by Joe Shea
January 18, 2016
ON TO IOWA
BRADENTON, Fla. -- With the last pre-Iowa debate of both parties over, the grand juggernaut called presidential politics storms into Iowa, shedding thousands of young people who will be working the phones and knocking on the doors of Iowans on the farms, in the towns and cities of a heartland state.
At the top of the polls there now in the Democratic primary are Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whose numbers seesaw back and forth every day. Hillary Clinton has the staid Democratic Establishment in her corner; they are the members of Democratic Executive Committees in each of the counties (like me) and some of the cities and towns, who are the experienced, usually older men and women, many of them retired, who man the phones in DEC offices, who cull the lists of Democratic and Independent voters, who make the seasonal round of phone calls to a thousand or ten thousand or forty thousand voters - depending on the population where they live.
They give their time and their money, and are often people who have become close friends as they work to support the ideals and aims of the Democratic Party: Fairness in immigration, care in market regulation, affordable health care for all, good jobs, equal rights and pay for women and gays, and voting rights for all who have earned them. I donated, called voters, drove them to the polls, and worked voting precincts on Election Day for President Obama, and was rewarded with a beautiful gold-engraved invitation to the Inauguration.
It's a difficult juggernaut to drive in Iowa these days, where so many people are entranced by the increasing celebrity of Donald Trump and are crossing over their traditional partisan boundaries to attend his rallies, hear him out and even consider changing registration - which they can do right up until the moment the caucuses start on Feb. 1.
Secretary Clinton and Senator Sanders, among all the other tests they must endure in the course of a campaign, have to maintain their balance and aplomb in the quicksand of this unique election year, which threatens to drown all the old rules and bring about a new political order that is mediated by the media much more than by the hard-working commiteemen and women of the DECs. And yes, Donald Trump has been the catalyzer of all that. He may lose Iowa to Cruz, but he looks like a sure thing in New Hampshire.
Young people are also a communally powerful and particularly energetic part of the equation, first because they do not readily drift across the party boundaries, and second because they are willing to work godawful hours to put their favorite in the win column when Caucus Day comes to a close.
I was one of those young people once, able to marshal a group of 5 or 10 friends to spend entire days addressing and stuffing envelopes for people we believed in. That work is still my favorite kind, but I also spent inhuman amounts of energy trying to hang plastic bags full of literature on innumerable doorknobs, holding signs for my candidates at large public gatherings, and even organizing fundraising dinners and bake sales and the like.
Once I wrote an entire 4-page newspaper for a Jewish candidate (who later became state treasurer of the party in California) and then had to tear each one of 100,000 copies in half to discard a mention of the famous "Cross of Gold" speech by William Jennings Bryan on Page 2. It turned out the candidate had never heard of Bryan or the speech, which has been a towering exemplar of American political rhetoric for more than a century. For days and maybe weeks, a small group of old ladies and I tore and tore and tore, and it all did the candidate no good, anyway.
I also helped another candidate, a young musician, get on the ballot in the Democratic primary by collecting 25,000 valid signatures to qualify. In all honesty, he probably collected 24,500 of them himself, standing endless hours at supermarkets and street corners with the singular faith of a person completely seized by a political idea. Ironically, though, his would-be foe in the primary was the immensely popular Rep. Henry Waxman, who was not only one of the most liberal but one of the most honest and effective Members of Congress ever to serve in the House.
By the way, I had started out at the age of five, standing with my mother on a street corner in the small downtown of Monroe, N.Y., selling "I Like Ike" buttons in 1952.
So that's the kind of person milling about, aching for direction and achievement, throughout the farmlands and towns and cities and counties of Iowa.
I wish I was one of them. John Kerry urged me to "Come out to Iowa!" in 2004, but I could only afford to get to New Hampshire, where I made phone calls for him. After high school, though, I drove through Iowa one summer with a group of young actors to put on a show at a church in Waterloo, where I performed an elegiac monologue from Tennessee Williams' "A Fugitive Kind" better than I had ever done it before. The people who came were good, warm, loving people who did everything they could to make us rural New Yorkers feel comfortable. In a way I can't find words to describe, that evening changed my life.
Beyond Iowa lies New Hampshire, where Ted Cruz is tonight (I'm watching him on C-SPAN in Milford, N.H.), and where Bernie Sanders is running 9 points or more ahead of Secretary Clinton as the primary looms a few weeks away. That lead seems to be impressing voters in Iowa, more of whom are moving into his camp as the caucuses grow closer; he trails Hillary there by about 2 points.
I have contributed small amounts of money to both of them, and also to Rand Paul, Jeb Bush, Donald Trump and Carly Fiorina. Each of them has something I admire and want to help, a posture which I suppose is the curse of the involved and observant American voter.
My goal with these donations has been to encourage the tenor and quality of the debate that eventually shapes a future president. It matters less to me, despite my role in the party, whether I will vote for the person I donate to than that the person brings new energy and life and ideas to the debate and helps us choose the best possible leader for the nation I love so dearly.
Whoever wins in Iowa will certainly get a boost in New Hampshire, which is why I read tonight that Secretary Clinton is concentrating new resources on South Carolina to give her a backstop and perhaps a victory if Sanders should prevail in Iowa or New Hampshire or both.
I look at Sen. Sanders, whose energy and integrity I admire, as the George McGovern of our era. He would probably fare better than Trump in a general election, the polls say, but I think the polls are probably wrong. He would likely lose between 48 and 50 states.
Like the young people who were "Clean for Gene," which meant they trimmed the long hair popular back in 1972, the enthusiasm the Sanderistas bring to the political adventure is priceless, as much so as our founding documents, because they use it to recreate in practice and reality the goals those documents share. We cannot move forward as a nation without them, and without their disappointments, which so often spur them to try again.
I have a lot of faith in the people of Iowa. I think they will make the wisest choice they can, from a store of heartland wisdom that is as tall and deep as all their silos put together. May God be with them on Caucus Day.
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