So, what the heck, you're welcome,
Glad to have you with us.
Even though we may not ever mention it again.
You really ought to give Iowa
Moines, Davenport, Marshalltown,
Mason City, Keokuk, Ames,
Ought to give Iowa a try!
Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man
"Are you waving?"
It's Lee on the phone. She's been watching the recent Republican debate on television and wants to know if we are anywhere near the big camera panning the Iowa Event Center as the audience departs. Yes, Blake and I were in the audience. But, no, we were never in the klieg lights with the pundits, nor could we see the VIP section from our seats. I get her text while we are heading down the escalator with a host of our Iowa neighbors, past the guys dismantling the Pork Congress props, past the "Caucusing for Ethanol in 2016" sign, two foreigners who will not have to make up their minds by Monday night's caucus.This both frees us to observe and makes us less relevant to the historical proceedings at hand. Judicious eavesdropping leads me to conclude that much of the audience at this debate is on a first name basis with more than one of the candidates. The menfolk of the family seated behind us, ages 10 to 50 or so, are dressed for success in jackets, rep ties, and slicked back hair. Despite their formal attire, they are on a first name basis with "Rick" and "Mike" and have decided that Messrs. Santorum and Huckabee will be on the stage with the absent Donald Trump at his competing event 'strictly for the veterans'. Or it could be, as Mr. Santorum admits, "Because I'm not doing anything at 9 o'clock tonight.'' Both Santorum and Huckabee have been around this Iowa block before; I bet much of the audience for the undercard debate is on a first name basis. The father behind us meets and greets during every commercial break, including Frank Luntz, the pollster. Mr. Luntz attracts lots of attention from the political junkies of the audience; you are indeed a small subset of the voting population if you count among your trophies a selfie with Frank Luntz.
That being said, I am impressed by the potpourri that is in attendance at this debate, for instance, the anticipated healthy contingent of well dressed couples in red and blue. With rousing cheers of "President Paul, President Paul!", the Ron Paul crowd seamlessly switched over from father to son.
When the chant changes over to “We Stand with Rand”, Greg Gutfeld, author, satirist and Fox News personality, yells out “I sit with Mitt!” He is sitting a row in front of us and murmurs to everyone and no one in particular, “I couldn’t help myself.”
Entire families are sprinkled through the crowd, devoting their evening to civics and keeping the youngsters up too late. We share a stand up table with a mom and her two teenage kids, just plain folk in the clothes they came from work or school in. They each wear a tasteful pin, (not badge!), that says 'Carly'. Mom voted for Jim Gilmore when she lived in Virginia; 'Back before you knew Dad?', asks her son. 'Oh no, I knew your dad then,' she laughs.
Jim Gilmore is here this time and not uninteresting in the warm up debate. While Santorum and Huckabee, like old flames tossed aside, entreat the voters to remember all the good times they've shared, Mr. Gilmore produces the most cutting gibe of the early evening. "At least," he says to the crowd and the air, "I'm not about to go across town and carry some millionaire's coat." I doubt he was invited to join Mr. Santorum and Mr. Huckabee on stage at Trump’s erstwhile charity event a couple of miles away.
The temperature rises as the main card strides onto the stage. The moderators are all business on break and all smiles on camera. But they are unflinchingly tough and borderline contentious to the candidates. The crowd takes this approach in stride, saving its boos for any mention of Hilary Clinton. The gentleman on my right is frustrated though. "They passed right over Ben again!" he cries. He is from Des Moines, here alone, doesn't know who Greg Gutfeld is and a supporter of Ben Carson. Has Dr. Carson drawn him into politics? Will he attend his first Iowa caucus? He leaves at the last break and I never get to ask.
I'm not disappointed to miss the non elephant in the room, Donald Trump. There is plenty of fiery back and forth without adding the sort of personal invective I associate with 19th century yellow journalism and desperate last minute political ad spots. Scathing denunciations of your opponents' voting records, political theories, policy prescriptions, or vocabulary are all part of the process; the unforgivable sin as far as this listener is concerned is to whine. No matter how many times a candidate intones "When I am president...", will the electorate have confidence in his strength and leadership if he tells a national audience he's being picked on and may just have to leave the stage?
A debate is face to face, politics close up, like boxing. If your only exposure to the process is the long distance carpet bombing of advertising, it's easy to forget the vitality of hand to hand, town square to town hall, bus ride and church basement politicking. A Missourian watching Iowa in an election year cannot help but feel a pang of envy for the experience of having the future leader of our nation pound the ground of your communities, not just fly into the nearest major airport for a fundraiser and a press conference. Sure, it's theater, but not without meaning, just like the debates.
Do I have a favorite? Yes, I guess I am not unbiased even at this early date. But I'm not writing to sway your opinion about any of the candidates. When I listened to the debate...and eavesdropped on the people around me, I felt reassured about our country, even if the campaign to this point has been “unprecedented”,i.e. bizarre, extraordinary, anomalous. If you are disenchanted with our system, a debate is an arena in which leaders vie in the same way Lincoln and Douglas met in front of the people. It is a space where words and ideas stand alone, unfiltered by suggestive backgrounds, unflattering mugshots and threatening sound tracks. A debate in Iowa, the last one before the caucuses, is persuasion unplugged: the voters and the candidates, no less and no more, as it has been since our country began.