Iowa Press Harkin Institute Panel Discussion

Nov 18, 2016 | | Transcript

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For decades Iowa Press has brought you political leaders and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Celebrating more than 40 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is a special edition of Iowa Press, a 2016 post-election analysis. From Sheslow Auditorium at Drake University in Des Moines, here is Dean Borg.

Borg: Elections are decisions, and as if often said, elections have consequences, some immediately, some effects evolving as government and political parties, even society for that matter, adjust to new realities and lessons learned. It is that looking ahead perspective that we're seeking in convening decades of political experience in a panel of past election winners, academic researchers and journalists. Republican Jim Leach, 30 years in Congress, then heading the National Endowment for the Humanities, now teaching at the University of Iowa. David Nagel counts two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, and before that the Iowa legislature and chairing Iowa's Democratic Party. Dennis Goldford at Drake University for the past 31 years now heading the political science department at Drake. And two political journalists who have lived this past election cycle, for better or for worse, day in and day out for almost two years, Des Moines Register Columnist Kathie Obradovich and Radio Iowa's News Director Kay Henderson.

Borg: Jim Leach, I want to ask you, you have experienced many elections, and the final one you lost. But, aside from changing leaders, the decisions that were made in this past election, did this past election change some things, long-term changes that we will never see back the way it was before?

Leach: Well, it's hard to predict the long-term. In the short-term this is certainly the starkest election in American history, at least since 1860.

Borg: What do you mean by starkest?

Leach: The greatest polarization in American society and the use of techniques that were designed to magnify a candidate and minimize an opponent in ways that have never been used before. In terms of the future, let me just stress, we don't know and there is a possibility that this will change America's position in the world in the eyes of other countries. There is a chance that it will change how we do our politics. There's a chance that both political parties will undergo a lot of change. And there's a chance it will become more of a multi-party system.

Nagel: Here's the thing, Dean, what this election has done in part is we need more Jim Leach's back in Congress because Jim had the ability to have respect on both sides of the aisle and he could walk across it. I think one of the biggest changes that we're going to face right now at the federal level is the fact that the polarization, at least initially depending on the President-elect, is going to continue and become even more hardened. I think that is a dangerous trend but I think it's one we're going to have to live through for a while.

Borg: Why do you predict that?

Nagel: Because of the partisan lines that are drawn now in the Congress, the harshness of the choices that were presented to the American people, and frankly on both parties the rigidity of ideological thought that demands immediate adherence to the party's ideology rather than perhaps the individual's ability to diversify and compromise.

Borg: Jim Leach, you agree with that? You had a road show for some time that was concentrating on civility, it was a couple, three years ago if not longer than that. So you're an expert in civility and Dave Nagel has said we've just passed that era.

Leach: Well, there are always exceptions. But having spoken on that subject in every state in the country I will tell you that we've got a challenge as a body politic and how we want to hold civil discourse, in how we want to listen to each other. And listening has been the great lack in most recent times. We also have the newness of money in politics and the newness in the sense that we're moving towards a corporate democracy. The Supreme Court, which is the greatest balancing institution in the history of the world, has made their second gravest error. In Citizens United and the series of rulings that are consistent with it we are empowering moneyed interest to the disadvantage of the individual.

Borg: Hearing some new things, Kathie Obradovich?

Obradovich: Yeah. I think that there are opportunities for us to regain some of the things that we value about civil discourse, but there are some things that I just don't think we're going to shove the genie back in the bottle, in particular the media climate. You look at, for example, the erosion of my industry, newspapers. Newspapers aren't going away I don't think, not any time soon, but I don't think they're going to look like they look and that we remember them looking in a traditional way. That is going to lead to new challenges. And I think one of the things we saw in this election was the power of social media. Donald Trump tweets and the whole world stops and listens. But you also see the limitations because as Congressman Leach said, social media is not really about listening, it's about emoting and talking, and there's not that much, it has a tremendous power for discourse, but I don't think it is being used that way. I think it is being used to really take a dig at the next guy and not necessarily to have thoughtful commentary or discourse.

Borg: Kay Henderson, as you reported, and you have for years, but as you covered this campaign, did you feel that there were other media voices drowning out the ground game reporting that you had with boots on the ground, people who weren't really covering the candidates but were communicating with the public?

Henderson: Well, obviously people can choose which media they consume. The media that Kathie and I were purveying I think were showing Iowans that there was a real populist revolt in the state of Iowa. That is our specialty, the state of Iowa. And I think you can, in terms of Mr. Trump's appeal, actually date it back to the 60 Minutes episode that he watched about the dramatic changes in the city of Newton, Iowa and how the loss of Maytag had affected that community. I think maybe that was the germ of Trump's populism. And on the other side you saw that in Bernie Sanders' popularity. And I think what you see in the election results if you look at them in a certain way is the fact that there are a great number of Americans who are unhappy about their station in life and they don't believe that their elected officials have been listening to them and reacting to that.

