The Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary have been demoted

The Thinker by Rodin

The 2020 Democratic nomination process pulled a surprise this year. It showed that doing well in Iowa and New Hampshire probably doesn’t matter anymore.

Doing well in Iowa has been a great predictor of eventually winning the Democratic Party nomination. With the exception of 1992 when their incumbent senator was in the primary, banking Iowa proved to be the momentum that carried over to the nomination. Iowa sends only 41 delegates to the national convention, out of 3979 pledged delegates. That’s about one percent of pledged delegates. New Hampshire’s track record of being the first primary state is much worse than Iowa’s, but it picks only 24 delegates. Nonetheless, until now, it’s been an easy decision to decide to invest heavily in Iowa’s caucus and the New Hampshire primary as well. They set a candidate’s narrative on their eventual electability.

Biden won only six of Iowa’s 41 delegates and no delegates in New Hampshire. Yet he’s going to win the nomination in a landslide. What went wrong?

South Carolina went wrong, or perhaps right. Biden won 39 of its 54 delegates there. South Carolina Democrats of course are mostly African American voters. This time around, South Carolina set the narrative on who the nominee would be, surprising pretty much everyone, including the Biden campaign. Biden won ten of the 15 Super Tuesday states, held just four days later. South Carolina effectively set the narrative this time around, and African Americans showed and have emerged as the Democratic Party’s principle power broker.

The lesson from this should be obvious: if you want to be president, you should spent a whole lot of time and resources in South Carolina and a whole lot less in Iowa and New Hampshire. And if you want to win South Carolina, not only do you need to spend a lot of time there; you need to invest much of your political career to working on issues that African Americans care about. Also, those who discount the savvy of African American voters do so at their peril.

Biden was assumed to be the front-runner before any voting started. Polls generally gave him the edge. It’s just that many of us didn’t believe the polls. Joe looked bland and tired, and we found it much easier to be enthused about progressive candidates. I was enthused about Elizabeth Warren. I still am; she’s just out of the race now. So many progressives like me were hoping to convince principally non-white voters to vote for our favorite, but the biggest voting bloc in the party decided they wanted pragmatic Joe instead of ideological Elizabeth or Bernie.

Biden did it despite the plethora of mainstream candidates that included Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris and Mike Bloomberg. He did it on a shoestring budget. While early and principally white voters found things to like about these candidates, the party’s African American bloc did not. They signaled to other minorities that form what is now arguably the core of the Democratic Party who they should vote for. And primary voters listened, trusting their instincts more than the traditional white base of the party.

This election’s primary process then seems to suggest a new era for the Democratic Party: as the party principally of African Americans and other minorities. This leaves progressive whites in an awkward place because we seem to vote disproportionately for progressive white candidates. A few will cross party lines and vote for Republicans and Trump instead, but most of us will have to rethink the optics of our voting choice. We need to realize that our power and influence in the party is diluted and is likely to remain this way in 2024 and beyond, and that minorities are the party’s new majority.

House of Cards: entertaining but ludicrous

The Thinker by Rodin

I finally surrendered and replaced my twice a month Netflix DVD plan for the “all the content you can watch online for $7.99 a month” plan. Actually, I chose the $8.99 a month plan, which lets me see shows on two devices: handy when my iMac is more convenient than the high definition TV in our entertainment room. It’s a good deal any way you look at it. It is made more so by Netflix’s exclusive programming. There are a number of series that Netflix is producing but I started with House of Cards, since it was their first and got much critical acclaim. And I must say that I am enjoying it. I haven’t had this much fun with a show based on Washington, D.C. since The West Wing.

House of Cards, at least Season 1, which I am watching now, is a TV show for conspiracy theorists. Frank Underwood (portrayed by Kevin Spacey) is a Democratic congressman from South Carolina who is also the House whip. In case you are not familiar with this role, this is the guy tasked to round up votes to push the party’s agenda. He’s the third guy in charge in the House of Representatives, and reports to the Majority Leader, who reports to the Speaker of the House. Underwood however is the real power broker in the House, subtly pulling strings and influencing people to advance not quite his party’s agenda, or even the president’s agenda, but his agenda on how he thinks government should work. He sees himself as the government’s master clockmaker. By oiling this spot and not oiling that spot, he sets in motion many a Rube Goldberg machine wherein things usually go his way. He is ruthless enough to bring down his own boss, the Speaker of the House, with Republican votes and those from the Congressional Black Caucus, if it suits his agenda. At least so far it doesn’t appear that he aspires to a much higher office. He realizes that by being the master clockmaker he is closer to being the center of power than he would be as majority leader or even speaker. Like Dick Cheney, he does his best work by not being seen too much.

