Theories of Iowa - And Progressive Change

by dday

Well, I suppose that with the Iowa caucuses just 5 days away, it's time to pay some attention to it. First of all, I totally agree that, while it's exciting to have a race on the Democratic side that's a three-way dead heat, I hope this is the end of the Iowa primacy, once and for all. On its best day (and I think Thursday will be record turnout, actually), you have 10% of the electorate participating. With the three-way split, that means something like 35,000 people will be practically choosing the nominee for a country of 300 million. That's out of balance. And I think the taking of an entrance poll, which the media won't be able to help themselves from reporting on, but which could diverge wildly from the final results, could put a fork in it.

Imagine if the networks spend the night reporting that a plurality of Iowans decided to vote for Barack Obama. They report the win, there's much talk of what it means, everyone gets all excited. Then, Bill Richardson fails to make the 15% threshhold for viability and releases his caucusgoers to Clinton. Meanwhile, John Edwards, who's been amassing support in the disproportionately influential rural counties -- 25 caucusgoers in a small precinct have the same influence as 2,500 in a big one -- sees his strategy achieve terrific results. So Clinton comes in first, Edwards second, and Obama ends up in third -- even though a plurality meant to vote for him.

If there ever was an election that reveal the inequities and the arbitrary nature of Iowa's system, it would be this one. And traditionally, the Democrats have forced changes in the primary system (if it were up to the Republicans there probably would still be smoke-filled rooms). So I do think this is the end of small rural ethnically homogeneous states having all this undue impact. Not that Iowa and New Hampshire won't fight tooth and nail to keep the millions and millions of dollars flowing into their state.

But of course, you go to the polls with the election you have. I do think Obama will be hurt by what David Axelrod said about the Bhutto assassination, not a lot, but enough in such a close race to make an impact. Of course, Clinton's surrogate Evan Bayh said something just as stupid, saying that Bhutto's death shows we have to elect Clinton because OTHERWISE REPUBLICANS WOULD SAY WE'RE WEAK, once again showing the "don't make trouble" approach to politics. But Axelrod's quote was amplified far wider, and skillfully used by the Clinton camp to make it look like he said Hillary was somehow responsible for Bhutto's death. I think Edwards actually talking to Musharraf was notable, but didn't get a whole lot of attention.

Since you didn't ask, I'm pulling for Edwards, and I've explained why at my site. But I think the real reason I've been pulled in that direction is best explained by this post from Chris Bowers. Years after blogs and progressive movement media made their splash on the political scene, Democratic leaders are still not leveraging them for mass action. We still exist basically in the wilderness, typing away and giving voice to the frustrations I feel a majority of Americans have, yet it isn't being represented at all:

As Peter Daou predicted, when progressive media and prominent Democrats are on the same page, victories seem to happen pretty often. As Peter Daou lamented, when progressive media and prominent Democrats are not on the same page, victory seems to pretty much never happen. Without prominent Democratic validaters, we in the progressive grassroots and progressive media can't win these fights on our own. Without progressive media, prominent Democrats have virtually no hope of winning any conventional wisdom formation fights against Republicans.

...unless a new Democratic President is willing to bring new progressive media into the strategizing for the fights they will face, I doubt they will get much done. A Democratic administration that maintains a stand-offish, managed, one-way decision making approach to communication strategy will, in the end, find itself taking pretty much the same beatings the first Clinton administration faced from 1993-1994. Even with a solid electoral victory and large congressional majorities, the new President will lose almost every single fight for progressive legislation s/he will face, because the triangle of single narrative of convention wisdom will be closed against him or her. In other words, the new Democratic President will succeed in passing conservative favorites like NAFTA, but fail to pass progressive favorites like Health Care reform.

Of the major candidates, I believe that John Edwards offers the best opportunity to "close Daou's triangle" and at least give progressive media a chance to be part of the lever for change. I think Edwards' "theory of change" most closely mirrors the theory most accepted by the netroots, to forget the middle ground and take the fight to both the Republicans and the special interest. Edwards has said that his idea of change involves using the bully pulpit of the Presidency and mass popular support. That is a tailor-made strategy to involve progressive media, and Edwards has at least adopted the language of a politics of contrast and confrontation (as far as working with progressive media, I hope frequent blog reader Elizabeth Edwards will move a potential Administration in this direction).

Partisanship has, contrary to Beltway opinion, been a good thing for democracy, has engaged and energized people like little else in the past three decades. I also can't help but favor Edwards because traditional media and the Beltway establishment seems to hate him so much, and for precisely this reason. This is from Chip Reid at CBS News:

I’m a bit unhappy with John Edwards. I’ve been covering his campaign for 10 days and he hasn't made a lot of news. Let’s face it – a lot of what political reporters report on is mistakes. The campaign trail is one long minefield, covered with Iowa cow pies, and when they step in one – we leap.

I’ve done very little leaping – and I blame Edwards. While other candidates misspeak, over-speak, and double-speak, Edwards (at least in these 10 days) has made so few mistakes that I end up being transported -- newsless -- from town to town like a sack of Iowa corn.

He has a remarkable ability to stay on message. Not just in “the speech,” but even in Q and A. Nothing throws him off. He turns nearly every question into another opportunity to repeat his central theme. Global warming? We need to fight big oil. Health care? Fight the big drug and insurance companies. Iowa farmers’ problems? Blame those monster farm conglomerates. And the Iowa populists eat it up. We'll see how well it works in other states.

Note how the "Iowa populists" aren't real people, just rubes falling for the Music Man. And notice how depressed Reid is for not catching a "gotcha" moment, which he appears to think what political reporting is about. The truth is that Edwards' rhetoric, about rewarding work over wealth, about improving social mobility, about a common purpose and equal opportunity, is directly opposite to the way the world works for political journalists.

That's my $.02, anyway. Feel freer than free to disagree.