Guest Columnist

Presidential potlucks and kaffeeklatsches are worth fighting for

Former Democratic presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke at Central Park Coffee Company in Mt. Pleasant on Friday, March 1
Former Democratic presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke at Central Park Coffee Company in Mt. Pleasant on Friday, March 15. (GTNS photo by Grace King)

Before the large town halls and the massive rallies as candidates’ campaigns gain steam, I like the more intimate meetings in restaurants, living rooms, backyards and barn yards. Or, in this case, a couple weeks ago, Las Cafeteras stumping for Bernie Sanders in West Liberty.

Iowa — we may be too white, too old, too cranky. But when bands like Las Cafeteras come from a place like East Los Angeles to play in our community’s living room while barnstorming for a candidate — this, to me, is a beauty of the Iowa caucuses.

The candidates sometimes are surprised but always heartened at the thoughtful, honest audience questions. Iowans fulfill their role earnestly and enthusiastically.

In Tipton, at an Andrew Yang appearance, I met a student contingent from a Kentucky university. This group had traveled to Iowa for a week’s worth of caucus bingeing, trying to see as many candidates as possible, including President Donald Trump the previous night. Their class syllabus, in part, had been organized around the Iowa caucuses. There is magic and substance to evaluate here.

Iowans get to “travel” in their caucus adventure as well. Bill Weld campaigned in Mount Vernon. Beto O’Rourke in Washington. Pete Buttigieg in Maquoketa. Joe Biden in Independence. JJ Walcutt in Coralville. Marianne Williamson in Fairfield. Cory Booker in North Liberty. Bill DeBlasio rolled his bus into NewBo. Elizabeth Warren voted her coffee bean at Hamburg Inn. Kirsten Gillibrand blocked access to ranch dressing at the Airliner. Bernie Sanders pitched softball at Dyersville’s Field of Dreams.

The Iowa caucuses are much more than something that went unfortunately very wrong on Monday. They are months of earnest encounters and considerations. They are a springboard where unlikely nominees like Jimmy Carter and Donald Trump can gain traction.

There was a technological glitch. There was no conspiracy. There was no plot orchestrated by Hillary or the Russians. But there will be consequences.

One wishful fatality, at the top of many people’s lists, is the Iowa caucuses process itself.

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If the caucuses stay, there are modernizations and tweaks that can and need to occur. Virtual caucusing. Ranked-choice voting. Better ADA access at caucus sites. Better accommodations for those who work evenings or who cannot afford child care. Phone apps that work.

On the other hand, maybe the caucuses have lost their moment, like six-on-six girls basketball or boys-only wrestling.

If so, I would uncouple the resulting changes from Iowa’s hallowed first-in-the-nation status. Women candidates and candidates of color will gain much more traction in future election cycles. The demographics of Iowa and the nation will force us to become more hip despite ourselves. We will learn how to use a phone app. Tradition can welcome and be renewed with progress.

We ought to like that we are first in the nation. Candidates start out in living rooms and barnyards; and people have access to them. There is great good here before everything turns into the spectacles of big town halls, rallies and Super Tuesdays.

We ought to like that we are first in the nation. For 2016 we had at least 17 Republican hopefuls trod Iowa soil. For 2020 there have been nearly 30 Democratic candidates visiting our coffee shops. Those candidates came from at least 23 states. It’s plausible that we had their staff and volunteers hail from almost every state in the republic. What a melting pot of voices, conversations, and ideas. For a constructive evolution of our process, let’s capitalize tangibly on that multiverse of dialogue and interaction.

We ought to like that we are first in the nation, and we should be ready to make the case that this is good for the country. To do that, let’s get more caucus bang for the buck. Let’s demonstrate our status and process are worthwhile and relevant. Let’s have the caucuses reverberate long after caucus night and make some impactful, enduring contribution to national discourse.

Every four years, we set an Iowa tone and offer an extended, intimate, and diligent vetting process via potlucks and kaffeeklatsches. It’s a half-marathon that can be nourishing and revitalizing for our democracy. Citizens in Marion and Shueyville should think that’s worth fighting for. Citizens in Montpelier and San Antonio should think that’s worth keeping.

Patrick Muller lives in Hills.

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