Observing US:
A column about America,
by Marylaine Block
originally published by
Fox News Online, 1998-2000

#45, July 28, 1999


by Marylaine Block

It's sixteen months until the next presidential election, but there are nearly as many politicians, campaign workers and reporters in Iowa as there are residents. Any Iowan can attend rallies, listen to speeches, or host fundraisers for presidential wannabes.

Most of us don't, though.

Nearly 30 years ago the Democrats and Republicans changed their rules, to take power away from dealmakers and bosses at conventions and give the people a voice in choosing the presidential candidates. Now that convention delegates are chosen in caucuses and primaries, conventions have become little more than coronations of candidates already chosen. (Indeed, in the glare of television lights, the golden rule of convention managers has become "Thou shalt not commit news.")

As we say so often about the people who changed all the rules, "What were they thinking?" Did they really believe true democracy would flourish?

If so, they were misguided. You see, caucuses, straw polls, and primaries are not about democracy, and are only marginally about the will of the people, because most Americans aren't all that interested in politics.

Oh, sure, we care about specific issues -- abortion, pornography, immigration, and in Iowa, the price of a bushel of corn. But relatively few of us are committed to politics as a process.

Iowa and New Hampshire have become places where candidates can try out issues and see if they resonate with the public, but they are also where candidates build their organizations. As Steve Forbes found out so expensively last year, TV ads aren't enough; you need committed organizers who will talk to their neighbors about you, campaign for you door to door, make endless phone calls, stage events, and get busloads of your supporters to straw polls and caucuses.

Iowa and New Hampshire are also where candidates raise money, though the old rule of "spend money to get money" still applies. Iowa's Republican straw poll in August is actually a fund-raising event for the party -- each person who attends has to contribute $25 to Republican coffers to get in the door. However, candidates will pay their supporters' attendance fees up front, and will also treat their delegates mighty fine. George Dubya just rented a big hunk of land in front of the arena where the voting will take place, where his campaign will serve up refreshments and entertainment -- much like in the good old days when candidates provided booze for folks who had just publicly voted for them.

Caucuses aren't all that democratic either. I've attended the Iowa caucuses since 1980; the first time, I was one of many political newbies. We were excited by the chance to matter in the political process, enthusiastic, and incredibly na´ve. You see, our raw numbers did not matter anywhere near as much as the rules by which caucuses are managed, which we were clueless about.

The people who did know the rules -- the established pols -- controlled how the vote would be conducted and which issues would be entertained. Many of us walked away feeling like the deck was stacked and the dealer held all the aces.

This is not to say that the will of the people doesn't matter, because it does. All the money and organization in the world won't help a thoroughly unappealing candidate. Phil Gramm spent an awful lot of money in 1996 trying to convince people to vote for him, and we told him, sorry, but we REALLY don't like you.

But the flaw of power to the people is that the people by and large don't want it. As long as Americans don't care enough about politics to do the work, it doesn't matter how we change the rules -- the people who do care will be the ones who master them and rewrite them. They will keep on being the dealers, and their time, money, and understanding of the system will continue to be the aces up their sleeves.

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