I get at least one phone call from a major media outlet about Iowa and presidential politics every day. This week, the political editor of the largest French news magazine called, and we talked about Michele Bachmann. I also talked for an hour with one of the top political reporters for Reuters about the home-schooling movement and GOP politics in Iowa.
No doubt we are still serving the two main purposes for which the first-in-the-nation caucuses were created.
First, we give America and the world an "off-off Broadway" stage on which all the presidential contenders can perform. They are scrutinized, written about and their acting skills are tested here in small town meetings, slaughterhouses, churches, cafes and town hall meetings.
They kiss piglets, children, eat deep-fried food on sticks and proclaim their philosophy, values and are tested for their organizational skills. Being partly an agricultural state, we also watch to see if the candidates are smart enough not to step on the political cow pies that litter the Iowa landscape. When they do, the picture goes viral!
Then the press, electronic media and bloggers report on these "performances" including the missteps, and these reports help to shape the national assessment of the candidates. When they leave Iowa after caucus night, the go on to "off Broadway" — New Hampshire and North Carolina. If they perform well there, they get to go to the Broadway of politics — a national campaign.
Like theater, which politics very much is these days, the contenders need to perform well in Iowa, but even that does not guarantee victory. The Iowa theater is only the testing ground.
Second, we help weed out and winnow down the field of presidential wannabes, which is always ridiculously large, by letting the national judge their performances in the Hawkeye State. No doubt by February 2012, when the Iowa Caucuses are scheduled, several of the Republicans who remain in the race will give up. Heck, Iowa has already done a job there.
Donald Trump, Tim Pawlenty, Haley Barbour, Chris Christie, George Pataki, Paul Ryan, Jeb Bush, Thaddeus McCotter and many other prospective GOP contenders decided not to run partly because they did not want the intensive scrutiny of the Iowa political experience. Here in Iowa, we don't let them just run a media campaign, carefully control their image and spin it all. In Iowa, we have the self-confidence as citizens and the proximity to the candidates to exercise due diligence as citizens. We ask tough questions every single day that a candidate is in the state.
When Bachmann tried to control access to herself by staying in an air-conditioned bus and coming out only at the last minute to give her hair-perfect speeches, she was roundly criticized by local folks in Iowa ("She wouldn't even have lunch with us," one guy said) and then by the media. She immediately changed her routine. "Came out" of the bus and attended the Iowa-Iowa State football game. Most recently she showed up at a slaughterhouse and carved up some steaks. That's what Iowa does to national big shots who think they can just spin their image.
Of course, at that meat locker she also criticized government regulations and meat inspection for bacterial contamination, which probably was not reassuring to many folks who eat meat and would prefer it to be inspected. But that's what Iowa is for. Let the candidates be themselves and catch them in those off-guard moments.
In so many ways large and small, we make it possible for Americans to have a better choice with a smaller field of candidates. And, even when Iowa activists finally make their choices on caucus night, we don't actually "choose" the next presidential candidate. Often, as with Mike Huckabee in 2008, we don't get our way, and the candidate who wins in Iowa does not get the nomination. That too is how it should be since it makes no sense for small Iowa to be the king-maker. To switch metaphors, we are just the skirmishes that candidates must survive before the larger battle for victory.
To those candidates who complain about the Iowa process, I would share the aphorism attributed to writer Mark Skousen: If you can't take the sting, don't reach for the honey. And Iowa is pure political honey.