It is frankly quite an addictive show to watch, so I feel like I am getting great value for my $8.99 a month subscription. The West Wing though was at least kind of, sort of plausible. House of Cards is not, although it is great entertainment. Hillary Clinton is reputedly a fan of the show and I’m not surprised. If in their upper 60s Hill and Bill are finding it hard to find couples time, they are probably finding it by watching this show together. Slick Willy can learn a lot of lessons from watching Rep. Frank (“Francis”) Underwood.

Some part of me desperately hopes that our government actually worked this way. That’s because it would make a whole lot more sense than the way it actually does work. It’s hardly news that right now government hardly works at all. Certainly Congress is barely functioning. There is no Frank Underwood slicing and dicing his way through Washington politics. Instead there is pretty much complete dysfunction.

House of Cards might have been more realistic if it has been set in the early 1960s instead of the 2010s. Lyndon Johnson, before be became vice president and then president, was not unlike Frank Underwood. Few have been more skilled at getting legislation through Congress than Lyndon Johnson. For much of the time he was in Congress though he was blessed with Democratic majorities, at least in the House of Representatives. It’s not so hard to wield power when your party dominates a house of Congress. Maybe Underwood could have been portrayed as the Senate’s majority whip in the early 1960s, and we could have seen how Senator Underwood’s machinations tilted the presidential election in Kennedy’s favor. It’s still implausible, but it would have a lot more plausibility than this series actually has.

You don’t have to study government too hard to see how it really works. Government these days is largely controlled, not by a Frank Underwood, but by corporations and vested interests, who buy influence. One of the curious things about Frank Underwood is how little he is affected by this stuff. Or frankly how little time he spends outside of Washington and attending fundraisers. Representatives spend more time fundraising to keep their jobs than they do actually legislating. I guess that would not make good television. Congress also spends much more time on recess than it does legislating, yet Underwood rarely travels back to his South Carolina district. You also have to ask yourself: he’s a white Democrat representing a district … in South Carolina? There are seven congressional districts in South Carolina. Six of them are held by Republicans, all male, all white. The one Democratic district was one specially carved out for African Americans and is held by James Clyburn, an African American. Blacks comprise 28% of the population of South Carolina, which is 68% white, yet get only one congressman of the 7 to represent it. South Carolina is gerrymandered to the extreme toward the Republicans.

No doubt Frank Underwood is a fascinating character. He is both ruthless and somehow humane, pragmatic and relentlessly focused, artificial but quietly revolutionary. Perhaps one of the most interesting dynamics is his relationship with his wife Claire (Robin Wright), who is also quite a contradiction: ruthless enough to fire half her staff of her non-profit while maintaining what appears to be a purely emotional marriage with Frank, who she loves, while each allow the other to play around. Frank chases Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), an up and coming reporter and that’s okay with Claire, particularly when we realize that Frank’s affair with Zoe is only tangentially about the sex. It’s much more important that he sees her as someone he can use: another chess player on his four-dimensional chessboard.

This month I retired from 32 years in the civil service. Obviously I was never a member of congress, or even someone on its staff, although I spent a year making the computers work at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. I have though worked in three departments over 32 years. I have known a lot of bureaucrats including some in pretty senior leadership positions. I also done a lot of watching the machinations of government, and it is a chaotic process, today more than ever. The sad truth is there is not, and rarely is there any politician that would even warrant a B in oiling the machinations of government. It’s not because talents like Frank Underwood are not out there, it’s because of the vast kudzu of government. There is no superman out there than can really cut through it and way too many huge egos titling at windmills for any Rube Goldberg machine spawned by a Frank Underwood to work.

If we were interested in truly understanding how government works, time would be much better spent looking at how outside groups like the NRA wields their disproportionate influence. The Koch Brothers are already the subject of a fascinating documentary. I doubt Hillary Clinton will be adding Citizen Koch in her leisure viewing. House of Cards is far more entertaining. It is just, unfortunately, completely ludicrous.