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Jewish World Review Aug. 24, 1999 /12 Elul, 5759

Ben and Daniel Wattenberg

Ben Wattenberg
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Democracy through a straw -- BEFORE THE EVENT, the Iowa straw poll had been hit from all sides as the best contest money can buy -- a unrepresentative, under-populated, undemocratic and tacky exercise in pseudo-politics. The Boston Globe labeled it "one of the most undemocratic functions in American politics." The Weekly Standard dismissed it as "a function of Big Money and Big Media, celebrity and glitz."

Two mutually contradictory strains of criticism had merged into one big grouse. Sunken candidates like Lamar Alexander complained the straw poll was becoming nothing more than a cattle auction. Therefore, George W. Bush, the anointed frontrunner, with high poll ratings, high visibility and sacks of cabbage, would simply buy victory, short-circuiting the contest for the GOP nomination. It would be undemocratic because the most popular candidate was likely to win. (!)

Others argued that such an unrepresentative sample of Republicans gives an unfair advantage to fringe (read "conservative") candidates whose strength is among activists not among the party regulars. It would be undemocratic because so few people vote.

So what happened at that small, cash-drenched, undemocratic cattle auction? Winner George Bush called it "a festival of democracy," which sounds about right.

There was a huge turnout, more than 24,000, which is three times the number of Iowa Republicans who participated in 1996.

There was a secret ballot, not a feature of the screwy Iowa caucuses. Cash was not the be-all and end-all of the campaign. The idea that the $25 fee was a poll tax was a non-starter. Tickets were bought by the campaigns, not the voters. The cost of buying tickets and barbecue is not large compared to the expenses that will come later in the campaign. Moreover, participants could vote their conscience, regardless of who bought their dance ticket. Cash-poor radio talker Alan Keyes asked supporters to buy their own tickets -- and received more votes than former Vice President Quayle.

Money was also offset by Big Media, for whom the event became irresistible.

That meant free air time for lesser-known and -financed candidates who would otherwise have been blanked out. Thanks mostly to cable television networks, a wider American public got a good look at some new faces, and some face-lifted old ones.

Most important we learned, again, that politics sends messages, and that when voters send messages it's wise for politicians to wise up.

Leading the parade of "doing unexpectedly well" was Elizabeth Dole. Her fundraising and her press had been poor. But her healthy showing shouldn't have been so unexpected. She is a serious woman, running a serious race, in a culture hungering for serious women who do what they do very well. Wasn't that the least we should have learned from the rollicking reception tendered to America's women soccer players?

We learned what we should have learned in 1996, that Steve Forbes is a dogged player, with appealing ideas, from the so-called supply-side part of the GOP confederation. We learned that those attributes, coupled with lots of personal money, can make a formidable candidate. Forbes hopefully learned something too: He does better as a positive campaigner than a negative one.

Speaking of formidable candidates, we learned that George W. Bush is one. He gained a solid victory, promulgating sound ideas, although spending comparatively little time in Iowa and choosing not to buy radio or television spots. His only flaw: At his victory speech he chose to talk about victory rather than principles.

We learned that the 2000 race will not be won by Dan Quayle or Lamar Alexander. Neither are old codgers, and we most probably have not heard the last of either one.

We learned that John McCain learned well some of the lessons of Vietnam: Pick your spots carefully; use the terrain to advantage. Every time it was explained that he didn't compete because he opposes ethanol subsidies popular in Iowa, his reputation was burnished. Call him McGain.

Within the social conservative core, Gary Bauer beat Pat Buchanan. So much for visibility. A rookie presidential candidate finished ahead of one of the best-known faces in American politics, a three-time candidate.

We learned that the idea that conservatives dominate the Republican primaries is mostly myth. Exit polls invariably show that voters in GOP presidential primaries are barely more conservative than Republicans as a whole. In the 15 elections since 1940, Republicans have nominated conservatives only thee times, Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan twice.

(Reagan was so conservative he thought the Soviet Union was an evil empire and that welfare was hurting the people it was supposed to help.)

The biggest loser in Iowa was the invisible political party, the Democrats.

Where are players? When are they going to compete? Where are their festivals?

. Ben Wattenberg is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and is the moderator of PBS's "Think Tank." Daniel Wattenberg is a contributing editor for and George. You may comment by clicking here.

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