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The Unbearable Consequence of Iowa

A Commentary By Froma Harrop

Thursday, January 05, 2012

So Mitt Romney "won" Iowa by eight votes, giving him the "Big Mo" (that's momentum) as he marches forth into the primaries. What happened to Rick Santorum's surge? Did a Dodge Caravan full of supporters break down on the way to the gymnasium? I mean, world history has pivoted on less.

About 123,000 people participated in the Iowa Republican caucuses. That's only 19 percent of the state's registered Republicans, who make up only 29 percent of Iowa's 2.1 million registered voters. The Iowa total accounts for less than 2 percent of America's 137 million registered voters.

Meanwhile, the caucuses are not especially voter-friendly. Participants have to arrive at a set time and listen with friends and neighbors to speeches for each candidate before casting their ballots.

The caucuses favor those who don't work evenings, don't have babies to breast-feed and can drive in the dark or have others who can drive them. They empower the strong-willed and turn off the privacy-minded.

The heavy weight given the caucuses is not the people's fault, but that of media in need of "news" in the political quiet of the holiday season. They turn what should be an inconsequential and flawed expression of the people's will into a rocket on which may ride the future leader of what we used to call the free world.

Santorum's hopes were hardly dashed by Romney's one-short-of-a-baseball-team margin of victory. He had the good fortune to have been completely written off a few weeks ago, thus helping his performance land in the coveted "better than expected" category.    
In such circumstances, one must always ask: better than expected by whom? In this case, it's the fraction of a fraction of likely caucus-goers who had been polled over the last month. At various points, the surveyed few had rotated their affections among Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann. Perhaps Santorum entered the final days as the man-of-the-hour because it was he the minute hand was passing on caucus day. "Santorum will now head to the next phase of the campaign with momentum," reports Politico. Oh-kay.

With more journalists dissecting the caucuses than voters for Romney, the commentators deserve commentary. The most potent review of the bunch comes from The New Yorker's George Packer. He marvels at how political reporters quickly began to regard Santorum's loony remarks -- about Obama "siding with evil" in Iran or engaging in "absolutely un-American activities" -- as simply routine rhetoric. At that point, Packer observes, "there isn't much for the political journalist to do except handicap the race and report on the candidate's mood."

And that they did and will continue doing until the 270th electoral vote is counted.

My mood darkened considerably in the run-up to Iowa, as the few plausible Republican candidates felt obliged to disavow every position that I admired. For example, the individual mandate requiring almost everyone to buy health insurance makes supreme sense. The mandate was a necessary piece of Romney's health-care plan for Massachusetts, but the former governor abandoned the concept after it became part of the Democrats' national version. And why did Gingrich have to renounce that nice ad he made with former Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi promoting a bill to address global warming?

In the sad politics of our day, the consequential gets lost in a series of sideshows. Who turns up in the Iowa dark for the caucuses is all-important, not how representative they are. And what they're turning up for seems to matter even less.

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