Democrats to Iowa: Get Lost! (And They Wonder Why They Struggle in Rural America.)
STORM LAKE, Iowa — Democrats are getting their derrières handed to them by the kickers and the Busch Light drinkers from out here on the edge of the Great Plains all the way to Appalachia, where the Republicans roam.
So what do the Democrats do?
Dump the Iowa caucuses into the ditch. At the hand of President Biden, no less. He decreed that South Carolina’s primary should go first on the presidential nominating calendar, displacing Iowa. The Democratic National Committee seems happy to oblige.
We get it. Let someone else take a turn up front. But discarding Iowa is not a great way to mend fences in rural America — where the Democratic brand has become virtually unmarketable.
The Democratic big shots hated Iowa’s pride of place since the caucuses rose to prominence a half-century ago because money couldn’t control the outcome.Jimmy Carter broke through from Plains, Ga., with nothing but a toothy smile and an honest streak.Candidates were forced to meet actual voters in village diners across the state. We took our vetting role seriously — you had better be ready to analyze Social Security’s actuarial prospects.
Candidates weren’t crazy about it. The media hated Storm Lake ice in January. We did a decent, if imperfect, job of winnowing the field. Along with New Hampshire, we set things up so South Carolina could often become definitive, which it will be no longer.
Iowa has its problems. We are too white. The caucuses are complicated, confusing and clunky. The evening gatherings in homes, school gyms and libraries are not fully accessible and not as convenient as a primary for people with jobs and kids at home.
But diversity did have a chance here. Barack Obama was vaulted to the White House. Iowa actively encouraged Black candidates to challenge the white establishment. Mr. Obama beat Hillary Clinton here. Iowa had no problem giving a gay man, Pete Buttigieg, and a Jewish democratic socialist, Bernie Sanders, the two top tickets out to New Hampshire last cycle. Black, white or Latino, it’s organization that matters in Iowa. You have to herd your people to the caucus and keep them in your pen for an hour while other campaigns try to poach them. It’s town hall democracy. Mr. Obama won with it. Candidates who ran feeble campaigns have to blame something. Latinos in Storm Lake overwhelmingly caucused for Mr. Sanders. Julián Castro can complain all he wants.
The talking heads say Iowa messed up by not reporting the results quickly. The problem was that a cellphone app suggested to the Iowa Democratic Party by the Democratic National Committee crashed. The democratic process worked — the app didn’t.
Anyone looking for an excuse to excise Iowa and further alienate rural voters could find one. The time was ripe.
Mr. Biden doesn’t owe Iowa a thing. He finished fourth in the caucuses. He did owe Representative James Clyburn, the dean of South Carolina Democrats, big time for an endorsement just ahead of the Palmetto State primary, where Black voters put Mr. Biden over the top. It was sweet payback. We get that, too.
Actually, the caucuses haven’t been the best thing for Iowa. The TV ads never stop. It puts you in a bad mood to think everything is going wrong all the time. We asked good questions, and the candidates gave good answers, then forgot about it all. Despite all the attention, nothing really happened to stop the long decline as the state’s Main Streets withered, farmers disappeared, and the undocumented dwell in the shadows. Republican or Democrat, the outcome was pretty much the same. At least the Republicans will cut your taxes.
So it’s OK that South Carolina goes first. Iowa can do without the bother. The Republicans are sticking with Iowa, the Democrats consider it a lost cause. No Democratic state senator lives in a sizable part of western Iowa. Republicans control the governor’s office, the Legislature and soon the entire congressional delegation. Nobody organized the thousands of registered Latino voters in meatpacking towns like Storm Lake. Democrats are barely trying. The results show it.
The old brick factory haunts along the mighty Mississippi River are dark, thanks to Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton and everyone else who sold us out for “free trade.” Keokuk, the gate city to the river, was once a bustling industrial and shipping hub but recently lost its hospital. Your best hope in rural Jefferson was to land a casino to save the town. You essentially can’t haul a load of hogs to the packinghouse in a pickup anymore — you need a contract and a semi. The sale barn and open markets are quaint memories. John Deere tractor cabs will be made in Mexico, not Waterloo. Our rivers are rank with manure. It tends to frustrate those left behind, and the resentment builds to the point of insurrection when it is apparent that the government is not here to help you.
It’s hard to feel from 30,000 feet. So Donald Trump landed in Sioux City on the eve of the midterm election to claim his stake before a large crowd buffeted by the gales out of Nebraska. “The Iowa way of life is under siege,” Mr. Trump bellowed. “We are a nation in decline. We are a failing nation.”
They loved him. The Democrats view the crowd as deplorable, and told Iowa to get lost.
Art Cullen is the editor of The Storm Lake Times and author of “Storm Lake: A Chronicle of Change, Resilience, and Hope from a Heartland Newspaper.”
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