How We Got Here: “Change We Can Believe In”

Hi, everyone. Sam here. Chris didn’t put up a HWGH this week, and in light of recent events, y’all clearly need a pick-me-up, so here’s part of a never-published manuscript I wrote many years ago called The Night Was Spent that suddenly seems relevant to the coming midterm elections. Part 1 can be found here.

In the dead of February, Stephen Fry drove up the Mississippi River, through Iowa and into Minnesota, as part of a BBC documentary. Hardly anyone else was on the road, and although Fry had traveled to the United States many times, nothing in his life had prepared him for a midwestern cold snap, astonished as he was to discover that his own water bottle had frozen solid. Incredibly, the frozen fields extending from the road to the horizon had been the center of American life just one equally cold month before.

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President Bush’s unpopularity had even transformed the electoral process– most of the major candidates for President that year had announced their candidacies in the first two months of 2007, earlier than in any Presidential election before or since. Accordingly, primary elections were pushed up into the winter of 2008.

Before any general election in the United States, political parties hold a mixture of primary elections and caucuses to determine who to nominate for office. For a Presidential election, one would expect the entire country to hold the primary together, but this is not the case. Instead, each state holds their primaries separately. Because of this, the first states to vote have far more influence than those that come after. Not only that, but the caucuses involve a head-count of supporters rather than a secret ballot, potentially suppressing voter participation. Many remarked at the time– still do– that the entire system was startlingly undemocratic. But just as many people accepted the idea that the primary system was a venerable tradition that should be respected. In fact, the primary system was newer than the Moon landing.

Before the 1970s, most states held no primaries or caucuses. The few contests that did exist were simply a testing ground for the viability of various candidates, with no formal bearing on the nomination process, and were little noticed. Only at the Democratic Party Convention of 1968 was the futility of the primary elections fully revealed. Rather than nominate any of the primary winners who’d opposed the unpopular and ongoing Vietnam war, the Party delegates nominated Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who continued to support the war. Riots broke out in Chicago, where the convention was being held, and Humphrey went on to be defeated soundly in the general election by Richard Nixon.

In light of the bad faith that had been generated, both the Democrats and Republicans expanded their primary elections to all the states, and eventually other American territories and overseas possessions. Furthermore, party delegates would now be obligated to respect the outcome of these contests– to a point, which we’ll deal with in due time. Since the elections were organized by the political parties rather than the federal government, there was no demand for regularity: some states nominated candidates in primaries, others in caucuses. By chance, Iowa and New Hampshire became the first two states to hold the process in 1972. As a result, Jimmy Carter in 1976 poured most of his meager campaign funds into those two states, forever turning them into the biggest campaign targets for an aspiring Commander-in-Chief.

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The 2008 Iowa Caucus was held on the night of January 3. Never before had so many candidates in either major party run for President. On the Republican side were such colourful figures as the aforementioned Alan Keyes; Tom Tancredo, a Colorado Congressman who had promised to ban all immigration; and Ron Paul, a small, outspoken Texas libertarian whose online following was as vocal as it was insubstantial. In order to attract evangelical voters, most of the candidates had affirmed on television that they did not believe in evolution.

Among the Democrats, one could find and support luminaries as Dennis Kucinich, a Congressman from Cleveland who once reported a UFO sighting, and the Alaskan Mike Gravel, a once-important figure in the Democratic Party who left the US Senate in 1981 and spent the ensuing decades being forgotten. When Gravel appeared at the first Democratic primary debate in 2007, he was 76 years old, shaky, and widely believed to be senile.

For most of 2007, the Republican front runner had been Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York City, whose entire campaign consisted of reminding people that he had been in charge of that city on 9/11. As the campaign wore on, Republicans became disenchanted with Giuliani, who was seemingly too northern, too Italian, too liberal, had a bad relationship with his kids, and as mayor had become manically obsessed with ridding New York of ferrets. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney was similarly too Northern, and too Mormon, which alienated the party’s evangelical Christian base. For a brief time, the right-wing media generated a huge push to nominate Fred Thompson, an actor and former Senator from Tennessee, but in debates the man seemed not just uncharismatic, but virtually asleep. When performing his stump speech, he had to tell people to applaud. Although some weakly defended his inadequacy as part of a secret, brilliant plan, he was out of the race by the end of the year.