Borg: Dennis Goldford, I go back to one of the debates, I don't know which one, but filling time before the candidates came on stage they were reading tweets of viewers who were waiting, and one of the tweets said, got my popcorn, I'm comfy on the sofa, I'm ready to be entertained. Have political campaigns become entertainment?

Goldford: Well, optical campaigns have always been entertainment to a great extent, going way back before there was radio, let alone television and the Internet. So there has always been an entertainment aspect to it, but Donald Trump has been called the first reality television candidate. He played the media, television again, particularly cable, really well.

Borg: But did the media anchors and those moderators play right into that trying to entertain the audience?

Goldford: I had a call from someone from CNN right after the Caucuses and he had a question about how they had come out, but I said, by the way, I'm not a media basher but any time Donald Trump scratched his posterior you guys gave him and hour and a half coverage. And he sort of audibly hung his head and said, I know, I know. So I think there's a lot of soul searching that has to go on, particularly on the cable stations, but they'll end up doing it again next time.

Obradovich: Well, Dean, one of the things that we see in cable news is an inversion of actual news coverage to commentary and it makes a lot of economic sense for cable stations to do this because it costs a lot less money to have a bunch of talking heads like us, we're working for free, on the cable stations --

Nagel: Good looking talking heads.

Obradovich: -- telling you what they think as opposed to the people who are actually out on the ground reporting the story. And when you talk about the drift of opinion into the news coverage you're seeing every single story being spun and speculated on and by people who have no idea, other than maybe they saw a clip 30 seconds before.

Nagel: Here's the thing that worries me, Dennis you're just absolutely right, total news coverage on major media on issues for the entire campaign was something like 36 minutes, 36 minutes. And the Clinton campaign made a grievous mistake and they thought the more they trashed President-elect Trump, the better they'd do. In fact, that isn't where the public wanted the discussion, they wanted it on the economy and they ignored that. The thing that concerns me is that a practitioner of a profession that I respect, which is politics, how do we get our way back? How do we find our way back from this confrontational stage given the condition of the media because I don't look for the practices of the media to change. The only thing that will change media is better ratings. It really calls on a new era of, and perhaps younger, political leadership that requires the civility that you and I experienced when we served in the House together.

Borg: How do you get back there, Dave?

Nagel: Political leadership is the first step. You cannot continue to demagogue all of your opponents, as you referenced so well, Dennis. It starts with trying to find political leaders that will look for the bridge between the ideological differences to find an acceptable solution to both sides. And then the public has to have the maturity to recognize that accomplishment and give it praise and reward those who accomplish it.

Borg: Dennis?

Goldford: But I'd make the observation, and it's not a partisan observation, that consider the lack of integrity. On the republican side you had all these candidates during the primary period talk about Mr. Trump as, the words they used, a conman, a liar, when he made a comment about the judge Paul Ryan said that this is the textbook definition of racism, but they still all voted for him. Trump said, I could shoot somebody out on 5th Avenue and wouldn't lose a vote and that is perhaps the sad state of things.

Nagel: Well, it is and as long as the public is going to reward that. But if people, political leaders of the next generation will step forward and not embrace that and try to seek the higher road and win an election or two it might actually become very popular to become polite.

Borg: Jim Leach, what we're seeing right now is civility, the lack of civility that preceded the election, now in the streets with "Not My President". You're a republican. How do you feel about "Not My President" being chanted in the streets of the United States?

Leach: Well, I didn't happen to vote for this man but he is our President and we all have a vested interest that it be a successful administration. Having said that, I want to be very clear to everyone, I thought Hillary Clinton was exactly right, that we needed a woman for president and I wrote in Mary Sue Coleman, the former president of the University of Iowa. And I thought Donald Trump was exactly right, that we needed some business advice, so I wrote in John Pappajohn for Vice President. And the reason I say this, and I mean this with great seriousness, this country has never had greater leadership across the board in every field of society and the shining exception today are elements of the political system. And we somehow have to get the political system turned around to reflect the society that we are. And to me that means we need to have people come forth from all sorts of walks of life and get more involved. Now, by the way, there are also some models, and I just want to cite one right now. Sitting right over here is Neal Smith, one of the greatest Congressmen that has ever served this state. And I came into Congress and I was honored to have Neal as the dean of our delegation.

Borg: I want to ask you because we wanted to move on, Electoral College has been under attack before. Electoral College, yes or no?

