The DNC’s abandonment of the Iowa caucuses: ‘It hurt’

February 6, 2023 10:16 am

Joe Robinson vacuums the carpet before the start of the caucus night celebration party for Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-VT, at the Holiday Inn on Feb. 3, 2020 in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

It hurt.

I was sitting with a reporter Saturday morning, after the Democratic National Committee’s deliberations over the future of the Iowa Caucuses and New Hampshire primary’s first-in-the-nation status.

He asked me how it felt, after it became clear that we were, in the eyes of the national party, history.

I simply said, “It hurt.”

The answer surprised him. But he had not been involved in a 40-year fight to keep the nominating process to select the next president of the United States open and fair. How can you tell someone what that’s like if they haven’t lived it: The political operatives of two states, people of both parties, literally thousands of citizens, the candidates, the press and the staff of innumerable number flooding your state.

Mostly, I remember the young people, eager and underpaid, working on their first presidential campaign. We would give them a bed in our basement, sometimes do their laundry, leave a hot meal on the stove and see that they got to the doctor or dentist when they needed to go and wouldn’t on their own. In exchange, on behalf of the candidate, they walked neighborhoods, checked lists, turned in at midnight to start again in the morning. Many keep in touch with us, some of them now middle-aged adults.

The candidates themselves, to save money, slept in our bedrooms, had breakfast in the morning and, inevitably, marveled at the depth of questions and follow-up inquiries they received from Iowa and New Hampshire voters. We drove them, got them haircuts, and picked up their clothes at the laundry. Voters of both states wanted them to have a chance, whether they were well-funded or not.

But maybe it was the press that recognized the caucuses’ merit the most. They had the pleasant experience of discovering that “Iowa Nice” wasn’t a slogan but a true Midwest trait. Directions were given, and if they missed the campaign bus departure, someone drove them to the next event. We taught them how to drive on snow and then pulled the slow learners out of the ditch to try again.

One well-known reporter still expresses amazement about the time he booked into a motel that promised internet access and didn’t have it. He needed to find a place to cover one of the televised debates, so he called a local activist in Marshalltown and was invited to their home. He found not only a TV set up for him in the den, but a freshly cooked meal alongside the desk.

If President Biden has his way, future memories of Iowa and New Hampshire are gone. Gone because a sitting president with a remarkably good record to run for re-election upon does not have the confidence to believe that, in a fair fight, he would be nominated again. This, even though right now he does not have a credible opponent. Instead of preserving an open process to obtain his party’s endorsement, he wants to stack the deck, cut the cards, then deal them and declare a great victory.

The DNC did not do the president a favor on Saturday. Come the fall, the president is going to be running a campaign that has not been battle tested, has not heard or learned of the cross and competing rhetoric in a campaign that generates a successful message. As importantly, he closes a nominating process that was, until Saturday, open and successful. Please remember, the Democratic Party has won three of the last four elections and the popular vote in all four.

Equally disturbing is the precedent, the standard it is setting. Others are watching. You can expect Ted Cruz, if able, to direct the Republican National Committee to start the 2028 nominating process in Texas. Money can flow freely into the coffers of the anointed and it will not be long before Citizens United dominates how we pick the person to hold the highest office in the land.

This development requires Iowa and New Hampshire to stand our ground and hold, even if no one chooses to come, the Iowa Caucuses and first primary for both parties in this cycle.

Still, when I heard Rep. Debbie Dingell of Michigan denounce us Saturday, it made me very angry.  But it also hurt.

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Dave Nagle
Dave Nagle

Dave Nagle, of Cedar Falls, is a former Iowa Democratic Party state chairman and three-term U.S. congressman from Iowa.