My good friend, Mark Dowdy, participated in the Iowa Caucus last week. Here's his take on the action:
The excitement is palpable this year, as we choose between a number of decent Dems, all of which would be a vast improvement over the imbecile currently squatting in the Oval Office. But there is no doubt that most of the excitement this year is due to the "surging" campaign of Sen. Barack Obama. Compared to the buzz created by Obama, Sen. Hillary Clinton's bid to become the first female president has faltered considerably. She simply doesn't inspire the way Obama does, partly due to her hawkish voting record, but mostly because she's about as charismatic as a reptile. (Props to Donegan for the simile.)
There is, of course, former Sen. John Edwards. Many progressives prefer him to Obama because he has staked more progressive positions. I seriously considered supporting Edwards (as well as Dodd) at various points. But while I like the message coming from the 2007 Edwards, I wasn't down with the 2002 Edwards and his vote in support of the war in Iraq and the Patriot Act.
Frankly, I don't trust Edwards. He talks a real good anti-corporate game for a former hedge fund manager. In fact, I think his wife would be a better, more credible candidate than he, were she not stricken with a terminal disease. Moreover, at this early stage of the campaign, Edwards has also taken serious hits from the Right Wing Hate Machine, which has portrayed him as pretty boy "faggot" with a $400 haircut, so I don't have much faith in his ability to counter the inevitable shit thrown at him by the bigots of the GOP. (They cannot -- absolutely cannot -- say what they want to say about Obama. I'm guessing many of them will push loose their buckteeth in their attempts to stifle the "N" word.)
Still, I wasn't sure. None of these candidates were perfect to me. Obama's unity message wasn't my cup of tea, and he sounded dangerously like a milquetoast moderate with no real conviction. But that's me, and if the average American voter was like me, the two major parties would be the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks. I'd seen Obama speak last year stumping for my congressional representative in the 2006 election, and it seemed like so much feel good rhetoric, with very little substance. So it was with these reservations in mind that I attended one of his rallies the day before the caucus.
I arrived a chary skeptic, and departed another giddy ObamaHead.
First off, the man is funny. Really funny. In a subversive, smart way. He repeatedly referred to Dick Cheney as "my cousin," and at one point he remarked, "You know, when people do genealogical studies of your family, you hope to find out you're related to someone cool. You know, Abraham Lincoln or Willie Mays, not Dick Cheney."
He's also, of course, an amazing orator, and I have to admit, I was impressed with the way he coasts along in a light and engaging fashion, only to turn on the gravitas at the right moment. He made an excellent case, in fact, that his so-called lack of experience was a canard, that what matters most is how you deal with the people you encounter in your formative years. He reminded us that if we voted for him, we'd be voting for a man who wouldn't just uphold the Constitution, but who had actually taught it.
After speaking for about 45 minutes (it seemed like 15 minutes), Barack wrapped things up. All the talk about the energy of one of his rallies is true - it took another 45 minutes just to get out of the parking lot. And all of that talk about reaching out to red state voters is apparently also true. The car in front of me sported a Fred Thompson sticker on its bumper. I left thinking this man has the political gifts of Bill Clinton, but that he had more of a conscience and better priorities. He wasn't a triangulating Republicrat. He was a real Democrat, only he wanted to move beyond the usual Bush-bashing.
The next day I arrived at the caucus. Usually, this is a fairly mundane affair: it involves standing around for about an hour with your fellow supporters and then heading home to catch the returns on television. Not this time.
On the way in, I got lost and walked by the Republican caucus, where there was a fairly modest line. "Is this the Democratic caucus?" I asked. "No, this is the Republican one. Yours as at City High, two blocks that way." The nice Republicans who gave me directions looked envious, like they wanted to come along with me. (Many Republicans, in fact, did participate in the Democratic caucus, which allows voters to register at the door.)
When I arrived at City High, I encountered chaos. There were throngs everywhere pushing and shoving. People were afraid they wouldn't get in (the doors officially close at 7), and some in fact did not. I myself was feeling the stress. I had postponed my move to Florida just so I could participate in this caucus, and I didn't want to be shut out.
Luckily, after a spell, I made it in to City High's packed auditorium. There was no more room for the Obama people, so us latecomers were directed to the balcony. The only other candidate with that many supporters was Edwards, who had a smaller contingency up in the balcony.
Here's how the caucus works: On your way in you are handed an index card with a number written on it. If you know who you're supporting, you give your card to one of your candidate's group leaders. If you don't, you stand apart and await the onslaught of appeals from the various campaigns. In our case, there were only about six undecideds among 500 + voters.
