter, from an agricultural/military background found empathy with all those farmers and their dependents and unbelievably parlayed his gooberness into the Democratic nomination despite all the odds. Carter knew how to reach those early morning coffee drinkers in the cafes in the small towns nestled between the miles and miles of cornfields and big hog operations. They weren’t too unlike those he knew in Plains, Ga. Never mind that those smaller family units have either disappeared or become major corporations.

Since that time, however, no candidate has even come close to Carter in understanding the hit and miss nature of farming. The last man to win the caucus and capture the Democrat nomination was preppie and Ivy Leaguer John Kerry, who wouldn’t know a combiner from a concubine. No one in the current crop of wannabes is much better off than Kerry in that regard but Iowans are as sophisticated about the world as any computer-enhanced society.

One must concede that allowing a single Midwestern state and a small Northeastern one to so dominate the process is probably not the best way to go. States of major size and more diverse demographics aren’t going to take it much longer. In fact, this may be the last time the system is so monopolized by this dubious tradition. Michigan’s refusal to cave into party rules that set a hard and fast beginning date to maintain the Iowa and New Hampshire first position is forcing reform.

It has been a long time in coming. What has been occurring for three decades can’t be terribly healthy. Before that time there were any number of primaries that brought some balance to the selection of these candidates, including Nebraska, Wisconsin, Oregon, California and certainly Michigan. If party reforms have turned the old convention system into an anachronism then as many people as possible should be cut in on choosing their nominees. That hasn’t been happening. No offense to Iowa or New Hampshire.

We in the media must take some of the blame for giving these states outsized importance. We decided all those years ago when Carter came charging out of the cornfields that his winning there automatically made him the man to beat.

(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)