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Capitol Ideas: National Democrats praise Iowans, but do them no favors

Party's late rejection of virtual caucuses leaves little time to come up with alternative

Beth Lainson attempts to convince undecided voters to caucus for Hillary Clinton during the realignment period of a Democratic caucus on Feb. 1, 2016, at the Field House on the University of Iowa campus in Iowa City. (The Gazette)
Beth Lainson attempts to convince undecided voters to caucus for Hillary Clinton during the realignment period of a Democratic caucus on Feb. 1, 2016, at the Field House on the University of Iowa campus in Iowa City. (The Gazette)

The notes of praise were endlessly sung.

Unfortunately, they were off-key.

When the national Democratic Party’s rules committee rejected the Iowa Democrats’ proposal for virtual caucuses, several members spoke in high praise of Iowa’s efforts.

“I just want to compliment Iowa on what it has done.”

“I want to thank Iowa for all their work on this project.”

“Iowa has done a great job.”

On and on they went. And then they voted down the Iowa proposal, almost unanimously.

The committee members rejected Iowa’s plan for virtual caucuses to be held over phone lines, citing security concerns.

This vote was conducted, by the way, during a telephonic meeting. The irony is palpable.

Nevermind that Iowa Democrats were put into this spot in the first place by the national party, which has demanded caucus states make the process more accessible for those who wish to participate but face myriad barriers, a truly admirable goal. And never mind that the national Democrats’ security experts rejected the notion of a safe and secure virtual caucus after testing a system that would not necessarily have been what Iowa Democrats would have used, according to Iowa Democrats. And nevermind that the national Democrats rejected the plan.

What makes their praise of Iowa ring hollow is how long it took to reach that conclusion.

Iowa Democrats unveiled their virtual caucus plan in early February. And if you think that’s the first the national Democrats heard of the plan, watch for my column next weekend on how I anticipate Republicans and Democrats will soon come to a bipartisan agreement on health care policy.

That, for the math-challenged among us, was seven months ago. It took the national Democrats more than half a year to determine Iowa’s plan was just too unsafe.

You think government moves too slowly. The Democratic National Committee asks you hold its beer.

It’s not just that it took so long for national Democrats to reach that conclusion, it’s how little time they left Iowa Democrats to develop a backup plan.

The national party made it clear on Aug. 30 that it would reject Iowa’s plan. That was exactly five months and four days before the Feb. 3 Iowa caucuses.

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So, Iowa Democrats spent the better part of two years devising a plan, and national Democrats rejected it just five months before the caucuses.

Now Iowa Democrats have five months to come up with a new plan, get it approved by national Democrats, educate caucus participants and the broader public about the new plan and then get it implemented in time for the caucuses.

State party leaders such as chairman Troy Price are unlikely to say as much because they still have to play nice with their national counterparts, but the national party really put Iowa Democrats in a bind.

If this was ever a possibility, national Democrats owed it to Iowa Democrats to move their evaluation process along much quicker, so that if they rejected the initial plan, Iowa would have time to go back to the drawing board and come up with another.

Instead, the state Democratic Party has a remarkably brief window to come up with and implement what would be one of the bigger changes to the caucuses in their history.

The national party’s actions have fueled conspiracy theories that Iowa was set up to fail to give ammunition to caucus critics and other states that want to bump Iowa from its leadoff spot in the presidential nominating process.

That may or may not be true, but at the very least the national party did Iowa Democrats no favors here.

But hey, at least those national Democrats are grateful for Iowa’s efforts.

Erin Murphy covers Iowa politics and government. His email address is erin.murphy@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter at @ErinDMurphy.

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