Thursday, January 31, 2008
How we convince the majority of the electorate to support the estate tax and higher marginal income tax rates on high tax brackets is crucial to whether we'll have the common wealth to buy health care for everyone, higher education for everyone and shift away from foreign oil as the bedrock of our economy. We just need to spend more money on infrastructure to make everyone better off, and that money is going to come from the people who have the most of it. That means higher taxes for high incomes.
Anyway, after the LA Times moderator asked about how they would respond to the inevitable Republican critique that they intend to raise taxes, here is what I heard:
It's not tax cuts or tax hikes but it's about who the tax cuts go to and who the tax hikes are imposed upon.
We now have a trillion dollars worth of corporate tax loopholes and tax cuts that go to the top 1 percent who didn't need them and didn't even ask for them.
My plan gives people making $75,000 or less a tax cut.
This isn't raising taxes -- this is people making more than $250,000 a year on Bush tax cuts that are set to expire.
There have been enormous tax giveaways on HMOs.
Back to Barack Obama (after the moderator tries to clarify that these are tax hikes:
On wealthy Americans. I'm not bashful about it. This looks like a well-dressed crowd. They might pay more. I would pay a little bit more. We have a moral obligation.
It's important to keep in mind that we would go back to the tax rates before George Bush was president. People did very well in that time and they would do very well again.
Hillary's last line got the best reaction from the audience.
That suggests that it's important to shift away from the discussion on higher taxes or lower taxes, and focus on the results of those taxes on the economy. Either we have Clinton taxes or we have Bush taxes. Which one would you prefer?
I also think that it would be very helpful for the candidates to personalize not making much money. Just because they are pulling down six figures now as Senators doesn't mean they should cut themselves off from their days of not making much money. I think that's an authentic message -- I was broke five years ago! -- that helps validate the call for higher marginal income tax rates (it's on those high income guys, not on us).
To shift from one University of Chicago professor to another, there is a great column in the New York Times by Nicholas Epley on the psychology of the term tax rebate versus a tax bonus. According to Epley, most people think of a rebate as their own money returned to them, so they save it. They don't see it as a windfall. A tax bonus, on the other hand, is seen as extra, so more people spend it since it doesn't cut into their budget.
Since the purpose of the stimulus is to get us to spend the money rather than save it, Epley's point is that we should call the check a tax bonus and not a tax rebate. Smart.
Wednesday, January 30, 2008
It is one of the worst ways I know to advance an issue.
An ad in the New York Times does very little besides make donors feel that they've accomplished something important because....they placed an ad in the New York Times.
One organization just issued an online action alert to donors to stop the slaughter of grey wolves (thanks to another poor decision by the Bush Administration) by sending in money to run an ad.
And this ad will presumably "alert millions of Americans to this attack on wildlife" and "spark an avalanche of citizen opposition"
(The organization is the National Resources Defense Council Action Fund and the campaign they are promoting is CallOffTheGuns.org -- if I'm going to criticize their tactics I might as well try to get them some play).
The problem I have with the tactic is that there are so many better ways to invest that $150,000 to build up our infrastructure.
Run a full-page ad in every progressive magazine in the nation for a tenth of that cost (and likely generate more people than a New York Times ad).
Hire 30 organizers for a month (at $5000 each) to canvass in 30 swing or suburban Republican congressional districts in order to recruit Members to press the Administration to reverse the policy.
The campaign is clearly aiming to appeal to small donors (good for them), and I hope that the prospect of buying a New York Times ad is not that appealing to small donors. (Savvy organizations put the most popular part of their agenda up front -- like the beautiful wolf's face -- to attract the largest amount of small donors. I can't believe that a NYTimes ad really pulls in more donations than other pitches such as a targeted ad campaign for the same amount of money in different media).
In my view, when an advocacy organization tries to run an ad in the Times, it's a sign of a lack of creating thinking on clearly defining the objectives of the effort and identifying the best tactics to accomplish the objective.
Thursday, January 24, 2008
What a shame.
It's illegal to register to vote for the primary at this point. It's illegal to register at your new address.
