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Thinking 2016: At the 30th Anniversary of Gary Hart's Iowa Breakthrough, Could It Be Done Again?

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It's 30 years since the 1984 Iowa presidential caucuses, in which then dark horse Democratic presidential candidate Gary Hart broke though to the front ranks of presidential contenders with a "shock" second place finish.

Could such a lightly funded candidate running against what the New York Times described as the most overwhelming frontrunner in party history -- that would be
former Vice President Walter Mondale -- accomplish the same thing in today's politics?

It's a timely question given how dominant former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appears as the politics of 2016 erupt around us.

Iowa and the Clintons, well, the first-in-the-nation contest state has not been very kind to Bill and Hillary Clinton.

On the other hand, you can't beat somebody -- and Hillary Clinton is most certainly a somebody -- with nobody.

What would it take to break through in Iowa in 2016?

And is anyone capable of it?

To begin, let's look at the changes over the past 30 years, at Iowa in general (the place had in 1984 and has now some very specific characteristics that can allow an insurgent to begin a surge), and Iowa and Hart in particular.

When I was Senator Hart's political director for the first-in-the-nation contest, the Iowa presidential caucuses were held on February 20th, 1984. There was plenty of time for those who voted in the caucuses to consider the candidates and in a great many cases to actually meet them.

Unlike the heavily frontloaded situation in 2012, when most campaigned from TV studios, barely deigning to sweep through Iowa behind carefully controlled facades, the candidates then spent ample time in the state, with voters able to get a measure of them.

Then there were campaign spending limits which were largely adhered to. I say "largely" because campaigns found ways to scrimp and save by renting cars across the state line, a minor dodge which seems quite quaint in today's post-Citizens United decision milieu of anything goes spending.

And there were no shadowy "independent" campaign groups spending megabucks on TV ads which those in the know understand are actually very much part of the campaign, but fool most voters, such as the Mitt Romney super PAC "Restore Our Future"run by Romney's aides from his first presidential campaign and funded by Romney backers at his old leveraged buyout firm Bain Capital.

After witnessing the official roll-out of the first Macintosh computer in Silicon Valley, I flew to Des Moines for the four-week stretch run of Hart's Iowa campaign, coming on as political director, joining a state coordinator, Keith Glaser, who had moved over from a choice spot on the Senate staff when the Iowa campaign imploded a few months earlier to inherit what looked like a moribund booby prize.

While his New Hampshire campaign, which capitalized on the new post-Iowa equation in the race with the Colorado senator as the principal challenger for the nomination, with a smashing victory, was a pretty rocksteady operation throughout (New Hampshire Senator and former Governor Jeanne Shaheen made her reputation as Hart's state coordinator), Hart's Iowa campaign actually imploded the previous autumn. And Hart was mired in fifth place just four weeks before the vote.

Which was not to plan. Hart, a two-term senator from Colorado in his 40s, had managed George McGovern's 1972 presidential campaign and concluded that conventional left-liberalism
was ideologically played out with respect to winning an American presidential election. So, after declaring that he and his fellow Watergate class politicians elected to high office in 1974
weren't "just a bunch of little Hubert Humphreys," he set about defining a new politics of reform (oriented around substance rather than process) around the new economy of innovation and expanding trade, reforms of education and job preparation, protection of the environment and promotion of alternative energy and transport modes, military reform and a more cautious geopolitics moving away from alliances with dictators, and so on.

Which made Hart arguably the principal progenitor of a modernized liberalism, though Hart's Yale Law classmate Jerry Brown, then in his first creative go-round as California's governor, would undoubtedly disagree. What Hart did that was different was to pull it all into a coherent whole, in addition mastering as he did a great deal of expertise about the Pentagon and the intelligence community as a founding member of the Senate oversight committee on intelligence and as co-founder of the bipartisan Congressional Military Reform Caucus.

Hart was both an organizer and an intellectual, an unusual combination. Left to his own devices, he was more the latter, as we saw later when he earned his doctorate at Oxford. While former Vice President Walter Mondale was an overwhelming frontrunner, with the first American to orbit the Earth, Senator John Glenn, a clear second, Hart -- tall and articulate with movie star good looks -- was judged a formidable dark horse when he announced in February 1983.

But he remained mired near the back of the crowded pack, which included not only Mondale and Glenn but also Rev. Jesse Jackson, California Senator Alan Cranston, South Carolina Senator Ernest Hollings, former Florida Governor Reuben Askew ... and former Senator George McGovern. All but Hollings and Askew would prove to be major factors at one time or another.

To those of us in the campaign, the lack of progress was at times disheartening. But experience teaches that things can look a little dull for quite awhile, with the media endlessly repeating the same static storyline, until important events actually start happening.

Unfortunately, some genuinely bad things happened as well, with fundraising lighter than expected and organizational difficulties, including being suckered into participating in some state convention straw polls. Cranston, calling on the anti-nuke peace movement, showed strongly in these and won what at the time was played as a big victory in the Wisconsin straw poll. I'd been sent in there to run advance for the candidate and, oh yes, take over a congressional district where our coordinator defected to Cranston.

