Thursday, November 29, 2007

What Everyone Misses About the Iowa Caucuses

As a proud Iowan, I often ask myself – what do we really have to brag about? Sure we have world famous attractions like America’s largest Czech and Slovak Museum, the Midwest’s largest frying pan, and the home of the first soldier to die in World War I. Assuredly, these hallowed halls whet the appetite of the would-be tourist. But not to worry – we have the caucuses!

Iowa caucuses bring millions of dollars to our state every four years and begin the process of determining the leader of the free world. But wait, who really cares? Not Iowans, that’s for sure. For the last several months and for the next two as the Iowa Caucuses approach, polling data and school visits in Iowa will dominate the national press – and be skipped over by most Iowans.

This is the sad incongruity between national perceptions of the “noblest form of democracy,” and the reality in
Iowa. On January 3, 2008, the first votes (sort-of) will be cast for the eventual president of the United States. And they will be done so by no more than about 150,000 largely white, middle-class, citizens from, just one, heartland state. This is not meant to be a drag on Iowans – we take our job seriously.

Well I should say the roughly 5 % of the state that caucus take their job seriously. So when the national media swarms on Iowa, it makes the viewer in Tallahassee or the reader in Seattle think Iowans are something they are not – a bunch of political geeks descended from some abnormal heritage well versed in the treatises of Locke and Montesquieu. Most of us barely got past Federalist #10 – something about factions?

So Iowans don’t care, oh shit! Not really. The media likes to assign a mythical advantage to whoever wins the Iowa caucuses. This notion also is largely incorrect. Oh sure, Kerry won Iowa and won the Democratic nominee in 2004 as did Bush for the GOP in 2000, but Iowa played a very minor role in the victories of those two candidates. Polling data shows, those two candidates were already on their way to winning nationally without the supposed “boost” they gained from Iowa’s anointed aristocracy.

Finally, no one really knows what is going to happen come January 3. When only 5% of the state is likely to participate, reliable polling data is hard to accumulate. And even when polls do reach upwards of 1000 “likely” caucus goers, who really knows if a) they will go, or more importantly if b) they will switch their support during the two hour marathon butting heads with the Orange Bowl. The media speculates daily about the polls coming out of Iowa and shapes how the rest of the nation feels about the candidates when in actuality, anything could happen.

Iowans are a proud bunch; we’re not easily persuaded by fast talking politicians dressed in nice suits. In that regard the politically active citizens of the state are some of the most gifted observers in selecting the next POTUS. That being said, the caucuses are hardly the best democratic measure aimed at jump-starting the race for president. The large majority of Iowans are not as active as they should be, and Iowa does not matter as much as everyone wants it to. And while I like saying I’ve met all the leading contenders, the Iowa fray wastes millions of dollars and hours of energy. It also undercuts democracy – presidential candidates are ignoring most of the country.

Like Bruce Wayne in the newest Batman movie, I am telling you to get out of my house for your own good. The candidates and the media need to get out of
Iowa – it’s bad for America and it undermines the nomination process. I’ll be sad when Iowa no longer dominates the press every four years but I guess I’ll have to find solace in cooking really big pancakes while sipping Bohemian beer.

Monday, November 12, 2007

A week at Midd

The past two weeks of Middlebury life have been in a way ultra typical, but in a way also extemely interesting. It started last week when Rajiv Chandrasekaran came to speak on campus. He is an editor at the Washington Post and wrote the book Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone about the first few months of the US invasion in Iraq. He was very journalistic in that he didn't really offer any political views or blame.

He did, as he does in the book, highlight a lot of the atrocious planning mistakes commited by the Bush Administration. It wasn't really anything new or different from the book. The one thing I took away was how journalists could conduct their investigations so much easier immediately after the fall of Saddam. Now Western jounralists can't even leave the green zone and Iraqi journalists do all the investigating, and even they are at risk. I do recommend the book though as a basic run through of how we messed up. Chandrasekaran has a lot of unique takes on the whole situation and is very good about not blaming the soldiers or State department.

This past Wednesday, I was lucky enough to have dinner with Peter Galbraith, an expert on Iraq and former Ambassador to Croatia under the Clinton Administration. The public library where I work was sponsoring Ambassador Galbraith, and I was invited to dinner. I was a bit disappointed because I thought the other adults failed to really address the expert mind we had at the table - instead we were discussing how young kids are so tech savy (never heard that before). But after awhile we got around to a more serious discussion.

Turns out that Galbraith went to Oxford and Harvard with current Pakistani #1 dissident Benazir Bhutto. From what I have been reading in the press, I wasn't the world's biggest fan. When Bhutto was Prime Minister, she wasn't exactly a pillar of democracy. She also inherited the post from her father, also again not exactly a morally stable person. I had my reservations, so when Galbraith talked about his close friendship with Bhutto, I was a bit mystified. Over the course of dinner, though, I think Galbraith backed it up with some so-so examples.

Although Galbraith was ambassador to Croatia, its not really his thing. Which was sad for me because of my current interest in that country. He spoke about the Dayton Accords and the war in Bosnia, but not with any real passion. He saved that for Iraq - which he worked on during his time at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The other big idea Galbraith had was partition in Iraq. Again, from everything I read, it doesn't seem that partition works. Most experts agree that the Sunnis and Shia do not want the country split up, and neither group wants to lose the Kurds. In my view, it makes sense on just about every front to let the Kurds go their own way. They've earned it, they've instilled stability, and they have a homogenous geography. Sadly, the question of oil revenues prevents any movement in this direction.

The final highlight of my week was dinner with Eileen O'Connor. She was a journalist for ABC and CNN in Moscow during the 80s and 90s. While I thought her political conclusions about the situation in Russia were a bit underdeveloped, she told fascinating stories about her interactions with Russian officials. O'Connor was the only journalist to discover Boris Yeltsin's heart attack in 1996. In the wake of this coverage, O'Connor was threatened by groups and followed by hitmen. She found out that she had a price on her head, and officials were encouraging her to leave the country. Not only that, she was pregnant at the time. (Photo Credit: AP)

This was just one of the many interesting stories she shared with us over the course of the evening. For me dinner with important people is alwasy difficult. I have no manners, and I'm generally awkward. I'd just like to editorialize and brag that I didn't have any large gaffes during the meal. I managed to not spill any food, or apply any stains to my clothing. This was really promising for me and I hope my luck continues.