And in two weeks, tens of thousands of people in Illinois will try to vote and be turned away. (No data to prove that, as the government doesn't keep records of the people who show up at their precinct polling place and ask if they are permitted to help elect their leaders and politely but firmly told to take a hike because they didn't register with the government ahead of time. But I'm confident that the numbers are significant. If it's a few people in each precinct, and we've got 10,000 or so precincts in Illinois, you can do the math).
In this day and age, there is simply no good reason to continue to disenfrachise people who want to vote.
Illinois needs to follow the lead of seven states and implement same-day voter registration.
And if you're concerned about voter fraud, then you're largely chasing a ghost. There just isn't any significant voter fraud in the United States. Read the report from the Brennan Center for Justice on the topic, or from Demos before instinctively reacting with the fear of fraud.
Citizens deserve the right to pick the people who run the government, no matter when they decide to register to vote.
Monday, January 21, 2008
So much better to spend the budget on organizing your members to recruit messengers to lobby for you. Find the mayors, state legislators, county board members and community leaders who agree with the agenda, and help them spend their political capital on their Members of Congress.
A Member listens a lot more to the political infrastructure in their state than they do a D.C.-based staffer. Too many organizations spend too much money in Washington and not nearly enough on building support in the rest of the country.
Sunday, January 20, 2008
In Illinois, anyone can still register to vote if they show up at the county clerk's office. This grace period of an extra 14 days after the regular voter registration deadline expires this Tuesday. So if you are inspired by Senator Obama and you live in Illinois and you are not registered to vote, get to the county seat in the next 48 hours and cast your vote. In Cook County and in Chicago, the office is located at 69 West Washington.
(One nice thing: Senator Obama voted for this grace period bill in 2004 that allows for greater participation. You can see the roll call of SB 2133 here).
Here is the speech (original from this page of the Barack Obama campaign site):
The Scripture tells us that when Joshua and the Israelites arrived at the gates of Jericho, they could not enter. The walls of the city were too steep for any one person to climb; too strong to be taken down with brute force. And so they sat for days, unable to pass on through.
But God had a plan for his people. He told them to stand together and march together around the city, and on the seventh day he told them that when they heard the sound of the ram's horn, they should speak with one voice. And at the chosen hour, when the horn sounded and a chorus of voices cried out together, the mighty walls of Jericho came tumbling down.
There are many lessons to take from this passage, just as there are many lessons to take from this day, just as there are many memories that fill the space of this church. As I was thinking about which ones we need to remember at this hour, my mind went back to the very beginning of the modern Civil Rights Era.
Because before Memphis and the mountaintop; before the bridge in Selma and the march on Washington; before Birmingham and the beatings; the fire hoses and the loss of those four little girls; before there was King the icon and his magnificent dream, there was King the young preacher and a people who found themselves suffering under the yoke of oppression.
And on the eve of the bus boycotts in Montgomery, at a time when many were still doubtful about the possibilities of change, a time when those in the black community mistrusted themselves, and at times mistrusted each other, King inspired with words not of anger, but of an urgency that still speaks to us today:
"Unity is the great need of the hour" is what King said. Unity is how we shall overcome.
What Dr. King understood is that if just one person chose to walk instead of ride the bus, those walls of oppression would not be moved. But maybe if a few more walked, the foundation might start to shake. If a few more women were willing to do what Rosa Parks had done, maybe the cracks would start to show. If teenagers took freedom rides from North to South, maybe a few bricks would come loose. Maybe if white folks marched because they had come to understand that their freedom too was at stake in the impending battle, the wall would begin to sway. And if enough Americans were awakened to the injustice; if they joined together, North and South, rich and poor, Christian and Jew, then perhaps that wall would come tumbling down, and justice would flow like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.
Unity is the great need of the hour – the great need of this hour. Not because it sounds pleasant or because it makes us feel good, but because it's the only way we can overcome the essential deficit that exists in this country.
I'm not talking about a budget deficit. I'm not talking about a trade deficit. I'm not talking about a deficit of good ideas or new plans.
I'm talking about a moral deficit. I'm talking about an empathy deficit. I'm taking about an inability to recognize ourselves in one another; to understand that we are our brother's keeper; we are our sister's keeper; that, in the words of Dr. King, we are all tied together in a single garment of destiny.
