What Impressed Me This Week: Waiting for Iowa
I took this picture Sunday when the Pigmobile was parked on Main Street in Nashua. (For those of you familiar with Nashua, that's Martha's Exchange in the background.) The driver, Tracy, told me that the idea came from Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry's ice cream. She claims to have worked for a defense contractor and says that her son is a soldier. "I don't want to get a folded flag," she says, referring to the flag that covers a soldier's coffin.
The big thing to understand is that there's a 15% threshold in each local Democratic caucus: If your candidate doesn't get at least 15% on the first ballot, you have to vote for somebody else on the second ballot. Since only Edwards, Obama, and Clinton are polling at least 15% across the state, a lot of Richardson, Kucinich, and Biden supporters are going to be making a second choice. With the polls too close to call, those second choices will be the deciding margin.
In the Democratic race nationally, I think it comes down to Hillary or not-Hillary, and I predict that not-Hillary will ultimately win. Obama and Edwards are competing for the mantle of not-Hillary, and Iowa is where that mantle will probably be won.
The conventional wisdom says that Edwards appeals to the regular caucus-goers, while Obama has a young following that may or may not show up. I'm rooting for Edwards. But if vast numbers of young people turned out to vote for Obama, that would be wonderful news for November. I'd have to tip my cap to him.
All three Republican frontrunners -- Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, and Mike Huckabee -- have sharpened their stance on immigration in recent months. The topic dominated two recent Republican debates, and all three have launched television ads that tout their hard line.For some reason this issue plays particularly well in places like Iowa. And that's got me puzzled. Because, well, there are no illegal immigrants in Iowa.
OK, that's probably an exaggeration. But I just got back from a post-Christmas family thing in Quincy, Illinois, where I grew up. It's the next town down the Mississippi from the Iowa riverport Keokuk, where I had my first legal beer on my 18th birthday. Quincy is a small city (40K) surrounded by farm land. So while it's not as cosmopolitan as Des Moines -- try not to think too hard about that -- Quincy should be fairly similar to a lot of places in Iowa: Dubuque, Burlington, Waterloo, and so on.
That's why the following observation is relevant: I didn't see a single Hispanic during my two-plus days in Quincy. I almost never do. No Hispanics pushing mops at the mall. No Hispanics making beds at my hotel. The old woman who set out our complimentary breakfast stuff every morning is white. I admit that there are a lot more Mexican restaurants in Quincy than there used to be. But in a town where Hardees advertises its "country burrito" -- whatever that might be -- you have to wonder how much of this food is being produced or consumed by actual Mexicans, legal or otherwise. If there are many illegals in Quincy, they must be coming from places like Estonia or Switzerland, because they look just like your basic white Midwesterners.
Think about that: For some reason, Iowa seems to be full of people ready to base their vote on the illegal immigration issue, despite the fact that they have never seen an illegal immigrant, or more than a handful of Hispanics that they might imagine are illegal immigrants. Illegal immigrants have not taken their jobs, gotten their daughters pregnant, driven down their property values, eaten up their school budget, or harmed them in any way whatever. But they believe that getting rid of these pesky illegals -- wherever they are -- should be the top priority of the next president.
Keep thinking about it: At least 45 Iowans have died in Iraq. (You can find their names listed here.) Iowa CareGivers estimates that 189,360 working-age Iowans (about 1 in 7) lack health insurance. Iowa has all the standard rust-belt problems with losing manufacturing jobs and not being able to find in-state opportunities for their talented young people. (I never seriously considered staying in Quincy.) Iowans are losing their civil liberties and their national honor at the same rate as all other Americans. And yet what really bothers large numbers of Iowans, particularly Republicans, is that states and cities far away from them have an illegal immigrant problem.And the problems they attribute to the illegal aliens are almost entirely imaginary. For example, Romney's anti-McCain ad waves the red flag that illegal immigrants are going get Social Security benefits, when the real cash flow runs in exactly the opposite direction: Illegals often use fake social security numbers and end up paying taxes that give them no claim on benefits. Far from sponging off the rest of us, they subsidize us from their tiny earnings. They pay sales tax and a variety of other taxes, but they are afraid to use many of the civic services that those taxes pay for. Bill O'Reilly will run with any immigrant crime story he can find, but other than the original crime of coming to America in the first place, illegal immigrants are some of the most law-abiding residents America has. They work hard, save their money, and do their best to stay out of trouble. The vast majority of them would make excellent American citizens. The real scandal is that we have an underclass of long-term workers who can't vote.
