37 Down, 62 to Go

During the campaign cycle before the Iowa GOP Caucuses, Senator Rick Santorum and Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann both completed “The Full Grassley,” visiting all 99 of Iowa’s counties. (The feat takes its name from Senator Chuck Grassley, who allegedly has visited all 99 counties in each of his 30+ years in elected office). Senator Santorum did his Full Grassley the smart way: he basically lived here for a year, took his time working his way around the state, got to see its sights and know its people, and reaped the benefit of his retail policking with a neck-and-neck finish with the better-financed favorite, Governor Mitt Romney. Representative Bachmann, on the other hand, tried to pull it off as a 10-day stunt, which was disastrous for her, as her chronic late appearances, visible fatigue, and lightly-attended campaign events made her and her team look inept, not connected at a grassroots level.

As a new Iowan, and given my penchant for punishing endeavors, I really like the idea of completing my own Full Grassley, and have already made several day and overnight trips around the state toward that end. I’m doing it all on the road (I suspect Senator Grassley flies in to some key cities around the state when he’s making his rounds), and trying to find a balance between the Santorum and Bachmann approaches: taking time between trips, but making every trip count. Sometimes Marcia and I travel together, and sometimes I venture solo. Here’s a graphic of the counties I have visited to date (we live in Polk County, fourth row from the bottom, sixth from the left):

I have visited the 37 shaded counties as of January 26.

While it would obviously be easy (or at least easier) in some cases to just drive over a county line, or walk a circle around the many “four (county) corners” in the state, then drive on to the next destination, I am making a fairly serious effort to experience the counties in more meaningful ways: either by spending a sizable amount of time in them by fully transecting them from side-to-side or top-to-bottom, or by visiting signature county landmarks, or by having meals in great local restaurants. The breadth and depth of variety around the state is wonderful, and I appreciate seeing it up close and personal.

Monday and Tuesday this week, I will be doing this, with an overnight stop near Donnellson, from where I also plan to visit Keokuk, in the far southeast corner of the state. That region is known for Bald Eagles, fossils, and geodes, so it fits in well with many of my geeky interests and pursuits. When I get back Tuesday night, I will have shaded the entire southeastern corner in the map above, bringing my county total to 54. I will dispatch a good chunk of northeast Iowa over the next month or so, too, via trips to and from Clinton and Dubuque (in Iowa) and Chicago.

My goal is to complete the Full Grassley before I start working again full time, which (hopefully) will be sooner rather than later. So I may end up doing a mad Bachmann dash at some point if one of several employment prospects pans out soon, though for now, I’m savoring the luxury of getting to spend quality time all around my new state. It’s doing wonders in terms of making me feel like Iowa and Des Moines really are home.

Golden Hour in the Human Habitrail

Downtown Des Moines is blessed with a four-plus mile series of elevated corridors that make it possible to move between parking lots, offices, restaurants, stores, entertainment venues and government offices without having to brave the extremes of deep winter and steamy summer. The warren-like system is formally known as The Skywalk, but Katelin and I dubbed it “The Human Habitrail” before we knew that fact, and that nickname has kind of stuck for us now. I go down to the Habitrail occasionally when I need a break from the gym and speedwalk the corridors, which is especially fun to do around twilight, when you get all sorts of wonderful colors and shadows and auras as the sky transitions from blue to salmon to black (at night, anyway), the street lights come on, and the vague, gauzy films of condensed breath and sweat on the windows create weird reflections and unsettling ghost images. I share some sample shots I captured of Golden Hour in the Human Habitrail below, so you can see what I mean.

View the slideshow version of the collection by clicking here.


Weather Conspiracy and Other Matters

1. The first half of January in Des Moines was so nice, weather-wise, that I had become convinced that the tales of severe Iowan winters were just a myth cobbled up and promulgated by the locals to keep expat New Yorkers like us from moving here. I have ridden my bike, worn shorts and hiked more in the past three weeks than I ever did in any winter month during my 18 years in Albany. Nice! Unfortunately, though, yesterday the temperature dropped into single digits, the wind kicked up with 50 mile per hour gusts, and the dry, stinging snow started flying. Oh well . . . I guess they do have winter in Iowa. But with an annual average snowfall of only 33 inches, I can’t imagine it being worse than a typical endless, icy, sleety, dark Upstate New York cold season. Fingers crossed. Katelin and I did some really nice walks during the warm spells, including another trek out the Great Western Trail and a nice walk around Saylorville Lake, per pics below:

Beautiful rural cemetery in Cumming, Iowa.