We have an empathy deficit when we're still sending our children down corridors of shame – schools in the forgotten corners of America where the color of your skin still affects the content of your education.
We have a deficit when CEOs are making more in ten minutes than some workers make in ten months; when families lose their homes so that lenders make a profit; when mothers can't afford a doctor when their children get sick.
We have a deficit in this country when there is Scooter Libby justice for some and Jena justice for others; when our children see nooses hanging from a schoolyard tree today, in the present, in the twenty-first century.
We have a deficit when homeless veterans sleep on the streets of our cities; when innocents are slaughtered in the deserts of Darfur; when young Americans serve tour after tour of duty in a war that should've never been authorized and never been waged.
And we have a deficit when it takes a breach in our levees to reveal a breach in our compassion; when it takes a terrible storm to reveal the hungry that God calls on us to feed; the sick He calls on us to care for; the least of these He commands that we treat as our own.
So we have a deficit to close. We have walls – barriers to justice and equality – that must come down. And to do this, we know that unity is the great need of this hour.
Unfortunately, all too often when we talk about unity in this country, we've come to believe that it can be purchased on the cheap. We've come to believe that racial reconciliation can come easily – that it's just a matter of a few ignorant people trapped in the prejudices of the past, and that if the demagogues and those who exploit our racial divisions will simply go away, then all our problems would be solved.
All too often, we seek to ignore the profound institutional barriers that stand in the way of ensuring opportunity for all children, or decent jobs for all people, or health care for those who are sick. We long for unity, but are unwilling to pay the price.
But of course, true unity cannot be so easily won. It starts with a change in attitudes – a broadening of our minds, and a broadening of our hearts.
It's not easy to stand in somebody else's shoes. It's not easy to see past our differences. We've all encountered this in our own lives. But what makes it even more difficult is that we have a politics in this country that seeks to drive us apart – that puts up walls between us.
We are told that those who differ from us on a few things are different from us on all things; that our problems are the fault of those who don't think like us or look like us or come from where we do. The welfare queen is taking our tax money. The immigrant is taking our jobs. The believer condemns the non-believer as immoral, and the non-believer chides the believer as intolerant.
For most of this country's history, we in the African-American community have been at the receiving end of man's inhumanity to man. And all of us understand intimately the insidious role that race still sometimes plays – on the job, in the schools, in our health care system, and in our criminal justice system.
And yet, if we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that none of our hands are entirely clean. If we're honest with ourselves, we'll acknowledge that our own community has not always been true to King's vision of a beloved community.
We have scorned our gay brothers and sisters instead of embracing them. The scourge of anti-Semitism has, at times, revealed itself in our community. For too long, some of us have seen immigrants as competitors for jobs instead of companions in the fight for opportunity.
Every day, our politics fuels and exploits this kind of division across all races and regions; across gender and party. It is played out on television. It is sensationalized by the media. And last week, it even crept into the campaign for President, with charges and counter-charges that served to obscure the issues instead of illuminating the critical choices we face as a nation.
So let us say that on this day of all days, each of us carries with us the task of changing our hearts and minds. The division, the stereotypes, the scape-goating, the ease with which we blame our plight on others – all of this distracts us from the common challenges we face – war and poverty; injustice and inequality. We can no longer afford to build ourselves up by tearing someone else down. We can no longer afford to traffic in lies or fear or hate. It is the poison that we must purge from our politics; the wall that we must tear down before the hour grows too late.
Because if Dr. King could love his jailor; if he could call on the faithful who once sat where you do to forgive those who set dogs and fire hoses upon them, then surely we can look past what divides us in our time, and bind up our wounds, and erase the empathy deficit that exists in our hearts.
But if changing our hearts and minds is the first critical step, we cannot stop there. It is not enough to bemoan the plight of poor children in this country and remain unwilling to push our elected officials to provide the resources to fix our schools. It is not enough to decry the disparities of health care and yet allow the insurance companies and the drug companies to block much-needed reforms. It is not enough for us to abhor the costs of a misguided war, and yet allow ourselves to be driven by a politics of fear that sees the threat of attack as way to scare up votes instead of a call to come together around a common effort.
