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Jewish World Review August 19, 2002 / 11 Elul, 5762

Michael Barone

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Corn dogs and candidates |
DESMOINES It's Wednesday, August 14, and in the bright 80-degree sunshine the Iowa State Fair is, for a day anyway, the epicenter of American politics. Thousands of Iowans in bluejeans and shorts amble by the farm exhibits and the stands selling corn dogs and funnel cakes. In the Agriculture Building, more than 100 people line up to see the Midwest Dairy Association's glass-enclosed, refrigerated butter sculptures-the traditional 2,000-pound cow plus seven characters from Peanuts-including Charlie Brown and Lucy, Linus with his blanket, and Schroeder playing the piano. Politics doesn't seem to be on many people's minds.

Two potential 2004 Democratic presidents mindful of the central role of the Iowa caucuses, Dick Gephardt and Joe Lieberman, are here. Some fairgoers greet them warmly. But most just pass by, probably unaware of who the guys in the blue checked shirt and navy polo shirt are. Republicans are giving away tickets to George W. Bush's speech, but some fairgoers turn them down. When President Eisenhower came here in 1954, he spoke to a crowd of 25,000. President Bush barely draws a tenth of that.

Yet Iowa is in many ways as central to American politics as it is central in American geography. Just as the nation's electorate was divided in 2000, so was Iowa's: the state went for Al Gore by just 4,000 votes. And Iowa this year has more than its share of tight political races. Sen. Tom Harkin leads his Republican challenger, Rep. Greg Ganske, in polls, but Harkin doesn't rise much above the magic 50 percent mark. Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack, beleaguered as many governors are by budget problems, is running about even, and well under 50 percent, against Republican challenger Doug Gross. And there may be as many as four serious contests for House incumbents, one Democrat and three Republicans.

Pork-or pork chops? But for all these contests, politicians are not offering much in the way of change. Bush admits, "We have a lot to do" on the economy. But he talks mostly about policies already in train: using trade-promotion authority to open up markets for agricultural exports; making the 2001 tax cut permanent; holding down spending. Gephardt says we need "a new economic policy." But when asked what it should be, he says, "I don't know," and offers that it should be decided at a bipartisan economic summit with all issues on the table. At the Iowa Pork Producers booth, in between flipping pork chops on the grill, Harkin and Gephardt orate against "privatization" of Social Security. Harkin wonders what might have been if Social Security monies were put into stocks when the retirement program was inaugurated 67 years ago. "What would have happened to our parents and grandparents?"

(Actually, they would have done quite well.)

Ganske, pouring iced tea for voters tucking into the huge pork chops a good hour before noon, says, "Nobody is talking about privatizing all of Social Security. People should understand that for anyone over 50, there's going to be no change at all in any of the proposed plans." Bush doesn't mention Social Security at all.

The bottom line: There's not going to be any change in macroeconomic policy anytime soon. And Congress won't pay serious attention to individual investment accounts in Social Security until 2005, if then.

Americans may be fighting in Iraq some time soon. But no politician brings the issue up. All those I spoke with-Gephardt and Lieberman, Harkin and Ganske, Democratic Rep. Leonard Boswell and Republican challenger Stan Thompson-want Congress to vote on the issue. Gephardt says, "We can't do this alone. It's very important to explain this to people, to the Congress, to put a plan out." Lieberman backs military action. Harkin coauthored a resolution requiring a congressional vote and says, "I hold out some hope there may be some internal action against Saddam." Ganske says, "The president will have to make a case that there's a significant, imminent danger." Boswell is for action but only "if we have information that he's getting ready to launch weapons of mass destruction." Thompson says, "A case has to be made to the public why military action would be necessary."

Bottom line? Congress will have to vote on a resolution, Bush will have to make a case for military action, and some significant minority of members will vote against. In the meantime, the sun shines brilliantly from the west, and it's time for an Amana bratwurst.

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Michael Barone Archives

JWR contributor Michael Barone is a columnist at U.S. News & World Report and the author of, most recently, "The New Americans." He also edits the biennial "Almanac of American Politics". Send your comments to him by clicking here.


©2002, Michael Barone