Karen Heller: Iowa's caucuses: A great spectacle in a tiny, tiny state

Rick Santorum attended 381 town hall meetings to fall eight votes short of Mitt Romney, who spent $4 million - roughly $133 per vote - in Iowas GOP caucuses.
Rick Santorum attended 381 town hall meetings to fall eight votes short of Mitt Romney, who spent $4 million - roughly $133 per vote - in Iowas GOP caucuses. (DAVE WEAVER / Associated Press)
Posted: January 08, 2012

I love Iowa. One of my favorite stories was on the Donna Reed Festival years ago in tiny Denison (7,000 and change), a town that willed its economic success. As an investigative gastronome, I downed corn dogs and fried Snickers at the Iowa State Fair, America's prototypical agrarian exposition, home of the only known version of The Last Supper made entirely out of butter.

I joined the swarm of reporters descending on Iowa for its first-in-the-nation caucus. Not to brag, but the most expensive plane trip I ever took was from Des Moines to Manchester, N.H., $1,700 and only one way! It was the lone time I saw Bill Bradley, he of the golden resumé, drop his guard, a wonderful moment that his staff later ruled off the record though it humanized his wooden campaign style, which makes Mitt Romney seem Clintonian.

So, I love Iowa but think it's needy and greedy. Hours before Tuesday's caucus, one voter said she refused to decide until she shook hands with all her top candidates and looked them squarely in the eye. Good luck with that!

At many events this year, reporters outnumbered voters. Rick Santorum, whose sweater vests merited a separate beat, attended 381(!) town hall meetings to come in eight votes short of Romney, who spent $4 million, or roughly $133 per vote.

This is what "winning" has come to: spending too much time or too much money on too few votes in a too-small state - one with 1 percent of the nation's residents.

Despite the nonstop love from the candidates, only one in five Iowa Republicans bothered voting. That's less than 6 percent of the state's overwhelmingly white electorate in a nation that has become increasingly diverse.

So on to New Hampshire, a smaller, whiter shade of pale!

This game has become an entertaining, expensive, over-analyzed, extended reality show with dizzying graphics, techno toys, and playoff analysis that puts sports broadcasting to shame. CNN has welcomed more analysts than there were apostles present at the last supper, and to a far smaller table.

On NBC Tuesday night, Brian Williams said, "This is a real barn burner." Really? Eight votes in tiny Iowa?

The breathless coverage - which I've admittedly devoured - is invariably who's up and who's down, a political version of Whac-a-Mole. Stories dwell on gaffes, bad blood, spouses, dogs, number of children, number of wives, hair, attire.

For months, we've followed debates and read stories valuing politics over policy, personal biography over issues, religious views over economic pragmatism.

Granted, the debates have been a marvelous diversion from the continuous crud of economic bad news and a Washington wracked by intractable partisanship. Little about the debates and coverage has seemed real. We took Herman Cain seriously! Meanwhile, Rick Perry seems like a great fictional character. I keep thinking he'll walk off the debate stage straight onto the set of some juicy network drama like Revenge.

We're witnessing an extraordinary, frightening tendency to look backward among the candidates and media, not only psychoanalysis about where the candidates come from but dissections of previous elections. Republican candidates have a fond regard for America's past as a better, simpler country, a domestic Brigadoon they want us to return to, most likely by overturning any and all Democratic-blessed legislation, and, you know, science.

The place we're asking politicians to govern isn't the past. Life is messy.

How many modern nations squander this much time and opportunity concentrating on the play by play or embellishing history? The candidates rarely address the future, which seems to frighten them, like some dystopic black hole of responsibility.

The candidates are not talking enough about our current challenges: job creation, energy innovation, refiguring the military, repositioning diplomatic policy, educating students, and retraining workers to compete in a changing marketplace.

True, campaign promises are mere words. President Obama made plenty. Remember his plans to close Gitmo? How's that going? That's why Democrats, especially liberals, are so disappointed. How could anyone live up to the hype of hope?

Another thing: Mitt Romney is going to be the Republican nominee. He was always going to be the nominee. Forests will be felled, hours consumed, terabytes processed, and it will still be Romney. The game will be over.

Then, perhaps, we can finally debate the true issues, policy initiatives, where America is headed instead of harping on haircuts, sweater vests, and the idealized past, though I have my doubts.

Contact columnist Karen Heller at 215-854-2586, kheller@phillynews.com, or @kheller on Twitter. Read her past columns at www.philly.com/KarenHeller.

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