By New Year’s Day 2008, the highest-polling Republican was also the most obvious choice for nomination: John McCain. The scion of a well-established Navy family, McCain served as a naval pilot in the Vietnam War, where he was shot down, taken prisoner, and tortured for information (but never cracked). When he returned to the United States in 1973, his hair was white from stress and he could no longer lift his arms over his head. A decade later, he became a Congressman for Arizona; four years after that, he was elected to the Senate.

McCain had mostly supported the policies of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush the Elder, but increasingly found himself at odds with the new, hostile Republicans who’d rallied against the Clinton Administration. His new habit of occasional cooperation with congressional Democrats earned him a reputation as a maverick. He even began to meet and reconcile with those who had opposed America’s involvement in Vietnam decades earlier.

In 2000, there were few people who seemed more ready to be President of the United States. But in that case, he was outfoxed by the campaign of George W. Bush. In that year’s primary election, McCain was famously accused by Bush campaign staffers of siring an “illegitimate black child,” a blatantly racist attack that voters, particularly in the important primary state of South Carolina, believed after seeing McCain with his dark-skinned adopted daughter from Bangladesh. McCain was also savaged by the press in that state. Everyone who worked in politics saw it as a new low. It worked. Bush was nominated, then became President. Now, approaching the end of the disastrous Bush years, Republican voters saw McCain as a way to put things right.

On the Democratic side, the most popular candidate was, and always had been, Hillary Clinton. Wife of still-popular former President Bill Clinton, she was making waves as soon as her husband took office. The first First Lady born after the Second World War, Clinton was unpopular among conservatives and older voters who saw her as shifty, mostly because she worked outside the home, staying on as a successful lawyer even after her husband attained political office. It’s hard to imagine now, but this was revolutionary. People were terrified that she would shirk her ceremonial duties at the White House. When she didn’t, people then attacked her as a scheming interloper. Even many who adored the President saw her as an unwelcome influence in politics. When the Clinton administration attempted sweeping reforms of the nation’s healthcare system in 1993, it failed to catch on with the public, at least partly because she had spearheaded the effort.

Nonetheless, she pushed on. Clinton successfully ran for Senate in New York in 2000, becoming the first (and, to date, only) presidential spouse to win an election. As Senator, she was crucial in funding recovery efforts in New York City after 9/11, and voted against a proposed constitutional amendment to outlaw gay marriage– additionally revolutionary for the time.

By 2007, Hillary Clinton was the best-known and best-liked Democratic candidate (though she was also the most disliked), and seemed primed to sweep the primaries. Had all of America voted on the same day, she almost certainly would have won. Unfortunately for her, all of America didn’t vote on the same day. More unfortunately, her campaign in 2008 was about to fall apart.

The night of January 3 was astonishingly cold, even for the northern plains, as Iowans poured into public spaces– all mercifully indoors– to stand by their candidates. The whole thing was over in a couple of hours: neither Clinton nor McCain had won.

For his part, John McCain came in fourth, with 13%. The Republican victor was Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee. Before entering politics, Huckabee had been a baptist preacher. Like Bill Clinton, he was from the town of Hope, Arkansas, and was a musician. Huckabee had been one of the few Republicans to actively court the youth vote. In one of his first media appearances as a Presidential candidate, he went on the left-leaning Daily Show with Jon Stewart and endeavored to present himself as a man of conscience outside the mold of the Christian right. “Life begins at conception, but life doesn’t end at birth,” said Huckabee, as he outlined his vision of public health and education. In reality, he was just playing to the crowd, and his viability beyond Iowa was heavily in question.

Hillary Clinton came in third, even finishing behind John Edwards, a former Vice Presidential nominee whose life was about to come crashing down for other reasons. The winner, of course, was Barack Obama.

Because the caucus was at night, lots of people– young people especially– tuned in to watch one of the caucuses online in Des Moines. This live-stream– itself a novelty– was shot by Shelby Highsmith, a campaign staffer for also-ran Democratic candidate and future Vice President Joe Biden. The live-stream was posted on the popular left-wing website Huffington Post, and viewers numbered in the tens of thousands.

The upsetting results of the Iowa caucuses were not as much of a problem as one might expect. The public nature of the caucuses means that participants are more likely to be activists, and the victors of the Iowa caucuses are as likely as not to be the party nominees. Ronald Reagan narrowly lost the 1980 caucus to his eventual vice president, George Bush. Bill Clinton in 1992 got 3%, below “uncommitted.”

But Barack Obama’s victory in Iowa nevertheless sent a shockwave through the general public in a way that no one could have anticipated, for the simple reason that there was nothing else on TV.

Tune in for the final chapter of this series, “A Writer’s Medium.”