Leach: Well, it's American history and it is a system that in this election if you're a democrat you have to be appalled by it, if you're a republican you have to be appreciative. The fact of the matter is that a minority candidate in terms of the vote is the next President of the United States. Whether that's wise or not our founders tried to have a system in which the states would play a role and the small states would not be dominated by big states and that’s why we have it. I suspect that it will come under deep review this coming few years.

Borg: Another thing that is going to be evolving --

Nagel: I'm a Constitutional democrat, I understand the role the Electoral College plays, I know it's not perfect, but I think it's better than a mass election of the body politic of the whole country. Candidates for president would never see a place like Iowa, would never talk to real people, would never sit in living rooms or coffee shops if we didn't have, one, the first caucus, but we have the Electoral College. It makes every corner of America an election participant.

Borg: I'm going to stay with you for a minute because what you've just said brings up the caucus and I want -- what did this election do to the future of the caucus? I know you've been a longtime defender of first-in-the-nation democratic caucus in Iowa. Dave Nagel, have your say.

Nagel: Well, I have the opportunity, thanks to the Democratic Party, to head up the committee that is reviewing the entire caucus process. But I think that right now the chances are that we're going to stay first. I don't think there's any threat on the republican side this time and the democratic side I don't believe will come after us depending on the changes we make and recommendations we make for the future. But the one thing that people have to understand, we were talking about this before we came on air, you're first-in-the-nation because you want to fight for it, you have to understand you have to fight for it and you're always going to have to fight for it. And as long as you want to be first, Iowa will be first, whether sanctioned or not. But if ever we say oh it's too much trouble, we'd still be important, let some other state have a chance, then we'd lose it. So if we're resilient we'll be first.

Leach: David, can I make a suggestion?

Nagel: Sure.

Leach: There were, and they have been old time, two problems with the Democratic Party's caucus that have to be changed. One is that you have no secret ballot. Part of a democracy is a secret ballot.

Nagel: Okay, go ahead. That ain't going to happen but go ahead.

Leach: I'm just telling you. If you ask someone what a democracy is, it involves a secret ballot. And the second thing is you have a ridiculous rule that you have to get 15% of the vote at a caucus to be counted. And what that means, there's an old joke that in Chicago you get a few people from the cemetery to vote, in Iowa you have living human beings that get vote and don't get counted. And how do you attract candidates? We might have had on the republican side too many candidates, you had too few. Why would you come to a state in which you're told if you can't get up to 15% you'll be recorded as zero?

  01;19;09;00   Nagel: Jim, I don't think, if I could, I know we've got limited time here, if we could, but the purpose of a caucus is different on the democratic side than it is on the republican side.

Leach: It is?

Nagel: If you get 15% at a democratic caucus you're there, if you don't get 15%, and this is the part you may miss, you have the opportunity to realign and go with another candidate or go to the convention as an uncommitted. So you are counted.

Borg: Just like a democratic caucus, I'm going to have to cut it off --

Nagel: You asked the question.

Borg: Kay?

Henderson: Dennis, what do you think about the caucus review process?

Goldford: We don't have time.

Borg: And that brings me, on time, Kay or Kathie, and both of you if we could get an answer from you, what did this election change for Governor Terry Branstad?

Henderson: Well it may change his address if his son can convince his mother that Terry Branstad should go live in China. We do not expect that to happen. The Governor has always made it clear that he prefers to live in Iowa and has spent his life here. In terms of how it has changed the Statehouse dynamic with republican control in the executive and the legislative branches it gives republicans at the Statehouse the ability to make major changes in tax policy, in regulatory policy and perhaps even the structure of state government.

Borg: But we've all seen times when the Governor and the state legislature have been of the same party and they didn't get along. Kathie?

Obradovich: Including the last time that Terry Branstad was Governor and he wanted to push through a major education reform package at the very end of his final term before he left office for a while and the all-republican legislature didn't play ball with him. So I think as you think about your expectations for the next two years, what can republicans do? They can do a lot of things but they're not going to be able to do everything and they're not going to be able to do everything that Terry Branstad wants. There's always that dynamic in the legislature where it's the House versus the Senate versus the Governor and that dynamic does not go away when they all have R's after their names.

Borg: I want to talk about the party, Jim Leach. Let's put it this way, did winning power for the Republican Party, federally and in Iowa, heal the party or widen the split?

Leach: I think both political parties have splits. I think the republicans being in the majority those splits are going to become the most obvious. Let me put it this way then, did moderate republicans who abandoned and went the other way, as you did, for the presidential nominee this time for the Republican Party, are they now homeless?