The Scripture tells us that we are judged not just by word, but by deed. And if we are to truly bring about the unity that is so crucial in this time, we must find it within ourselves to act on what we know; to understand that living up to this country's ideals and its possibilities will require great effort and resources; sacrifice and stamina.
And that is what is at stake in the great political debate we are having today. The changes that are needed are not just a matter of tinkering at the edges, and they will not come if politicians simply tell us what we want to hear. All of us will be called upon to make some sacrifice. None of us will be exempt from responsibility. We will have to fight to fix our schools, but we will also have to challenge ourselves to be better parents. We will have to confront the biases in our criminal justice system, but we will also have to acknowledge the deep-seated violence that still resides in our own communities and marshal the will to break its grip.
That is how we will bring about the change we seek. That is how Dr. King led this country through the wilderness. He did it with words – words that he spoke not just to the children of slaves, but the children of slave owners. Words that inspired not just black but also white; not just the Christian but the Jew; not just the Southerner but also the Northerner.
He led with words, but he also led with deeds. He also led by example. He led by marching and going to jail and suffering threats and being away from his family. He led by taking a stand against a war, knowing full well that it would diminish his popularity. He led by challenging our economic structures, understanding that it would cause discomfort. Dr. King understood that unity cannot be won on the cheap; that we would have to earn it through great effort and determination.
That is the unity – the hard-earned unity – that we need right now. It is that effort, and that determination, that can transform blind optimism into hope – the hope to imagine, and work for, and fight for what seemed impossible before.
The stories that give me such hope don't happen in the spotlight. They don't happen on the presidential stage. They happen in the quiet corners of our lives. They happen in the moments we least expect. Let me give you an example of one of those stories.
There is a young, twenty-three year old white woman named Ashley Baia who organizes for our campaign in Florence, South Carolina. She's been working to organize a mostly African-American community since the beginning of this campaign, and the other day she was at a roundtable discussion where everyone went around telling their story and why they were there.
And Ashley said that when she was nine years old, her mother got cancer. And because she had to miss days of work, she was let go and lost her health care. They had to file for bankruptcy, and that's when Ashley decided that she had to do something to help her mom.
She knew that food was one of their most expensive costs, and so Ashley convinced her mother that what she really liked and really wanted to eat more than anything else was mustard and relish sandwiches. Because that was the cheapest way to eat.
She did this for a year until her mom got better, and she told everyone at the roundtable that the reason she joined our campaign was so that she could help the millions of other children in the country who want and need to help their parents too.
So Ashley finishes her story and then goes around the room and asks everyone else why they're supporting the campaign. They all have different stories and reasons. Many bring up a specific issue. And finally they come to this elderly black man who's been sitting there quietly the entire time. And Ashley asks him why he's there. And he does not bring up a specific issue. He does not say health care or the economy. He does not say education or the war. He does not say that he was there because of Barack Obama. He simply says to everyone in the room, "I am here because of Ashley."
By itself, that single moment of recognition between that young white girl and that old black man is not enough. It is not enough to give health care to the sick, or jobs to the jobless, or education to our children.
But it is where we begin. It is why the walls in that room began to crack and shake.
And if they can shake in that room, they can shake in Atlanta.
And if they can shake in Atlanta, they can shake in Georgia.
And if they can shake in Georgia, they can shake all across America. And if enough of our voices join together; we can bring those walls tumbling down. The walls of Jericho can finally come tumbling down. That is our hope – but only if we pray together, and work together, and march together.
Brothers and sisters, we cannot walk alone.
In the struggle for peace and justice, we cannot walk alone.
In the struggle for opportunity and equality, we cannot walk alone
In the struggle to heal this nation and repair this world, we cannot walk alone.
So I ask you to walk with me, and march with me, and join your voice with mine, and together we will sing the song that tears down the walls that divide us, and lift up an America that is truly indivisible, with liberty, and justice, for all. May God bless the memory of the great pastor of this church, and may God bless the United States of America.
Wednesday, January 16, 2008
Health care is the latest example.
