This much is certain on the day after the Iowa caucuses: There will be plenty of kvetching and moaning about the system. The winners will praise the Hawkeye State’s voters as the wisest voters in America and celebrate the process as a shining example of democracy in action. The losers will assail it as unfair, exclusive, convoluted, unrepresentative, archaic and in screaming need of reform.
One Hillary Clinton supporter — much to the campaign’s chagrin — couldn’t keep his lips buttoned before the votes were cast. Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland complained to the Columbus Dispatch that it “makes no sense” to give Iowa the right to hold the first presidential contest and lambasted the caucuses as “hugely undemocratic” because the process “excludes so many people.” USA Today spotlighted the “goofy,” “eccentric” ritual — quoting Sen. Carl Levin attacking the system as “cockamamie.” The New York Times chimed in the day before the Iowa caucuses with a piece bemoaning the plight of Iowa voters who won’t be able to cast votes because work and family conditions will prevent them from attending the lengthy nighttime meetings.
Yes, the rules are bizarre — particularly the Democrats’ arcane setup eschewing paper ballots and forcing nonviable candidates with less than 15 percent of the vote from caucusgoers to throw their votes to one of the frontrunners. Yes, the pandering to farmers and ethanol interests is noxious. And yes, the spectacle of Hillary Clinton lining up baby-sitters and Barack Obama scheduling rides for Iowa caucusgoers smacks of a Nanny State gone wild.
Still, the process does have its benefits. Retail politics is a demanding business. It punishes candidates who would rather sit back in their East Coast comfort zones, tape slick ads and campaign on autopilot. It requires discipline, focus and drive. It requires a thick skin, stamina and an ability to withstand enormous voter and media scrutiny. But there’s more:
Mitt Romney’s managerial prowess and large campaign chest should have guaranteed a huge, easy win. But Mike Huckabee’s surprise rise over the past several weeks showed that money alone isn’t everything. The grassroots matter.
Celebrity appeal helps. But except for a botched campaign event in which staffers dissed a local supporter who had organized a campaign event at his farm because he didn’t meet the death tax threshold, nationally prominent Rudy Giuliani was a nonentity in Iowa. And Fred Thompson’s failure to catch fire showed that star power and Internet buzz aren’t enough to cut it, either.
The toss-up on the Democrat side underscored those points. Neither the Clinton machine nor Obama’s Oprah factor nor John Edwards’ moneybags alone sealed the deal.
As The Economist put it in an editorial offering praise for the American process: “Money and organisation matter far less than stamina, agility and that most unfakeable of all political attributes, charisma. Anyone deficient will be found out: anyone with the right stuff has a chance to shine.”
We may have grown sick and tired of the endless debates and campaign circus, but the process helpfully spotlighted fundamental character flaws. Hillary’s botched illegal alien driver’s license answer put her open-borders incoherence on full display. Her dumpster-diving into rival Obama’s grade-school essays showed her utter pettiness. Iowans — and the rest of us — got to see how she and her operatives acted under pressure: by planting questioners, slinging underhanded cocaine references at Obama, and then freezing out the press (including a poor 9-year-old girl who wanted to interview Chelsea Clinton).
I may not agree with the outcomes of the Iowa caucuses (and keep in mind that winning Iowa doesn’t guarantee a White House victory). But I much prefer this system to a process that would anoint a deep-pocketed frontrunner allergic to flyover country who wishes he could just phone it in.