The Iowa Angle

In 1975 fate in form of a decent job offer brought me to Des Moines where I was introduced to the Des Moines Register and a very witty columnist named Donald Kaul. I still remember one of the first stories I read under his byline about his time as a young punk reporter who had been selected as the Register’s Washington correspondent replacing an old hand who had held the job for many years. When he asked the old-timer for advice the greybeard replied, “always be sure to include the Iowa Angle.” Thus, Kaul’s premier dispatch from our nation’s Capital began “Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who flew over Iowa on his way to an international conference in San Francisco…”

Yes, the Iowa Angle, it was just a joke until Jimmy Carter took it seriously in 1976 and proved that if you show up, and keep showing up, in Iowa, month after month, you can win the Iowa Democratic caucus. You can score points even though you’re an obscure peanut farmer, with an exotic (by Iowa standards) accent, and a funny name (Whoever heard of a presidential candidate who insisted on being called “Jimmy”?). They say he visited all 99 of Iowa’s counties. Even the one down in the far southeast hard on the Missouri border that didn’t have running water in the Courthouse in 1976. “So, the damned fool won the caucus. That and a dime will get you a cup o’ coffee,” scoffed most Iowans, while the rest of America didn’t even consider that news worth a scoff.

From the Iowa caucuses to the White House? Are you crazy? Ever since then presidential hopefuls have made their pilgrimages to the land of tall corn hoping a bit of Ol’ Jimmy’s lightning will strike again. So far it hasn’t, but that doesn’t seem to deter them. A crowd of Republicans showed up in 1980. Ronald Reagan wrapped himself in the Stars and Stripes and vowed to take the Panama Canal back, though the words “Panama Canal” would never cross his lips during his eight years in the White House. Texas Governor John Connolly never came to Iowa, but he sent his money. For weeks you couldn’t tune in any of Des Moines’ three TV channels without seeing Big John’s smilin’ face. During the last 44 years, Iowa has received enough political hot air to raise the average temperature by at least one degree centigrade.

Now they’re back again. Democrats this time. To Iowans, it’s like the circus has come to town. The Presidential Candidates Debate Roadshow now appearing in Des Moines!!! A small circus this time. Only a half-dozen. The other half-dozen or so didn’t make the cut. Don’t ask me why. I haven’t been following these momentous events. Caught about twenty minutes of one of the early ones with the full slate of hopefuls, many of whom have since dropped out and been replaced by still others. Each was given two minutes to answer questions like “How would you reform America’s healthcare system?”

That was enough “debating” for me. But I couldn’t help myself this time. As a former (for five years) Iowan I just had to tune in. Besides, I told myself, there are only six of them this time, so they’ll be allotted more than a soundbite each. Maybe some of them will have enough time to say something interesting. The opening visual was disappointing. For a political party that trumpets its diversity it was sad to see six white faces on stage. For a political party that professes itself to be concerned with the problems of America’s younger generations, it was sad to see only one candidate who can qualify as young…and three septuagenarian front runners. More disappointment followed as the questions began to be asked.

Nobody asked the question I was most interested in. “Why are you better qualified than the others to beat Trump?” Instead the questioners first inquired at length on foreign policy. Now it’s not that I consider foreign policy to be unimportant, but I have learned over a long life not to take foreign policy pronouncements by wannabe presidential candidates seriously. My memory is still good enough to recall JFK’s bogus “missile gap” threat, Nixon’s equally bogus “Peace with Honor,” and Obama’s vow to solve our historical Cuba problems by having a nice friendly cup of tea with Fidel Castro. Presidential candidates are apt to dish out foreign policy nonsense on the campaign trail but must get serious once they are elected. Some make the transition from political blarney to hard cold reality effectively. Others, like Trump, do not.

I tuned out the foreign policy blather for a while, then returned in the middle of the “pie-in-the-sky” segment. Once again health care was the hot topic…as it has been for the last 40 or so years. Proposed solutions ranged from the modest and practical to the hallucinatory (Bernie Sanders). I kept hoping that just for once a candidate would do what politicians are so well known for doing. Take a question, ignore it, and answer something completely different…like how they would get rid of Trump. To be sure, most of the candidates did at least mention getting rid of Trump in their final summations…some of them quite forcefully. Well, since everybody needs to have a “takeaway” these days here’s mine:

Joe Biden: Stumbled a bit but held his own. I can sympathize with Joe. We’re about the same age. A good guy but never a skilled debater. “Senior moments,” momentarily forgotten words-count me among the sufferers. That’s why I write rather than trying to make speeches. Does that disqualify him from being an effective president? No more than Nixon’s five o’clock shadow. Merely cosmetic, but then too many voters in this Facebook Age “if you look good you are good” and vice-versa. I’d much rather see someone younger in the White House but there doesn’t seem to be much choice, in either party.

Elizabeth Warren: Did well in the debate. A strong woman, like Nancy Pelosi, she would give misogynistic Donnie boy, who clearly has problems with women who aren’t compliant decorative eye candy, fits. And a woman at the top of the Democratic ticket would be a plus in 2020. Too far to the “progressive” left for me, and many others she’ll need to get elected. I know part of that is that she’s battling Bernie for the liberal heart of the Democratic Party in order to snag the nomination. If she succeeds, I hope she realizes that she must move right to become president. The Progressive Groundswell is overrated, and all her detailed reform plans will go nowhere if Trump is re-elected.

Bernie Sanders: Showed his nasty temper and his true colors. As much as I hate Trump, I’d be hard-pressed to vote for Bernie. His behavior in the debate was utterly Trump-like. A demagogue of the far left with his own hardcore following. Presents an outrageous healthcare proposal then goes ballistic when Warren and others object to it. Asked in this town that’s largely built on the insurance industry what he planned to do with all the folks who lost their jobs after he did away with private health insurance, he cavalierly replies that he’d toss them five years of welfare checks and retraining. That’s got to be the worst, and most callous, statement to come out of a Democratic candidate’s mouth in years. Like Trump, he lives in his own Neverland. Too old, too sour, too opinionated, too dogmatic. We don’t need yet another disastrous president.

Pete Buttigieg: Smart, well-spoken, to the point. A strong performance. Easy to see why Mayor Pete has come out of nowhere to being at least a marginal contender. Political moderate. Effective campaigner. Reasonable solutions to the big problems.

Amy Klobuchar: Like Mayor Pete, she used to be a “One-percenter” but is climbing steadily due to her performance in the debates and on the campaign trail. Another strong outing in Des Moines. Tough, moderate, facts at here fingertips, no political posturing, no grand pipe dreams…but she has a very long way to go. I wish her luck.

Tom Steyer: A multi-millionaire businessman trying to convince us that he’s Presidential Timber. We’ve seen this act before. Works great in his “just one of the folks” paid adverts but crashed in this debate. His presentation of qualifications was lame. Does extensive foreign travel equal foreign policy experience? What a joke.