According to Jane Berentson, Editor of Inc. Magazine, most entrepreneurs favor Democratic candidates over Republicans, and one of the main reasons is that "57 percent [of 1000 leaders of small-businesses] said that a regulated system would be good for growing businesses." This is a group that self-identifies as 37% Republican, 27% Democratic and 24% independent.
The Republican Party's stubborn refusal to break free of the insurance companies' parasitic role in delivering health care -- and many Democratic leaders willingness to shrink or abolish their role -- is shifting small business to the blue column.
Why, then, are the business lobbies so in thrall to the insurance agenda? Why are they so ideological?
When will have an entrepreneurial business lobby that can advocate for cheaper, more reliable energy (and thus against the old school utilities and oil companies), advocate for cheaper and more reliable health care (and thus against the insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies), advocate for taxes on wealth and high income to pay for better education and infrastructure (and thus against the Wall Street Journal wing of the GOP)?
As soon as entrepreneurs decide to fund one that advocates for their interests, not Corporate America. I hope that day comes soon.
Saturday, January 12, 2008
Eric Zorn is fighting mad.
He sees the Governor's go-it-alone decree as dictator-esque and he calls on the General Assembly to reject the Governor's proposal as an affront to the legislative process:
3. It has not been vetted by the democratic process. We have this legislative system, see, in which ideas like this get a full airing by lawmakers who try to get a handle on such things as costs and unintended consequences before passing them along to the governor for his signature. But here, Blagojevich, again doing his best imitation of Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez (hence my earlier headline on this item nicknaming him "Gov. Hugojevich"), decided to skirt the system. He thought of his idea back before Thanksgiving, as he said in this comically discursive statement to a reporter yesterday, yet didn't consult with transit officials or try to include what he called a 'lemonade' sweetener in the bail-out legislation.
Our story says that "RTA Chairman Jim Reilly hailed the governor's move as an act of 'political courage and statesmanship,'" when in fact it was an act of political cowardice and grandstanding.
The General Assembly should stand up to him and say no, if you want free rides for seniors, get someone to introduce a separate bill to that effect and we'll consider it. But we're not going to allow you to blackmail us with your inevitable chirping about how anyone opposed to your unilateral notions doesn't care about the group you're trying to help -- senior citizens, poor women with breast cancer and so on.
But they won't stand up to him. They'd rather allow another doomsday for democracy than see a doomsday for mass transit. So there will be shame enough to go around next week when they give this plan the OK.
But not fair, particularly to the legislators who are willing to support a civic-supported tax hike (never an easy thing) for a transit investment.
There's nothing wrong in principle with the Governor using all the tools at his disposal. The problem here is that we have invested the Office of the Governor with a tool that is far too strong for a healthy legislative process.
That power is called the amendatory veto.
It essentially allows the Illinois Governor to rewrite a bill that has passed the General Assembly.
Here's the language from the Illinois Constitution.
Very few other states give their governors that much power over the legislative process. I suspect that our Constitution invests more power in the Office of the Governor than any other state (though I'm not sure if that's true).
"The Governor may return a bill together with specific recommendations for change to the house in which it originated. The bill shall be considered in the same manner as a vetoed bill but the specific recommendations may be accepted by a record vote of a majority of the members elected to each house. Such bill shall be presented again to the Governor and if he certifies that such acceptance conforms to his specific recommendations, the bill shall become law. If he does not so certify, he shall return it as a vetoed bill to the house in which it originated."
-Illinois Constitution, Article IV, Section 9, paragraph (e)
That's a problem we ought to solve, whether Rod Blagojevich happens to sit in the Governor's Chair or not. A Governor should have the same legislative powers as the President -- either sign or veto a bill as it stands. No line-item veto, no amendatory veto, no write-up-your-own-bill veto. Just accept it or reject it. And if a Governor doesn't like the way a bill is shaping up, then get involved with the legislative process.
Perhaps if the Office of the Governor didn't have such strong powers over the legislative process, our current Governor wouldn't feel quite so empowered to go it alone. It would be a healthy incentive to push governors (particularly the current one) to engage with legislators earlier to make policy.
