I don’t know what is more disappointing – former New Hampshire GOP Chairman Fergus Cullen’s chaotic op-ed attacking the Iowa Caucuses, or the Des Moines Register’s willingness to reprint his diatribe without providing an Iowan with a chance to respond.
In every presidential election year, it seems like someone in New Hampshire feels the need to bash Iowans and the caucus process that has been in place since 1976. It began in 1988, when then New Hampshire Governor John Sununu proclaimed, “The people of Iowa pick corn, and the people of New Hampshire pick presidents.”
Twenty years later, then-U.S. Senator Judd Gregg repeated Sununu’s claim when he told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, “Well, I’ve always, being from New Hampshire, viewed Iowa as being a place where they pick corn and New Hampshire being a place where we pick presidents. So, quite honestly, I don’t focus a whole lot on Iowa.” Blitzer was asking the Senator about Mike Huckabee’s campaign. Gregg backed Mitt Romney’s campaign in 2008.
Ironically, I can’t recall one instance when a prominent Iowan has spoken ill about New Hampshire’s primary. While I would like to believe that Iowans are above such petty behavior, the reality is that attacking New Hampshire would do nothing but undermine the Iowa caucuses themselves. If a small state like New Hampshire isn’t worthy of its First-in-the-Nation status, then neither is Iowa, and vice-versa.
Mr. Cullen describes Iowa and New Hampshire as two friends that have grown apart. A nice analogy for sure, but one that has absolutely nothing to do with Iowa’s and New Hampshire’s roles in the presidential nominating process. We are, or at least I thought we were, allies that joined together in order to preserve the current nominating process.
For one reason or another, New Hampshirites and others from around the county, have become confused about the proper role each state plays in the nominating process. It seems to me that people like Mr. Cullen, Governor Sununu, and Senator Gregg think the goal is for their state to pick the candidate who ultimately wins the nomination. Such a mindset makes them prognosticators, not the vetters of those who want to be our president.
The proper role is not picking the candidate who will win, but instead, vetting the candidates, whittling the pack, and picking the candidate who has done the most to win the voters with his or her ideas. By saying that the goal is simply to pick the candidate who will win the nomination, these critics are basically undermining everything that the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary stand for. If the task is to pick the candidate that I think is best positioned to win, then of course I’m going to look at name ID, fundraising numbers, and favorability ratings. If the task is to select the candidate that best reflects what I want to see in the leader of the country, all of those things suddenly are not my priorities.
While it is clear to me that Mr. Cullen didn’t put too much thought into his tirade against the Iowa caucuses, I would hope that a seasoned politico would have an appreaction of how the process in Iowa differs from the process in New Hampshire and other states.
Mr. Cullen brags about how his state and South Carolina have a stellar record of picking the eventual nominee, while Iowa has only done so twice. While true, Iowans go through a much more difficult process than those in other states do because we have more candidates to chose from. Of course New Hampshire and South Carolina are going to pick the eventual nominee more often than Iowa does because by the time they cast their vote, the field of candidates has been winnowed significantly.
The Iowa Straw Poll, an event that has angered people in other early states for years, is helpful in that process. Yes, the straw poll claims victims every cycle, but are people in New Hampshire and other early state really upset that Tommy Thompson and Sam Brownback didn’t make it to caucus day? While Mr. Cullen seems upset that Phil Gramm didn’t make it out of Iowa in 1996, it was his decision to campaign in Louisiana that did him in, not the Iowa Straw Poll.
Finally, it’s important not to get too carried away in what various political operatives are saying about a state like Iowa. Four years ago, Iowa native Terry Nelson said, “it’s clear that the Ames straw poll will not be a meaningful test of the leading candidates’ organizational abilities.” Nelson was backing John McCain at the time. McCain had just opted not to participate in the event, and thus, Nelson was attempting to downplay its significance. Nelson now works for former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty who looks to be playing hard for straw poll votes, and I’m sure Nelson has changed his tune.
Operatives are paid to help the candidates who hire them to win. That’s how a guy like Nelson can be all about Iowa in 2000 and 2004 when he worked for George W. Bush, against it in 2008 when he worked for McCain, and now for it again when he’s working for Pawlenty.
Political operatives are not the only ones whose feelings about Iowa change from one year to another. Just four years ago, Mitt Romney told the national media, ”If you can’t compete in the heartland, if you can’t compete in Iowa in August, how are you going to compete in January when the caucuses are held, and how are you going to compete in November.” Like Nelson four years ago, Romney is downplaying Iowa because it doesn’t fit into his campaign strategy. It’s just too bad that some have chosen to demean the good people of Iowa in the process of advancing a particular candidate in a particular cycle.
I don’t think it is in America’s best interest to have a nominating process that only attempts to pick the eventual winner. Instead, I think we should focus our time and energy on the candidates’ records, philosophies, temperaments, and knowledge. I understand that Iowans may not pick the same candidate that New Hampshire does. Likewise, New Hampshirites should not obsess over the candidate Iowans prefer. In the rare occurrence that we agree, the nomination process would effectively be over after New Hampshire.
It is my hope that people like Mr. Cullen can get past the need to name call in order to defend his state’s premier status in the nominating process. By no means do I think the Iowa caucuses are perfect, but neither is the New Hampshire primary. While New Hampshire selected John McCain in its 2008 primary, and he ultimately went on to become the Republican nominee, he lost badly to Barack Obama. I don’t think that is anything for Mr. Cullen to hang his hat on.
Despite the constant attacks on Iowa’s First-in-the-Nation status from people like Fergus Cullen, I still believe New Hampshire plays a critical role in the presidential nominating process – as does Iowa- and both states’ roles in the nomination process should be preserved.
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