TCS Daily

The Democrats' Iowa Problem

By Brian Kennedy - January 16, 2003 12:00 AM

Attention C-Span viewers . . .Booknotes is soon to be preempted. This Saturday night, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the cavalcade of Presidential candidate cattle calls is scheduled to begin. Several of those who aspire to be the Democratic Party's presidential nominee in 2004 will stand before a crowded room of Iowa Democrats and attempt to elicit the grassroots support of those earnest souls who a year from now will brave a cold February night to be the first to say who should be their party's standard bearer.

It is not easy to handicap next year's Iowa Caucuses. Talking to party activists one quickly discerns that it is far too early to say who benefits most from Al Gore's and Tom Daschle's decisions to sit this one out. However, it is clear there exists a substantial vote in Iowa for the Democrat who carries the anti-war banner, and that fact has tremendous implications in defining the political parties in 2004 and beyond.

Iowans are historically dovish and Iowa Democrats tend to oppose increases in military spending or the use of military force in securing American national interests. Further, there is a substantial constituency in the Iowa Democratic Party of old fashioned 1960's-style burn-a-draft-card, take-over-the-campus-administration-building peaceniks. These party activists were led into to politics by anti-war candidates Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern. And the Iowa Caucuses were actually moved to their first-in-the-nation status by a fellow traveler, former Iowa Governor and United States Senator Harold Hughes.

In the early 1970's Hughes, a politically ambitious critic of the U.S. military action in Vietnam, considered waging a bid for the nomination as a prairie populist. To further his ambition, Hughes' operatives moved up the Iowa caucus date from March to January as a by-product of the McGovern Commission reforms that followed the 1968 Democratic convention debacle. In the end, Hughes didn't run but McGovern did, and won the nomination in part based on a strong showing in those first Iowa Caucuses.

In November of 1972, McGovern and his plan to surrender in Vietnam - a plan that had appealed to Iowa Democrats back in January - were both soundly rejected by the electorate and President Nixon won in a landslide. But as significant as the result on Election Day was the long-term effect of McGovern's candidacy in shaping the electorate's perception of Democrats on issues of national security. Gone was the image of cold warriors Presidents Truman, Kennedy and Johnson, replaced by the perception that Democrats are less apt to support the military and more reluctant to use force as an instrument of foreign policy.

McGovern's demise did not stop liberal Democrats (or McGovern for that matter) from running well on the "make love not war" line in subsequent Iowa Caucuses. In 1976, war was not at issue, but competing to carry the torch for the true believers, Senators Fred Harris and Birch Bayh had a combined vote of 23% that nearly bested Jimmy Carter's first place showing. In 1984, Senator Alan Cranston and George McGovern split 21% of the vote in an eight-way race as they championed a nuclear freeze and argued that Ronald Reagan's policy of offering U.S. support to freedom fighters in Central America would lead to another Vietnam-like quagmire. In 1988, Senator Paul Simon nearly won the balloting when he called for a nuclear testing moratorium and railed against "Star Wars." (Promoters of the ex-NATO Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Wesley Clark for President Committee should note that in all three of these Iowa contests the aforementioned, often long-forgotten candidacies bested the also long-forgotten presidential bids of the more hawkish Senators Scoop Jackson (1976), John Glenn (1984), and - running that year as a conservative pro-military Southern Democrat - Al Gore (1988).)

By 1992 Iowa's own peacenik Senator Tom Harkin was running for President and Bill Clinton and the rest of the field bypassed the Iowa Caucuses. In 2000, issues of foreign policy were not on the political agenda and Bill Bradley was not adroit enough to argue that he could gut the nation's military more completely than the Clinton/Gore team already had done.

In 2004 the issues of war and peace will again be front and center. The "give peace a chance" crowd will have an embarrassment of figurative swords to beat into plowshares: the war against al Qaeda, the war with Iraq, the North Korean crisis, and the deployment of the missile defense system. As candidates travel to town hall meetings and greet the party activists who dominate the caucus process they will find an enthusiastic response to any call to "bring our boys home" and put the money saved into healthcare, early childhood development and cleaning up the air we breathe. One can already witness several candidates shining up their anti-war credentials. Howard Dean is arguing the case against preemptive strikes to achieve regime change in Iraq; Senator Bob Graham voted against authorizing the use of force to remove Saddam Hussein; and even the establishment's choice, John Kerry, is reminding Iowa caucus goers that while he was a Vietnam war hero, he came home to lead anti-war protests in Harvard Yard.

By caucus night Dean, Senator John Edwards or even McGovern's old campaign manager, Gary Hart, will likely surge to the front of the pack by mobilizing a few thousand war-wary caucus goers behind a neo-isolationist message favoring foreign policy prescriptions based on economic sanctions and multilateral dialogues led by Kofi Annan. Campus precincts in dependable liberal bastions like Iowa City, Ames and Grinnell will produce large votes for the anti-war candidate who polls well among the faculty, elements of the student body, and the aging National Public Radio listeners who populate Iowa's small towns.

Then talking heads and the New York Times will trip over themselves hyping the significance of the insurgent candidate's surprising third place showing. The national media's gushing exuberance will lead to a late developing groundswell of support for the insurgent being charted in nightly tracking polls in New Hampshire, and then the Democratic Party frontrunner will be confronted with a Hobson's choice: Is it worse to be known as the Edmund Muskie or the Walter Mondale of your time? If like Muskie, the front-runner fails to co-opt the insurgent candidate's anti-war message, he is doomed to lose the nomination. However, if he tracks left and declares that he too will order a unilateral cease-fire on the day he is inaugurated, the candidate is in the same predicament as Mondale was after putting down Gary Hart's 1984 primary challenge: well-defined to the left of the American electorate. No matter the choice, the winner is President Bush's reelection committee.

Based on the recent mid-term results, there is little doubt the President would win re-election in a landslide if the Democrats select a nominee whose central message is a challenge to the President's prosecution of the wars. But that may well be the nominee imposed on the Party by those peaceniks who will populate the Iowa Caucuses next winter.

On the evening of November 2nd, 2004, if President Bush wins re-election in a landslide of Nixon or Reagan proportions, and when he emerges from his ranch in Crawford after a day of dove hunting with Dick Cheney to thank the American people for a mandate to lead for another four years, his political advisers might also take a moment to thank Iowa. For once again it will be the choices exercised by a few thousand earnest souls in Iowa that charts the course of the campaign, sets the direction of the country and reinforces, with long-term implications, the identity of the political parties.

Brian Kennedy is former Chairman of the Republican Party of Iowa and a contributing political commentator at Tech Central Station.

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