The best opportunity to do that comes in nine months or so when every voter has the chance to vote to convene a Constitutional Convention. One of the prime topics of a Constitutional Convention would certainly be a structure that forces the Governor and the General Assembly to work more closely together. So.... vote yes!
Sunday, January 06, 2008
Barack Obama is all about us. He wants to bet on the American people engaging in self-government to push power into the pragmatic, progressive policies that will make life better for all of us (cutting out corporate middlemen like health insurance companies, eliminating the huge tax breaks for the biggest corporations and using the money to fund investment in all of us, etc.). He talks about 'we' and 'us.'
John Edwards is all about 'me'. "I" will fight for you. This fight is personal to "me." Let "me" be your fighter in the White House so "I" can take on the special interests and the entrenched money interests.
John Edwards is right to point out that there are entrenched money interests that profit handsomely by impoverishing all of us (no money left for financial aid, because the oil companies don't pay any taxes on their billions of profit as an example).
But Barack Obama is more right (if you will) to point out that the way to beat back those money interests is with an engaged electorate, not with a fighter as the President. That's why, as he said in Iowa "I know you didn't do this [vote for Obama] for me" because one President, no matter how aggressive or intelligent, can beat back the parasitic interests. It's only when the nation demands a smarter, saner policy that we can implement the vision.
I think Senator Obama's insight (and John Edwards' lack of insight on this point) is based largely on their backgrounds.
Obama was a community organizer. That means his job was to bring people together around a common vision and wield power together. It was not his job to represent the community in battle and bring back the prize to them. Instead it was to mobilize, inspire and engage previously apathetic people to demand more from their government. And he did it well.
From that position, he became a legislator (first in the Illinois Senate, then in the U.S. Senate). His work in the Illinois Senate is more instructive, because he passed so many bills in Springfield than in Washington. In Springfield, legislative success comes from building consensus. It takes 30 people to vote yes in the Senate to pass a bill, not 1. Any successful legislator learns to engage and inspire others to work collectively in order to accomplish advances in the progressive agenda. Senator Obama learned that lesson well, initiating several progressive bills into law (including ethics reform, tax cuts for low-income workers, an expansion of government-financed health insurance for children and criminal justice reform to videotape all police interrogations). He was successful because he engaged with others to build consensus, not because he fought.
Trial lawyers like John Edwards are also agents of justice. They uniquely hold powerful institutions accountable. But they go it alone. They fight long, difficult and lonely battles against overwhelming odds. When they work, they work on behalf of, not with, the people. They don't need people to join with them in their fight. All they need is permission to fight on their behalf.
I can see that mindset in John Edwards campaign now: I will fight for you in a way that Barack Obama doesn't understand, because I have successfully fought the bad guys and I know they never negotiate.
Barack Obama's tactic is both more appealing (I want to be a part of something, not just a client of John Edwards) and also more powerful (organized money always loses against organized people).
Saturday, January 05, 2008
Senator Clinton immediately jumped to say that higher taxes at the Bill Clinton level would be only "on the wealthy" and not on middle-class Americans.
Charlie Gibson sort of tut-tutted and then showed the value of candor and numbers in tax debates.
He said that two professors working at the college are in the $200,000 bracket, as if to say all this talk about taxing the wealthy isn't really fair because regular people would pay more if we repealed the Bush tax cuts.
And everyone in the audience laughed at him.
$100,000 salaries! Come on!
Senator Clinton said "maybe at NYU!"
And everyone laughed at Charlie Gibson for suggesting the regular people make $200,000 a year.
It was the clearest moment of candor in any tax debate I'd ever seen.
We win when we say that people who make more than $200,000 a year should pay the same tax rate they did under Bill Clinton.
John Edwards fumbled a bit, I thought, as he had a chance to lay out the distinction between the two Americas where "the wealthiest Americans get wealthier and wealthier" and the middle-class are struggling, because he didn't use numbers. He said the vague and muddying phrase "the wealthiest Americans."
Barack Obama did the same by using the phrase "the wealthiest Americans" would pay more so that tax relief can go to the middle class.
Hillary Clinton almost did better, when said she would "set her cap at $250,000" for tax increases, but it wasn't clear.