Cranston beat not only us, but Mondale and John Glenn, too, positioning him for a time as the coming candidate in the field. In reality, the straw polls were a lot of BS, with the votes of a relative handful of activists, many of them bused in, providing only a simulacrum of a real election. But at the time, the media-accepted nonsense made Cranston look like the candidate who might break through in Iowa.

Some in the campaign thought that a move from fifth place to a respectable fourth in Iowa would help Hart to a second place in New Hampshire eight days later. Which was sensible, but too conservative.

Looking back, I see that this all comes with with bonus health tips: I know how to lose 15 pounds in four weeks. Meals take too much time.

Iowa proved to be a spectacular and adrenalized experience, running flat out, which nearly didn't happen due to my Californian footwear. Hart himself pointed out that I would likely come down with pneumonia if I didn't ditch my Mediterranean climate loafers and wear something suitable for the Midwestern winter, something like his trademark Western boots.

Suitably shod, it was time to roll. First on the agenda was lunch with Hart's new chief strategist Pat Caddell to discuss overall strategic imperatives and how they could be translated into tactics in Iowa. While Hart's Yale Law classmate Oliver "Pudge" Henkel, with whom I got on well, continued as the national campaign manager, Caddell and associates from his very high-powered polling/strategy firm were moving into the campaign hierarchy.

Today Caddell, an old friend, is best known as something of a crank, an angry professional anti-Democrat, turning up on Fox News and other outlets to rail against the party and predict doom, gloom and various nefarious doings by Barack Obama. But in those days, before his corrosively angry dislike of many pols got the better of him, he was the rock star consultant/strategist, having cannily established himself as a polling guru. From there, he was able to invoke his knowledge of "the numbers" to push hard for the strategies he favored.

It was an intriguing situation, in that Hart had in many ways invented Caddell's career by hiring him after he left Harvard in his very early 20s as the McGovern for President pollster. Caddell went on to become President Jimmy Carter's pollster. And now he was back with Hart, in an uneasy relationship which their mutual friend Warren Beatty worked to make work, to help Hart vault from the back of the pack to the front.

The reality is that, faulty as many of his ideas are today, his ideas then were often quite brilliant -- though his deep dislike of frontrunner Walter Mondale had unhealthy overtones -- and we hatched ideas to demonstrate to Iowans how Hart represented a new and better version of a party whose tired out establishment was all too accurately epitomized by the former vice president.

Hart had already developed a strong policy framework for his presidential candidacy. But he was having trouble translating that into the campaign itself. I remember a speech he gave, following a rousing warm-up Beatty introduction, at a fundraising dinner in the 20th Century Fox commissary. It was about developing new types of automobiles to end our fateful addiction to Middle Eastern oil and save the environment. That was 31 years ago, well ahead of the curve as we contemplate wars in the Middle East and accelerating climate change.

It was also about 45 minutes. And went right over the heads of most the crowd who wanted to hear some rousing rhetoric about why Ronald Reagan was bad.

Hart just wasn't fitting into the rather cliched categories which were gaining support as the actual voting in the Democratic nomination contest approached.

He was not politically correct enough for the left-liberals who flocked to George McGovern, whose 1972 presidential campaign Hart had managed and whom I kept running into in the lobby of Des Moines' famed old Savery Hotel where he held forth from a comfortable sofa like a would-be Obi-Wan Kenobi, cannily using the press magnet effect of the nearby hotel bar to get his message out every day.

He was not reflexively pro-labor enough for the unions who formed the core of Walter Mondale's support and, when he'd gone past permissible campaign spending limits later on in the midst of the primaries and was about to come crashing to a halt, carried his candidacy by funding "delegate committees" supposedly separate from his campaign to keep him afloat.

He was not peace-oriented enough for the nuclear disarmament folks who had gravitated, more than a little incongruously, to Alan Cranston. A fascinating character who appointed me to the Air Force Academy, which I did not attend, founded the very liberal California Democratic Council, which, working with Pat Brown, helped spur the California Democratic resurgence of the late 1950s, and as a U.S. senator championed a nuclear weapons freeze and a peace treaty with the Soviets while at the same time backing big ticket California-based weapons systems.

And he was not famous enough for the first wave of trend voters who flocked to the legendary John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth.

Something would have to be done with each of those candidates, of course.

Since Hart didn't fit in the conventional molds, that became the mold. He had strong and unconventional yet pragmatic ideas (warning: my spin cycle in process) which he could talk about at length with voters in meetings and condense for other voters at rallies to build a sense of momentum as the big day approached. But it all had to be boiled down into essentials.

And I believed strongly that it was time to run the Iowa campaign like a primary, not a caucus, that in the limited time remaining support would be gathered by generating a sense of excitement and momentum and that grassroots organizing activities should drive that and draft off of it. This meant a much higher profile in the day to day newsflow, commenting on happenings as they happened as well as seeking to drive our own themes. It meant remote appearances on TV and radio shows. And it meant rallies.

Not a few big rallies, but many small rallies, all over the state. No 45-minute rally speeches, either, or even 15 minutes. A 10-minute time limit at first moving at the end down to seven before I cued the band. Which only happened once. That left more time to take questions as he met people in the crowd.

