Matt Miller - The Archives
No way to pick a president
The Washington Post, December 28, 2011

As the breathless, panting political class turns its eager eyes to Iowa, every sane American needs to step back and ask the obvious question: Is this any way to pick a president?

Our country is essentially coming to a halt to watch what 120,000 idiosyncratic voters in an idiosyncratic state do.

This is like letting a single small city play a pivotal role in the selection of our next president.

If the people of, say, Thornton, Colo., said that Newt Gingrich was their man, would anyone care?

If everyone in Allentown, Pa., stood up for Ron Paul, would the nation notice?

How about Lafayette, La.? Evansville, Ind.? Coral Springs, Fla.? Or Surprise, Ariz.? (So named when Flora Mae Statler, who founded the place in 1938 on one square mile of farmland 45 minutes from Phoenix, said she would be "surprised" if it ever amounted to much.)

All these cities have about as many residents as are expected to vote in the Iowa caucuses. The idea that any would play a special, outsize role in choosing the leader of the free world is absurd.

Yet an Iowa win on Tuesday will lead to national magazine covers, a full media swoon and huge "implications" drawn by all of us who stroke our political chins for a living.

It's not just that Iowa's caucus electorate is puny. (The 120,000 figure is a prediction based on the fact that only about that many Republicans out of the state's 3 million residents turned out in 2008.) The far-right tilt of this band of atypical Americans forces Republican candidates to disavow ideas that might make them attractive leaders to the rest of us.

Take Mitt Romney's infamous (and unconvincing) contortions regarding his path-breaking health reform in Massachusetts. This "conservative businessman" enacted universal health care, for Pete's sake! That's what's actually interesting about Romney. Yet the imperatives of Iowa (and other small early states) have forced Romney to devote much of his time to convincing a few ideologues that his pragmatic, effective leadership on health care has no place at the national level.

It's bizarre.

As was Newt Gingrich's related "transgression" Tuesday—when old newsletters from his health-care institute were found to have hailed Romneycare when it passed. Gingrich called the measure a potential model for the nation. Gingrich was right—and that was a good thing. Gingrich added that "we agree entirely with Gov. Romney and Massachusetts legislators that our goal should be 100 percent insurance coverage for all Americans."

In the broader world, those judgments would mark Gingrich as a common-sense problem-solver. But in surreal Iowa, it means he's "unreliable" and not conservative enough.

Then there's Rick Perry, who proclaimed Tuesday that he had undergone a "transformation" on abortion and now believes (contrary to his long-standing position) that there should be no exceptions for rape, incest or saving the life of the mother. Now, I'm all for keeping an open mind and being willing to change your views as you learn and think more. That Perry's campaign is sinking, the vote is days away, and conservative, religious Iowans tend to show up disproportionately on caucus night are the kind of coincidences only a cynic would note. When revelation strikes, it strikes.

Another day, another Iowa-induced pander.

On one level, the groveling is amusing to watch. But on a deeper level, it's crazy when a handful of right-wing Iowans have the power to tilt the tenor of presidential debate.

You really can't blame the politicians. Ambitious pols are like mice in those Skinner boxes—just tell me what lever I have to pull to get the food pellets. If we're honest, most of the time, "political leadership" is a sophisticated and manipulative form of craven followership. That's democracy.

And that's why, if we want something better, it's up to us to change the system. The structure of the presidential selection process matters because the constituencies it empowers, and the incentives it creates, shape the debate.

This is why the Americans Elect process has so much potential power. The idea that we could be freed from having candidates chosen by a handful of zealots in either party and, instead, have millions of Americans pick candidates directly via a secure online process would be transformative. And this year is just the test run.

History shapes us. It doesn't determine us. Today we have Iowa. We also have employer-based health care. We also run education via 15,000 local school boards. These structures are relics. They don't serve us well. We can change them.