Leach: I don't think anyone is homeless. I do think you're going to see real philosophical thinking about the future of the Republican Party and I suspect also the Democratic Party. And part of it is going to arrange around ideas, part of it is going to arrange around candidates and how this works out I don't know.

Borg: But they had for you.

Leach: Oh, for me, I am in the best position in the United States. I am now a teacher and a citizen. And I could not be happier.

Borg: Dave Nagel, what about the split in the Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton factions of the Democratic Party?

Nagel: That's true, but let me say two things if I could real quick. First of all, I never worry about the democrats disagreeing. The old saying is we're like cats fighting under the porch and you hear all the snarling and everything and the claws and in the end you simply have more cats. So I suspect we'll get through that. The difficulty and the challenge for the republicans, and I whipped in the house, which means I counted votes for leadership, it's not a pleasure to have too many of your party because we had 40 at one time and I'd go to a member and I'd say, I really need your vote, and he'd say, no you don't, there's 39 others you can go get. So it's sometimes harder to function as a majority than it is as a minority.

Borg: There's a lot of talk about rebuilding in the Democratic Party now. What is the cornerstone?

Nagel: The cornerstone is to marry the two areas of concern, number one, the party's concern about inclusion, which would represent the Clinton wing, and the economy, which would represent the Sanders wing. I don't think that's going to be a hard bridge to build.

Borg: Kathie?

Obradovich: I was going to say, Dean, I think that democrats need to worry about more than just the Sanders/Clinton split. I think they need to look at the map and look at the rural and urban split that we have seen in this country and the huge spill of red ink all over the urban map, including Iowa. I was talking just yesterday or the other day to Tom Vilsack about why are democrats losing rural voters and one of the things he said was, we haven't figured out how to talk to them right. We want to have all of these programs like debt free college, etcetera, but they don't want to hear about free stuff. They want to hear about how government can be a partner with them, not come in and do things for them.

Borg: Dennis Goldford?

Goldford: The problem is on the republican side the republicans have been a church. They have a doctrine, they have an orthodox and they're always wanting to root out heresy. With the Trump administration that will be different because they just sort of came perpendicular to that. The problem on the democratic side is that they function like a trade association. In other words, they have all these particular interests and candidates tend to talk to each particular interest group but there's never any overarching sense of what the democrats are about.

Borg: Kay, I want to give you maybe the last question here. We saw, especially in the congressional campaigns, fewer truly public appearances by the candidates, dependence to a large extent on television advertising to communicate the message. Is this the new norm?

Henderson: I believe it is. I think candidates are gun shy. They don't want to have a Macaca moment and you sort of have to be old enough to remember what the Macaca moment was. It was a moment in which George Allen, who was a candidate in Virginia, was videotaped saying something offensive. That was many years ago before every phone has video capability. So that has been exacerbated in the minds of candidates that at any moment they could say something that could end their career. And as a result you are seeing more controlled situations where candidates are only speaking to small groups, they're not having large events, they're not telling the media where they may be at any particular time and I don't see that changing demonstrably in the future.

Borg: And what is the consequence of that?

Henderson: It means that it's harder for voters to ask candidates questions because they don't know where the candidate will be. One of the things that is a hallmark of Iowa is having a town hall meeting and being able to take time out of your day and go ask a candidate a question on an issue that is very important to you. Iowans are losing that ability.

Borg: Thank you all for your perspectives here. We're out of time and I'm sorry about that. Thank you. Next week on Iowa Press, the future of a strengthened Republican Party in Iowa and in D.C. Perspectives from republicans in Des Moines, Des Moines Attorney and former gubernatorial candidate Doug Gross, Strategist Dave Kochel and Republican National Committeeman Steve Scheffler. That's at 7:30 the night after Thanksgiving and then noon on Thanksgiving weekend. And with special thanks to our partners for this edition of Iowa Press, our partners the Harkin Public Policy Institute at Drake University and our audience here in the auditorium. I'm Dean Borg. Thanks for joining us today.


Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. I'm a dad. I am a mom. I'm a kid. I'm a kid at heart. I'm a banker. I'm an Iowa banker. No matter who you are there is an Iowa banker who is ready to help you get where you want to go. Iowa Bankers, allowing you to discover the genuine difference of Iowa banks. Iowa Communications Network. The availability of high speed broadband service is essential to fulfilling the promise of a connected Iowa. ICN's Broadband Matters campaign showcases the importance of delivering broadband to all corners of Iowa. Information is available at Iowa Community Foundations, an initiative of the Iowa Council of Foundations, connecting donors to the causes and communities they care about for good, for Iowa, for ever. Details at The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. The Arlene McKeever Endowment Fund at the Iowa PBS Foundation, a fund established to support local programming on Iowa PBS.

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