And he needed a dramatic moment to turn the campaign into a contrast between himself and the frontrunner.

The most striking thing about the Des Moines debate, last before the Iowa caucuses, was how predictable it all was. No one had a gambit to alter the equation or unravel an opponent. No Sun Tzu, just a lot of flailing and attacking and running in place.

In 1984 with Hart, we carefully set up something to begin loosening the former vice president's seemingly iron grip on the primaries. To reveal Mondale's utter conventionality (and remind trade-oriented Iowans of his protectionist tendencies), and to define himself as a "think different" Democrat, Hart -- who was also pro-labor, but not as reflexively so -- would ask him to name one thing on which he had ever disagreed with the AFL-CIO.

So in all the debate negotiations I worked on, timing, positioning on stage, everything was designed as set-up for The Question. Naturally, it nearly all fell apart at the last minute. Hart and Caddell flew in the morning of the debate, which coincided with a blizzard closing the Des Moines airport, diverting their flight to Omaha, Nebraska.

So I had to get the Secret Service to move the motorcade at high speed, and had to get the start of the debate delayed by 15 minutes.

When Hart arrived, he immediately swept into the dressing room to see his old friend Jesse Jackson, who was not unhelpful. Once he'd arrived, everything worked. Hart achieved his needed dramatic definition and distinction to begin emerging from the depths of the pack, and was on his way to what David Halberstam -- author of The Best and the Brightest on the geniuses who masterminded, as it were, the Vietnam War -- rather humorously called "the most famous distant second place in American political history."

On the day of the voting, after our last minute barnstorming tour of the state, I bid Hart farewell at the Quad City Airport, with Hart flying on to New Hampshire for election night to take advantage of momentum from what I and others had predicted would be his "surprise" second place showing, the Colorado senator reminded me that people had to understand that he was "the candidate from the future." Actually, that was the candidate "of the future," as I joshingly pointed out.

Hart asked me again if I thought he would finish second and I told him he would. If so, he said, he would win New Hampshire and become the frontrunner for president. Then Hart boarded his flight to Boston and I got back on the campaign plane, the passenger list now down to Bob Woodward's ex-wife and myself, for the flight down to Des Moines.

That night, with Hart's old Yale Law friend and campaign manager Henkel standing in for him at the election night gathering, the sense of excitement, and anticipation of still more to come, was very strong. While absolutely thrilled by the Iowa result, Henkel told me he was concerned about resources, that Florida -- just over three weeks away -- could be too expensive to contest.

In the event, Hart not only contested Florida but won it going away. That was the sort of wave that the Iowa and New Hampshire breakthroughs produced for Hart.

For all that Hart predicted as he got on to the plane taking him East did happen. But he did not become president, not in 1984, when he won a near sweep on the first ever Super Tuesday set of primaries across the country and came from behind to win big in California. And not in 1988, when he was the clear frontrunner not only for the Democratic nomination but against George Bush, only to be brought down by a rather sedate sex scandal spoon fed to the media by parties unknown.

But that was in the future. What Hart's Iowa breakthrough, with a mere 16.5% against Mondale's 49%, did was recast the race. With Jesse Jackson a major factor away from lily white Iowa -- and doesn't that point up how dramatic the emergence of Obama, who won Iowa in 2008, was? -- Hart won 26 state contests. But though money flowed after Iowa and New Hampshire -- though not as regularly as it would have had the Internet been a factor then -- early fundraising woes left key campaign infrastructure undeveloped, with delegate slots lost due to lack of organization.

Hart was also helped by a multi-candidate field making it easier to finish second -- though we gunned down Cranston and Glenn crash-landed largely of his own accord, McGovern finished only a few thousand votes behind, and at one point was running in second place as best I could make out -- and by the surprise factor.

But he was not helped at all by the difficulty in institutionally capturing the wave of enthusiasm which the Iowa and New Hampshire breakthroughs ignited.

Except for techno-boffins and spooks, there was no Internet. Even fax was a new technology.

If the Hart '84 campaign happened with today's technology, Hart would have won, even with some campaign mistakes.

So the Internet can make life easier for an insurgent.

So too might the emergence of super-PACs funded by the super-rich, allowing millions to be instantly injected on behalf of a campaign. But that skews the politics of it all to even greater potential reliance on big money, something which generally drowns out lesser and/or emerging voices that aren't in tune with a big money agenda.

Will there be a big field running in 2016? It's likely on the Republican side. But on the Democratic side? We'll have to see how strong Hillary Clinton -- who I think is a strong candidate -- looks after the coming debate over her tenure as secretary of state.

And can the Clintons win back the African American vote they lost Obama?

While real answers to such questions await proving in the real world, it is clear that we have lost something in our politics by candidates needing more and more money to do well in Iowa, whose caucuses were intended to foster
a more participatory democracy demanding serious personal attention from the candidates.

The Hart campaign spent less than a million dollars achieving that Iowa breakthrough. That's nothing in today's politics, even with inflation factored in.

Of course, much of the money that is spent in campaigns is, in my view, wasted. But even so, the change is not a good one in terms of measuring Americans as citizens rather than consumers.