by Ken Feltman
The big winner in the Iowa caucuses is not a candidate at all
The Iowa caucuses seem to jump out at us every four years like a belated ghost or goblin left over from Halloween. Instead of orange and black, everything is costumed in red, white and blue – but also in confusion and uncertainty.
Why Iowa? We see news reports of all these presidential candidates, doing those things that candidates do, but always doing them in Iowa. How come they do not spend as much time in the big states like Texas, Florida or California? Why are the candidates forever traveling between New Hampshire (which has its similar version of quadrennial presidential noteworthiness) and Iowa?
Why do they caucus and not just cast ballots the way people in other states do? Why should any smaller state have such an important role? And why should that smaller state be Iowa?
The answers are unsatisfying but real. Iowans have made an industry out of their caucuses. They really do work at it. The caucuses are big business. Full time employees and “volunteers” will begin immediately after this month’s caucuses to get ready for 2008. For them, politics is like any other Iowa crop. They carefully prepare their fields and sow their seeds. The only difference between corn and soybeans and their crop of caucuses is in the harvest: caucuses ripen only once every four years.
What a harvest: People from all over the country (and, this year, the world) flock to Iowa and consume thousands of hotel rooms and meals. The campaigns have hundreds of “volunteers” all over Iowa. The number increases daily till the caucuses. Labor unions and other special interest groups pour money and people into organizing events. They buy and rent all sorts of things, from satellite up-links to warm coats and gloves, from computer equipment to office space, from liquor to graphic arts, from finger-food to brochures. These outsiders binge-consume all over Iowa, from the Missouri River to the Mississippi.
The quadrennial invasion means a bonanza for the Iowa economy, a much bigger cash harvest than the crops at the State Fair. The Iowa caucuses are unique in American politics but commonplace in American enterprise: they are a money-making venture. Beside, the caucuses provide entertainment during the dull, cold months.
Folks in Iowa take pride in being from America’s heartland. They use geography to suggest that they are in the middle or typical. In fact, Iowans are not a good common denominator. They are older, more unionized and more “populist” than the country as a whole. They are not so rural as they appear and, in any event, their farmers long ago began joining farmers’ unions.
Iowans believe, however, that they also serve the entire nation by winnowing the field. They take their role seriously and do it as a civic duty. They put the candidates through their paces. They put up with cold cuts in cold union halls and overblown introductions in overheated churches – all to save the rest of us from having to meet and greet the under-funded and not-quite-ready candidates who will be gone by the time the rest of us need to concern ourselves. An Iowa farmer summed it up: “Ain’t no unkissed babies left.”
Iowans love this year’s large crop of candidates because 2004’s spirited contest makes for a bumper harvest. The rest of us will then decide if we like what Iowa sends to market. Meantime, no matter what the rest of us think, Iowans will have brought in yet another big cash harvest.
The other big battle in Iowa
Soon, when the caucuses end, the hoards will leave Iowa and things will settle back to a more normal pace. The media will crown Iowa’s “winners” and “losers.” They may miss one big winner: what some are calling “new labor.”
This so-called “new labor” in the U.S. will not want to borrow that label from Britain’s Labour Party because in Britain the term connotes a philosophy. Here, it means unions composed of non-industrial members. “New labor” is found among government employee unions, service industry employees, office workers, flight attendants, healthcare workers and organized retail clerks. The losers among labor unions are those old manufacturing, industrial and construction unions that have dominated the American labor movement since the 1930s: the auto and steel workers, railroad and related transportation workers, rubber and electrical unions, the construction trades.
“Old labor” is backing Rep. Dick Gephardt. “New labor” backs Howard Dean. By deserting Gephardt in Iowa, “new labor” has denied Gephardt the opportunity to coast to victory in the caucuses. But more than that, the emergence of the service unions changes everything, forever, in the way labor unions operate and are perceived in Washington. The head of the AFL-CIO is a product of the service employees union movement.
The manufacturing and industrial unions may still have the power to deliver Iowa for their candidate. The fact that the “new” unions have so blatantly bucked the bosses of “old” labor signals a lasting change. The change is a shot across the bow: the rules of engagement with organized labor are going to be different as labor moves out of the factories and into the service industries. Washington’s legislative agenda will change, too. The strong new voice of organized labor will have its say in Washington – from a different perspective.
Happy new year and happy memories
I always look forward to the note on her Christmas card. This year, she wrote of one of her happiest childhood memories: “a pool of sunlight at the bottom of the stairs in our old farmhouse. I don’t remember my age, but I was very young and it was my birthday! My mother came in with a handful of ripe, red strawberries – the first of the season. I can recall this as vividly today as I could many years ago.”
This June, Vera Smith will celebrate her 100th birthday. She has taken life in with the same true memory of those first strawberries of the season. She knows that, no matter how difficult the childhood, nearly everyone has at least a few happy memories. She builds on those like the good teacher she was and is yet. She was my teacher a half century ago. I can still learn from her.
So to you, I echo one good woman’s holiday greeting: “May the happy memories of your childhood nurture you.”