I'll tell you what I think is going on in Iowa and elsewhere: Working-class Republicans, the people who listen to Rush Limbaugh and watch Fox News and join the NRA, can see that something is seriously wrong in America today. But the problem can't be with the president they put in office or with the conservative philosophy they hold. The problem can't be that Republicans started the wrong wars or gave tax cuts to the wrong people or expected the free market to do things that free markets have never done in the entire history of the world. It's got to be somebody's fault. But since they and everybody they know are struggling as best they can, the fault must lie with somebody they can't see, somebody over the horizon.
Conservative political operatives have been doing their best to fan that flame. In 2004 and 2006 gay marriage was a similar scapegoat issue, and it similarly played best in places where gays are least visible. If you know any married gays -- I go to church in Massachusetts, so I do -- you realize immediately that their happiness does not injure you in any way. Watching a gay man carry his son to Sunday School has never once caused me to question the validity or value of my heterosexual marriage. Why would it?
More and more, I'm coming to the conclusion that the rest of us can't just stand back and shake our heads. We've got to start yelling "scapegoat" loud and long. There are a few genuine issues about securing the border, but they are technical and boring and have nothing to do with the problems of average Americans. The emotional appeal of the illegal immigrant issue comes entirely from the scapegoat aspect. If Republican policies were not failing across the board, Republican candidates wouldn't have to talk about immigration at all.
Year in Review
I love lists and countdowns, so this is a good time of year for me. Here are some you might otherwise miss: Bill Mahr's list of the Dickheads of the Year. Slate's countdown of the Bush administration's ten dumbest legal arguments. Glenn Greenwald's favorite quotes of 2007. Salon's self-selected list of best stories.
TPM provides a list of administration officials beset by scandal. And of course we're all waiting for TPM to announce the winners of the Golden Dukes, which will probably be out by the time you read this. If not, you can still hear the choices of TPM founder Josh Marshall. Like Josh, I'm rooting for Alberto Gonzales to win the coveted "Best Scandal" award.
the obvious strategy of the rightwing noise machine will be to claim, against all evidence, that all is well until the end of the year and then, brutally, to switch to relentless coverage of all that's bad - all that's been bad, but suddenly needs urgent action NOW.
If you had never heard of Benazir Bhutto until she was assassinated Thursday, don't be ashamed to admit it. Juan Cole catches you up on Pakistan's current situation in an article on Salon. Pakistan is a good example of how we've gotten into trouble in a lot of countries over the years. Cole summarizes:
Pakistan's population is, contrary to the impression of many pundits in the United States, mostly moderate and uninterested in the Taliban form of Islam. But if the United States and "democracy" become associated in their minds with military dictatorship, arbitrary dismissal of judges, and political instability, they may turn to other kinds of politics, far less favorable to the United States.
Something similar might have been written about Iran during the reign of the Shah. We never learn.
New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg has scheduled a meeting to promote "bipartisanship" and the formation of a "government of national unity". The mainstream Washington press corps loves this kind of talk, but Chris Bowers at Open Left exposes the emptiness of it all by presenting the very short list of things Democrats in Congress have blocked over the last five years.
It would be nice, for once, if [those] decrying polarization, the lack of bi-partisanship, and gridlock in Washington would actually provide specifics on what legislation their hated polarization, partisanship and gridlock is blocking. Of course, they won't actually do that, because blaming national problems on vague, undefined concepts like "polarization" and "gridlock" is much easier than actually analyzing the contemporary political scene in America.
Scarecrow on FireDogLake points out the obvious: Reporters covering the presidential campaign are trying to push the "It's starting to get nasty" theme, but in truth it's only getting nasty among the Republicans. "Compared to the Republican trench warfare, the Democrats are having a tea party."
Another FireDogLake column collects more of the wonderful fake interviews of British comedians Bird & Fortune.
I wish I could say this is a comedy routine: The New York Times is giving Bill Kristol a weekly column. Kristol was one of the leading voices for invading Iraq, and he learned nothing from that disaster. Today he is one of the leading voices for invading Iran. His appointment by the Times is the best demonstration I can give of the complete lack of accountability in the mainstream media. Media Matters has compiled a list of the known falsehoods Kristol has put forward. Somebody should make a similar list of false predictions. In fact, it would be much easier to compile the opposite list: Kristol predictions that were not 180 degrees wrong. It's short; it might be empty. When I was a kid, game shows had "celebrity contestants." People my age had no idea what these people were celebrated for. Eventually, they were famous for being game show contestants and nothing else. Today, political pundits are in the same situation. No one knows what any of these people did to deserve national attention. But they've got it, and so they keep it.