Life in the Box: Reflecting on Caucus Day in Iowa


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I write this on the morning of the Iowa Presidential Caucuses, and I am on edge. I hope the evening’s caucus goes smoothly, and that I will make good choices. But more than that, I hope that our group decisions set the stage for greater good in America. That’s a big load to bear, and although I’m only a small part of it, I do take this election seriously, as do most of my Iowa friends and neighbors.

In a recent Town Hall on television, Hillary Clinton quoted Mario Cuomo, saying “poetry” is the language of political campaigning. We voters respond to candidates not just on someone’s record of past voting and experience; we also expect them to have some charm, and some “presence.” We hope and pray that we will select that one person who will make the world a better place. We pick a figurehead charged with not just improving the lives in our neighborhoods, not just taking on the nation’s needs, but also given the task of facing the entire world and its problems with dignity, wisdom and fair-mindedness. Oh, and with warrior strength, encyclopedic knowledge, and a balanced budget.

3dems-layers-smAs I prepare, I know that I’m looking for a candidate who stands for what I believe in, which for me is that whole “make the world a better place” intention. So, eight years ago, in choosing between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, I weighed their words strongly. I heard Hillary standing up for Democrats. I heard Barack calling for unity between all Americans. At that time, Hillary’s experience leaned toward “long-suffering partner and lawyer.” So, I caucused for Obama. My feminist friends were not happy with that, but it was an historic election and I’m proud of my choice. Despite the fact that the Republicans went all-out against any cross-the-aisle unity, I feel the President has kept up his end of the bargain. How he has managed with such grace, I’ll never know.

I have three good choices today, too. Hillary has widened her leadership experience. Her message seems more inclusive than last time. And, she knows “where the bodies are buried” to have leverage that Barack may not have had. Of course the opposition is putting a lot of effort into trying to defame Hillary, as they have all leading Democrats. She’s used to that, and can hold her head high through just about anything. I like that. I also like her policy statements and think that if anyone can get through the struggles of leading this nation, she can.

I also like candidate Bernie Sanders. He’s the Robin Hood of the bunch, and has a lifetime of experience in politics. He’s shaping the discussion of how imbalanced our economy has become, and how to change the odds back to a give the general population a fighting chance. He’s making strong connections with young voters, asking them to tell their stories to him, not just the other way around. I hope he gets a good showing in the caucus, but he’s my number two pick. He hasn’t been vetted internationally as Hillary has. And, for the most part, I think she’s the stronger candidate against the Republicans.

I really haven’t heard much that Martin O’Malley has to offer, and consider him a much lower third choice. I chatted with one of his campaign’s “door knockers,” and I liked the “bullet points” from his campaign, but have heard that O’Malley’s record doesn’t support all his claims. I didn’t spend a lot of time on researching him, with Hillary being on my radar for at least a year.

One thing I’ve really noticed this time around, with all the ads and all the speeches and all the debates, Hillary has become more personable. I’ve seen her smile. I know this sounds lame, but last time around, she was just so determined-looking and serious that I wasn’t sure she was confident and that she really wanted the job. She looked more like she thought she should do it. This time, it seems like she really wants to do it.

I know that personality isn’t the biggest factor in choosing a national leader, but I do know that the voters love to be charmed. For a long time I’ve harbored a belief that President George W. Bush won his first election based on personal style, not substance. He sounded relaxed and friendly. Bush needed enough voters to at least get the vote close enough to “tie.” After that, it was all in the hands of Republican officials in Florida and on the Supreme Court. So much for neutrality of the courts. But that’s a different rant.

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Anyway, I’m caucusing for Hillary tonight. A caucus happens so rarely that it’s uncomfortable. It’s not as easy as marking an “x” in a box in private. You literally stand in lines and get counted like cattle (no slaughter, thankfully!)

I’ve been to several caucuses now, and I’ve seen voices raised and tears shed over misunderstandings and tugs between groups. Some just will not say a word to anyone else. Some will have the whole platform to wave in front of others.  But in the end, most people leave feeling they’ve done their best for their candidate, just by showing up and standing together in a local schoolroom. And, hopefully all the months of fielding candidate calls, door knocks, mailers and television and radio ads, have made us the best informed citizens in these early months.

It’s hard to make this important decision based on poetry, songs, images, whispers, facial expressions, hand shakes, or even debates and prosaic speeches. But perhaps it’s the sound of their voice, the look on their face or the way they face adversity that tells us which person is best for this high-pressure job. We all look for different indicators, and respond differently to them as we try to imagine what “stuff” our potential Presidents are made of. After all, it’s not just people in America who respond differently to all these indicators. So do people around the world. And prose is not enough. The poetry of candidates gives us the impressions that we need to make impossible decisions.

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Nancy Heather Brown is a retired, Emmy Award-winning television producer whose career has included interviewing, writing, and editing for a span of four decades. Today, she enjoys learning new things and reflecting upon the creative process both inside and outside the box. 

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