After all of the cards -- excluding the undecideds' -- are counted, leaders from each party come up to the podium, announce the number of supporters they have, and then make a pitch for their candidate. Here's the gist of their appeals: Richardson was the only candidate to call for a carbon tax, Kucinich the only one to call for an immediate withdrawal from Iraq. Biden had more foreign policy experience than the others, while Dodd had stood strong against Bush's attempts to spy on Americans. Clinton was lauded as the most competent of the gang, Edwards as the one to take on corporate interests and lobbyists, and Obama as the Great Uniter.
In order to be "viable" and thereby receive a proportion of the eight delegates from our precinct, each candidate had to receive at least 82 votes. The vote tally went something like this: Richardson: around 30; Kucinich: ? (His representative, Brandon Ross, a former city councilman who had clearly seen his share of Dead shows, wouldn't say); Biden: around 20; Dodd 6; Edwards 110; Obama: 234, and Clinton: 70. When Hillary's numbers were announced, an audible gasp filled the room. She wasn't even viable yet. Meanwhile, the growing sense of inevitability was emerging around Obama: he had gotten twice as many supporters as Edwards, who has always been popular in Johnson County.
But there was still one more round. For the next half hour, supporters of non-viable candidates could either stand behind a viable one or attempt to make their own candidate viable. Meanwhile, the undecideds had to make up their goddamn minds. It is here that the wooing began. One of Clinton's supporters came up the balcony and was greeted with guffaws. She saw one of her friends up there and said "Sally, wanna come over and support Hillary?" Sally just smiled and said she'd support Edwards before she'd do that. "Geez," said the Hillary supporter, flummoxed by the degree of disdain many Dems hold for Mrs. Clinton.
Among the undecideds, the Biden, Richardson, and Edwards’s people had enacted the full-court press. My lovely ex was among them: she delighted in telling the Biden and Edwards’s people that the white man had had 43 turns as leader of the free world and that this election cycle would coronate either a black man or a white woman. Always the contrarian, she threw her weight behind Hillary, since, in her mind, Obama clearly didn't need any more help.
After a seemingly interminable period in which I devoured all of the free food and beverages available (mmm ... brownies, sandwiches, and bottled water) while supporters of unviable candidates sought to drum up support, we finally reached a finally tally: The Hillary people had managed to get the 12 votes needed to make her viable. The Biden, Kucinich, Dodd, and Richardson people had not. The 8 delegates were divided as such: 4 for Obama, 3 for Edwards, and 1 for Clinton.
I left happy to see Obama on top. Text messages from friends in other precincts had been pouring in, with similar results. There was a growing sense of elation among everyone, even those who didn't support Obama.
It wasn't until, hours later, in a hotel room in Moline, IL, watching the news coverage as I prepared for a flight to Florida the following morning, that I realized the full historical import of this event. Obama was the first African-American to win the Iowa caucus, and the buzz over him was growing even more (and still is).
I'm a little surprised, however, that others are so surprised that a state as white as Iowa would support a black man: Iowa Democrats are more liberal than most Democrats, just as its Republicans are more knuckle-draggingly conservative than most Republicans. Nevertheless, I'm happy to have participated in this historical event, and sincerely "hope" he becomes the nation's first African-American president.
In the meantime, I need to get back to California. The last thing I want, as an ultra enfranchised Iowa voter*, is to become a disenfranchised Florida Democrat during the general election.
Meanwhile, there has been a great deal of debate over the undue influence of Iowa and New Hampshire in our nation's electoral process. Frankly, I agree with this criticism. Iowans like to argue that they are more politically engaged than other states' citizens. This, to me, is downright arrogant. Who wouldn't be more politically engaged if they had various presidential candidates dropping by their diner every other day for a year or two before the election? Do Iowans feel they're entitled to this privilege?
Mostly, Iowans feel neglected and ignored by the nation most of the time, and feel like this is the state's time to shine on the national stage. Whatever. It seems to me a state like Idaho is more overlooked than Iowa. Iowa spawned Ashton Kutcher, Elijah Wood, Tom Arnold, Johnny Carson, and John Wayne. Iowa killed Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and the Big Bopper. It is the future birthplace of Capt. Kirk. Geez, Iowa, stop worrying about the provincial bi-coasters and what they think of you.
As a Californian, I had grown accustomed to having the primary race decided by the time I got to vote. It was fun voting for Jerry Brown or whatever protest candidate du jour was on the ballot, but it stood in stark contrast to my Iowa experiences, where I saw more movie stars than I ever saw in California -- and they were groveling at me! I know it's hard Iowa to let go of such a luxury, but, really, as fair-minded, common-sensical Midwesterners, you have to acknowledge that the present system's kinda whack.