Our problem is that people think they make more money than they do, because everyone aspires to be wealthy. We need to confront our audience with the actual tax brackets at every opportunity -- particularly when we are trying to raise tax rates on high income -- to show that they are unaffected.
Tonight nailed it. We connect with voters when we talk about actual salaries and thus actual tax brackets. "The wealthiest Americans" or "the top 1%" are phrases that are too vague to connect. Numbers do. Euphemisms do not.
Friday, January 04, 2008
I had suspected – or perhaps hoped – that the nation's Democratic primary voters would take to Senator Barack Obama the way that Illinois' primary voters had four years ago in his first statewide race. Tonight in Davenport, I found it to be true.
The Iowa caucus is a rather unique expression of self-government. This is how we begin to select the leader of the free world: in the cafeteria of a local high school, 200 people show up and without anyone from the government in charge (no police, no government-printed ballots or government-authorized election official), they try to be fair and give everyone a chance to publicly say who they believe should run the country. In 1750 or so different public locations around the state, all following the rules and regulations issued by a non-government organization (the Iowa Democratic Party), anyone who wants to show up can come and caucus.
(Consider how Pakistan, a nation in a lot of trouble right now, just picked the leader of the perhaps the largest political party. Shortly after Ms. Bhutton was assisinated, her husband and son were selected by a very small group of party leaders to run the party – and thus the government if their party is victorious in the next elections (if any are held). Quite a contrast to the hyper-democratic caucus in Iowa).
Barack Obama won the caucuses because a lot more people showed up. Usually about 150,000 or so people caucus. This year there were almost 240,000 people. And most of the first-time people were there for Barack Obama.
To caucus, one has to show up by 7:00 pm. This caucus meeting is the local Democratic Party. Funds are raised, absentee ballot applications are circulated, petitions for primary campaigns are circulated, resolutions are debated and most importantly, delegates pledges to particular presidential candidates are selected. This last bit is what the presidential campaigns have been about: earning delegates. Remember, the nominee of the Democratic Party is selected by a majority of the delegates to the Democratic National Convention in Denver this summer. There are lots of ways that the 4000 or so delegates are picked, and the first very public way of getting picked as a deleage is the 1750 Iowa precinct caucuses.
In Davenport's 33rd precinct where I was assigned, the line for people who needed to register to vote was almost as long as the line for people who were just checking in and already registered. The people in the first-timers line were predominantly young, multi-racial and wearing an Obama 08 sticker. The Edwards and Clinton supporters were there early as they had all seemingly caucused before.
No one seemed to be in charge, because no one really was. There was a temporary Chair and a temporary Secretary with the authority to run the meeting at first, but one of the first orders of business was to select a permanent Chair and Secretary. Our particular leaders were not blessed with an air of authority about them, and so while they and the 8 or 10 other people who were checking in caucus participants or registering new voters were figuring out the party paperwork, the people separated into different groups based on their candidate support. It quickly became apparent that the Obama group was at least twice as large as either the Clinton or Edwards' groups. A few lonely Richardson and Biden supporters looked for allies. Meanwhile, a bit of a controversy emerged as it became apparent that some people were in the wrong precinct. At least half a dozen people came to caucus in an adjacent precinct – and it wasn't clear whether the temporary Chair was simply going to strip them of their vote or try to send them to their correct precinct. But would the temporary Chair in the correct precinct accept them as a voting member? The 7:00 pm deadline to arrive had come and gone. What would happen to these would-be voters?
No state law controlled the question. It was up to the volunteer leaders of the private organization – the Democratic Party – to make a decisoin. This was at once ridiculous and uplifting. How can we select the leader of the free world by the capricious whim of a neighborhood guy? But then again, if we can't count on average Americans coming together for the good of the Republic, then what can we count on? Corporate America? Utlimatley, all we've got is each other and it's inspiring to see that yes, we can citizens can figure this out with good will and patience. In a sense, the successful caucus of simultaneous gatherings of volunteers to fairly and inclusively collect the preferences of regular people to change the government is at the heart of the appeal of the Obama campaign: we can do this together. As he said in his victory speech: “ordinary people can do extraordinary things.”
