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Turning the Iowa GOP caucuses into an extremism limbo

COMMENTARY | January 18, 2011

Iowa's results can be significant in a presidential race; Obama’s showing in 2008 is proof of that. But next year only the GOP caucuses will be relevant -- and the GOP in Iowa these days is controlled by right-wing religious extremists. How far will candidates bend to get their approval?

By Herb Strentz and Gil Cranberg

DES MOINES—The nation needs and deserves better than the Iowa presidential caucuses.

Unless you are a fan of the Theater of the Absurd, there is no reason to look forward to the caucuses, about a year from now — Feb. 6, 2012. Time flies. Many in the news media in Iowa and elsewhere are well into their caucus coverage, and would-be candidates into planning their trips.

Religious zeal and absurdity mark the Iowa political landscape today. Perhaps those characteristics are an asset in selecting Republican nominees for President – but even if they are, Iowa’s role in the process should be more suspect than ever.

It’s questionable why anyone should pay much attention to the caucuses nowadays, much less report on them as legitimate political events.

Standard questioning of Iowa’s credentials as a candidate-maker usually focuses on the state’s relatively small and homogenous population — 3 million people, 92 percent white. But other factors show how contorted the system is. In the byzantine Democratic party caucus process, for example, thousands of votes for a candidate may be ignored if support is less than 15 per cent at many of the almost 1,800 caucus sites. On the GOP side, a pre-caucus August “straw vote”on party nominees is little more than a fund raiser for Iowa Republicans — candidates in effect buy votes; there is even a tradition of bringing in busloads of out-of-state people to take part. But the “poll” nevertheless has been accorded some political legitimacy by many reporters.

Iowa first got certified as a nominee bellwether with the Jimmy Carter presidential candidacy in 1976. Carter came from figuratively nowhere to finish second, after “uncommitted”. The logic then, and now,  is that the Iowa setting provides an opportunity for qualified but perhaps under-financed candidates, largely ignored by the press, to meet plain folks face-to-face, talk with informed citizens in kitchens and living rooms, get attention, and rise to the top. The corollary is that a candidate who does not do as well in Iowa as the news media predict may as well pack his or her bags for home and not for New Hampshire, the next stop for presidential wannabes.

The caucuses had a powerful effect in 2008 by affirming that a black presidential candidate could garner substantial support from white voters. That was an enormous boost for Barack Obama. But because Democrats have the incumbent President, their caucuses will be irrelevant in the 2012 presidential election. They will be mostly an exercise in party building and an attempt to repair the damage left by one-term Democratic Gov. Chet Culver who spent too much time settling scores against people who did not support him in getting the party’s nomination four years earlier.

It is on the Republican side that the 2012 caucuses promise to be important. However,  the religious right now is in such control of the Iowa Republican Party that the GOP caucuses will be a modified limbo contest, seeing how far to the right each candidate can lean. For starters, Iowa’s national GOP committeeman, Steve Sheffler, is president of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, formerly the Iowa Christian Alliance.

Then there is the matter of the religious right and the courts in Iowa. The state’s deserved reputation for fairness and the role of its courts in protecting civil rights was enhanced in April 2009 when the Iowa Supreme Court ruled 7-0 that a 1998 state law banning same sex marriages was unconstitutional because it advanced religious — not public — interests.  But in November 2010, Iowa voters, led by the religious right, voted not to retain the three Supreme Court justices who were on the ballot. Republican Bob Vander Plaats, who led the anti-retention campaign, now heads a group intent on influencing the caucuses. In his 2010 bid for his party’s nomination for governor, in an op-ed piece in The Des Moines Register he invoked Jesus Christ as a reason not to compromise or yield on core principles, writing: “…a ‘lukewarm’ commitment makes Him want to vomit.”

The winner of the GOP gubernatorial primary and the November election was Terry Branstad, governor from 1982-1998, years when the right took control of the party and the law banning same-sex marriage was passed. At a news conference on Dec. 6, then Governor-elect Branstad characterized the Supreme Court decision as a “tragic mistake” and said “restraint is vital” for the court on matters of strong public opinion. Even though he had appointed Chief Justice Marsha Ternus, one of those ousted, he has refused to speak out in defense of the judiciary.

The Iowa GOP platform  contains planks calling for the right to carry concealed weapons in public schools and doing away with smoking bans, no-fault divorce and minimum wage laws, for openers. The Iowa news media generally ignore the platform and some GOP candidates distanced themselves from it. The only Republicans who take the nonsensical platform seriously are those who will dominate the 2012 caucuses and the screening of their party’s candidates.

The Iowa presidential caucuses —Why bother?


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