Thursday, January 03, 2008

The caucuses suck: A modest proposal for reform

Like exhausted contestants in a quadrennial dance marathon, the candidates staggered toward the finish line in the Iowa caucuses today. It's the first rough cut of the season, the end of the beginning. The 2008 campaign has started for real.

So far the major Democratic candidates have been holding up pretty well. I watched some clips on msnbc.com last night and Edwards was still passionately populist (it's hard to fake passion when you're dead tired), Hillary was still determined, dynamic and solidly planted in the middle of the road, and Obama was still reaching out and building bridges -- to, among others, Iowa Republicans disenchanted with their own candidates.

It's a crazy system for starting the process of picking our presidential candidates, undemocratic as hell, given the tiny number of people in a small state who actually participate (or are even able to participate -- no absentee ballots for Iowans deployed in Iraq, for example). Much fulsome lip service is paid to the ideal of grass roots American democracy, rooted in the traditions of town meetings and local civic participation. Everyone knows that's mostly bs. The caucuses are mainly about sleep deprivation. That's why proposals for reform are mostly beside the point. Kos, for example, perhaps driven by memories of Dean's meltdown in 2004, has been posting about the need for reform.
There's a conceit in Iowa that the only people who have a problem with Iowa's undemocratic and undeserved vanguard position in the primary calendar are its losing campaigns. The fact is, the whole process stinks, and demands for reform -- which made some headway after 2004 -- will now be stronger than ever.
This misses the point, which is not the caucus process, but the need of a big, sprawling democracy like ours to have some sort of an ordeal with which to test candidates and see who cracks first. We voters know there's a lot about the political process we can't control. But we can at least satisfy our curiosity about how candidates will handle themselves under pressure. Ordeal by sleep deprivation seems a good choice. It's certainly more humane (and job related) than ordeal by fire, for example. There are times when a president will have to make important decisions that affect millions of people while tired beyond belief. We want to reassure ourselves they'll still be able to function.

Granted, the process malfunctioned with Bush. Who knew we would be getting a president so convinced of the wisdom of his folly that the problem wouldn't be cracking under pressure, but rather not responding to pressure at all. But, hey, nothing 's perfect.

And the Iowa caucus process is far from perfect. It's an anachronism from the past haunting modern political life, a 20th century institution that seems out of place in the sleek new wired 21st century. It's a huge waste of time and money, the raising of which forces candidates to make compromises and promises they'll spend the rest of their political lives living down.

Once you focus on the ordeal, and not the process, you realize it could be so much more efficient and less time-consuming. It needs to be streamlined. Why not simply put the candidates in sensory deprivation tanks and keep them there as long as a consensus of expert medical opinion says it will take to thoroughly destabilize them. -- 24 hours, 48, whatever it takes. At the point of maximum disorientation, bring them out in a nationally televised ceremony, give them 15 minutes to shower and let them begin debating. Some might not even make it to the starting line. Some would start to babble. And a few would somehow manage enough composure to debate more or less rationally. A consensus would begin to emerge. And then, a couple weeks later, repeat the process in New Hampshire one more time to give the losers one more chance -- it only seems fair, and in keeping with tradition.

Iowa and New Hampshire might choose to retain their caucus and primary, or they might not -- but if they do continue them, they would be held right after the sensory deprivation debates, with none of today's endless campaigning. Finally, after a suitable interval, the real primary campaign would begin -- after the voters had learned all that we learn now about the candidates, but in a fraction of the time, with a fraction of the expense.

How would you make up for the entertainment and excitement of the televised campaigning we see today in Iowa and New Hampshire? Well, for openers, you might have web cams in the sensory deprivation chambers with streaming video on the Internet. Instead of watching candidates struggle with each other, we could watch them struggle with themselves. Far more interesting.

A simple, modest proposal, but I suspect it's far too straightforward and sensible to ever be implemented.

1 comment:

Floation Tank said...

That's an interesting idea you have about putting the candidates in a sensory deprivation tank, but my experience with the sensory deprivation tank makes me think that putting the candidates in one would make them far more focused and less fatigued - that may or may not be desirable depending on your perspective.