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Sifting the winners from the losers

WHAT a way to choose a president. The campaign runs too long. There are far too many reporters making too much in advance of slender political threads. There is far too much emphasis on personality. The candidates spend far too much money.

In addition to all this, the first test comes in a totally unrepresentative state. Iowa is predominantly white, fairly liberal, agricultural, and its voters are quite a bit older than the norm.

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But when the last coffee-shop waitress in Des Moines has been interviewed on TV, when the last wailing baby has been returned by the candidates to its beaming mother, and the last squealing pig in Iowa has been dispatched to its pen by the big-city photographers, democracy has somehow survived and the people have somehow been served.

Although folks beyond American shores must certainly be bemused by it all, what happened in Iowa this week was politically therapeutic.

It weeded out the weaker candidates.

It probably closed the book on the presidential hopes of Gary Hart, a man who has proved to the public that he should not be president, but who somehow had to prove that to himself in one last desperate, defiant gesture of politically fatal egotism.

It raised questions about the leadership qualities of Vice-President Bush. Eight years ago, George Bush stormed across Iowa triumphantly. This time around, the voters were not so sure. Bush is far from out of it, but if he is going to be president, those who will put him in the White House must be more strongly convinced of his integrity and decisiveness. That is not an unfair requirement of the man who seeks to lead the United States for at least the next four years.

And by catapulting Pat Robertson into a far more dramatic showing than the pollsters had predicted, the voters asserted their independence and warned pundits and pollsters alike that despite all the sophisticated measuring techniques, and all the entrance and exit polls, they have a will of their own and are not to be taken for granted. It was the ``invisible army'' that turned out for Mr. Robertson and it is his ``invisible army'' that must now be watched in other states, starting in New Hampshire next week.

Of course, New Hampshire is a very different state from Iowa, and the candidates' messages must now be finely re-tuned. What goes over well on a Iowa pig-farm may not be the message for a high-tech engineer transplanted to New Hampshire from Boston.

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But though the media experts have long been re-grooming their candidates for the next round, enough refreshing questions emerge from Iowa to make the race unpredictable.

Why did Bush stumble?

Was it the perception of many voters that he has not been straight about his role in the Iran-contra affair? Or was it simply the opinion of many Iowa Republicans that he is an unconvincing candidate?

Why did Bob Dole do so well?

Was it that he talked the language of the farmers better than his fellow Republicans? Was it that he distanced himself carefully from Ronald Reagan?

How did Robertson fare so well at the hands of liberal Republicans?

Who suffers most from his ascendancy? Although Robertson collared much of the moderate Republican vote, does not his conservative coloration steal votes from Jack Kemp?

Iowa may be an unrepresentative state, and its voters may represent only a sliver of the electorate, but within the cumbersome framework of the American political system it has done its job. It has weeded out the weaker candidates. It has warned that the voice of the people is unpredictable and not to be taken for granted. It has raised appropriate questions about the candidates who still would be king.

Not a bad night's work, Iowa.

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