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Michael Brenner Headshot

Iowa: The Longest Yard

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It's been a year-long slog on the campaign trail for the nine presidential aspirants seeking the Republican nomination. It seems even longer for those who are not addicted to the insipid and the preening, yet could not avoid taking an occasional peek at what is in store for America in the event of a regime change.

The time, the money and the distraction seem hardly worth the paltry handful of convention votes that Iowa offers. Anything but representative of the country at large, the Hawkeye state should have only a marginal role in determining who the GOP standard bearer and possible winner in November will be. True -- if we were a mature polity with a sober sense of responsibility for managing the country's governmental affairs.

But we are not. We are accelerating down a slope of mindless immaturity that is landing us in the sump of celebrity politics that bears a closer resemblance to the Kardashians than to anything that the founding fathers could have imagined. Indeed, even to American public life as known little more than a generation ago. That is what makes Iowa important far out of proportion to its intrinsic value or convention arithmetic.

Presidential politics is treated by participants and observers alike as a contest in which the gambits and gaming strategies count far more than do the thinking and character of the protagonists. Those are the features that grab us, that the media spotlight, that commentators write about, what the consultants manipulate, what the moneymen pay attention to in placing their bets. It's all style and form. Substantive issues are just props to the theater. The product is a mongrel cross between American Idol and Reality Island -- with omnipresent pollsters recording the candidates' vital signs on a daily basis.

Does the show produce the most qualified candidates? Of course not. Some persons of ability and a measure of integrity are discouraged by the prospect of the endless grind of playing the circuit. Others have been weeded out long before they could be considered 'Presidential Timber' by the peculiar requirements of life upon the wicked stage. Consider this. In the decades before the flying circus of primaries and caucuses took over, the Democrats nominated Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Adlai Stevenson, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. More recently, they have had to make do with Walter Mondale, Mike Dukakis, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, John Kerry and Barack Obama. It is not just the transition from the smoke filled room of power brokers to free form 'democracy' that has resulted in this decline. The non-system we now endure is so flawed because it has been debased by the degeneration of our political culture generally.

The Iowa phenomenon (and the same holds for New Hampshire and the other winter bound state votes) stems from the obsession to divine winners and losers as early in the contest as possible despite the flimsy evidence. That leads to a gross magnification of what happens in the early bird caucuses/primaries. A few tens of thousands of votes are treated as a sure sign of who is receiving the Mandate of Heaven. The flood of reportage touts the frontrunner as well nigh unbeatable, the losers as either kaput or fighting for survival in the next round. Money, attention, and the malleable minds of the populace are all tilted toward the winner as if 25-30% of Republican caucus participants in one farm state embody the zeitgeist of the times. This is the psychology of fad and fashion. Mood and image are formed and shifted en masse as if by an unfelt tremor somewhere in the collective body politic. Deliberation and informed appraisal have little to do with this subliminal process.

The effects are unmistakable -- as are the consequences. Almost immediately, the scene moves from snow covered Midwestern cornfields to snow covered New England hills and valleys. All the immense weight of the extravaganza falls on an even smaller state equally unrepresentative of the nation as a whole. By the time the few survivors head to Dixie to do battle amidst the country's most reactionary voters in South Carolina, the outcome is in sight. Hence, 90% of eligible primary/caucus voters are disenfranchised. New Yorkers, Californians, Ohioans et al have no say in choosing who will be the Republican Party's champion in the fall. The Democrats, of course, must endure the absence of even a semblance of a contest between the incumbent and someone who is a less avid fan of the country's established power centers. Progressives are too engaged in the parlor game of devising ingenious rationalizations why they have a duty to back their erstwhile champion to muster the courage to challenge him. But that is another story.

A second consequence is that what commonly is now the end-game in South Carolina is marked by a ruthless, personalized combat. It's no holds barred as the gladiators' eyes fix on the prize of convention balloons and Inaugural balls. Let's recall George W. Bush and John McCain in 2000. The greatest victim is not the guy left bruised and dazed on the podium assigned to the defeated. No -- it is the American citizenry, their government and what is left of a rightfully proud tradition of democratic politics.

This is one consolation. For the next eight months, only two people will be clamoring for our attention with their unseemly antics on the public stage.

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