The precinct captains and volunteers in charge took their time to come to an agreement while the 190 or so others patiently waited for their decisions. They finally concluded that the 5 or 6 people who weren't technically in the precinct could still participate and vote, since they lived on the border and it just wouldn't be right to exclude them for an honest mistake. No one seemed upset.
During the quiet discussions among the leaders on the residency problem, one caucus participant introduced by reading out loud a pro-immigrant (or anti-anti-immigrant, if you will) resolution pursuant to the rules and asked for the body's approval. An older woman stood up and pointed out all the jobs that the immigrants were taking from the rest of us. A middle-aged woman made a plea to consider her family – her mother served in the U.S. military for 10 years and raised a hard-working family, even though she was undocumented. Her plea carried the day as almost everyone raised their hand to support the resolution (only two older women voted against it).
It wasn't nearly as structured or regulated as government-run primary elections, but the caucus brought the neighborhood together to openly discuss how to improve the government. That's a valuable culture to cultivate.
When it came to voting, it was done largely by a head count. Almost everyone had a campaign sticker on and were sitting with their respective supporters. Each precinct captain (essentially the volunteer leader from each campaign) simply counted the number of supporters and reported it to the secretary. When the numbers added up to the number of registered caucus-goers, the vote was accepted. Since there were 5 delegates from the precinct to allocate, any 20% of the vote got a delegate. There were more than 100 Obama supporters and about 30 supporters each of Clinton and Edwards, so Obama got 3 delegates while Edwards and Clinton each got 1.
The entire caucus lasted two hours and potentially changed the course of history.
Here's how Barack Obama explained it in his victory speech:
In lines that stretched around schools and churches, in small towns and big cities, you came together as Democrats, Republicans and independents to stand up and say “We are one nation. We are one people. And our time for change has come.”
Part of Obama's own analysis for the huge victory in Iowa is that Democrats, Republicans and independents came together to call for change. It isn't obvious what Republicans might be doing in a Democratic Party Caucus. But there was something to it. The four men and women whom I drove home after the caucus are a nice symbol of the Obama coalition. A sixty-year old white physician who is a little disappointed in Obama for not fully supporting single-payer health care. An eighty-something retired black woman who hasn't been back to her high school since 1946. A twenty-something black man who just moved to Iowa and first heard about the caucus three days ago. And a forty-something white man who had served on the Republican Central Committee for at least a decade and switched over to the Democrats because he likes Barack's optimism.
The Obama people were ultimately the idealists. They were younger, they called themselves organizers with pride and they believed in a better world to come because of their work. They were elected officials – the mayor-elect of Davenport, an under-35 state rep from outside Davenport and an under-35 state senateor from Champaign, Illinois -- who were in the business because they believed in a better world to come because of their work. They were a multi-racial crowd, and that in itself helped inspire belief in a better world. It has much less of an institutional feel than many other campaigns. The Davenport headquarters felt more like a warm community center than the sales conference room lots of campaigns can feel like. No one was there because they had to. And the place exploded in joy during Barack's victory speech. I'll close with some excerpts.
We are sending a powerful message that change is coming to America.
In the face of impossible odds, people who love this country can change it. I know this because while I may be standing here tonight, my journey began on the streets of Chicago organizing and working and fighting to make peoples' lives just a little bit better. I know how hard it is. It comes with little sleep and little pay, organizing and working on campaigns. There are days of disappointments.
Sometimes there are nights like this. A night that years from now when we've made the changes we believe in: when more families can afford to see a doctor when our children – when Malia and Sasha and your children inherit a world that's a little cleaner and safer, when the world sees America differently and America sees itself as a nation less divided and more united, you'll be able to look back with pride and say that this was the moment when it all began.
This was the moment when the improbable beat what Washington always said was inevitable. This was the moment when we tore down barriers that have divided us for too long. When we rallied people of all parties and all ages to a common cause. When we finally gave Americans who had never participated in politics a reason to stand up and do so. This was the moment when we finally beat back the politics of fear and doubt and cynicisim. This was the moment.
In this moment, and in this election, we are ready to believe again.