Road between Cumming and its cemetery, under big Midwestern skies.

Creek on the Great Western Trail.

On the Great Western Trail. (I love the missing blades on the weather vane, and the bullet holes in its tail, which become more obvious and visible if you click to enlarge this shot).

Trees reflected in a frozen creek, on the Great Western Trail.

Katelin on the trail around Saylorville Lake.

I will eat your soul . . . . I want your soul . . . .

Uhhh . . . . I think we will pass, thanks . . .

2. When I was in sixth grade, our family lived at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, while my dad attended the Army’s Command and General Staff College there. Last weekend, Katelin, Marcia and I went down to Kansas City for a night on the town, and on our way there, we popped over to Leavenworth to assess the old homestead. It didn’t look half bad, honestly:

We lived in the end unit of this apartment complex.

My bedroom window was the one on the second floor of the end unit, closest to the front of the house. When I looked out this window, I saw the distinctive dome of Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary. My next door neighbor was Rob Heinsoo, who went on to achieve a high degree of acclaim as a game designer, including serving as the lead designer for the fourth edition of Dungeons and Dragons. His brother (another Eric) and I were among his very first dungeon victims, and it was an absolute hoot to read about his tentative first dungeons many, many, many years later in this interview. I still remember the School for Dragons . . . there was no going forward after we bumbled into that. The Napoleonic war game mentioned in the interview was based on the Battle of Jena-Auerstädt and to this day, the only things I know and retain about that battle are based on the game. That was also the year that I became a life-long Kansas City Royals fan. Needless to say, Fort Leavenworth holds fond memories for me!

The 2012 GOP Campaign: On Divided Parties, Brokered Conventions, and Dark Horse Nominations from the Floor

I recently read a tremendous book by Candice Millard called Destiny of the Republic, which ably documented the magnificent life and tragic death of James A. Garfield, truly one of the most exceptional men to have ever been elected President of the United States. Unfortunately, he is remembered today primarily for the horrific nature of his death: shot by deranged office-seeker Charles Guiteau, then slowly tortured and poisoned for 80 days by attending physician D. Willard Bliss, who refused to practice Listerian antisepsis, ultimately leading to Garfield’s death by infection. It is a remarkable and heart-breaking story, well told in Millard’s book, and I recommend it highly.

As related by Millard, one of the cornerstone events in the Garfield’s life, as well as the history of the Grand Old Party, was the Republican National Convention of 1880. Incumbent Republican president Rutherford B. Hayes had declined to stand for re-election, in large part due to abuse heaped upon him throughout his sole term by factions within his own party. When the Republicans gathered in Chicago in June 1880, the divided party was presented with three aspirant candidates: Ulysses S. Grant (seeking a third Presidential term), Maine’s James G. Blaine, and John Sherman from Ohio.

The convention was gridlocked through thirty-three rounds of voting, at which point members of the Wisconsin delegation unexpectedly cast their votes for Ohio Senator-elect Garfield, who had no declared interest in the Presidency, and actually protested the ballot, to no avail. Three ballots later, Garfield was the Republican nominee for the Presidency, and six months after the convention closed, he defeated Winfield Scott Hancock for the Nation’s highest elected position, despite refusing to campaign.

I believe that the 1880 Republican convention is worth reconsidering in 2012 given the pronounced divisions in today’s GOP between the moderate/economic conservative branch, the libertarian wing, and the evangelical/social conservative contingent. Given these entrenched factions, is it possible for this year’s GOP National Convention to convene without everybody knowing its outcome beforehand? And should such a brokered convention occur, is there any chance of a modern James A. Garfield emerging from the floor to unite a fractured party behind an electable new face? Who might that be, if so?

While Republican powerbrokers will do everything in their power to preclude such an uncertain convention, there are rules they must follow, and a motivated set of equally balanced delegate pools could lead to unexpected outcomes. Personally, I think such a brokered convention with a Dark Horse nominee could be just the shot in the arm that the GOP needs today, if it is going to even pretend to stand for anything other than the vested interests of the super conservative and the super wealthy. The historical record also backs up the premise that such conventions can be reinvigorating to the GOP, as Chief Executives Lincoln, Hayes, Garfield, Harding and Eisenhower were all elected President after brokered conventions.

So for argument’s sake, let’s assume that (a) brokered conventions are good things for the GOP and should not be actively discouraged, and (b) the GOP is headed for such a convention in 2012. Now, is there anybody out there who might emerge from party gridlock as a 21st Century analog to James A. Garfield in 1880? I think there might be, and here’s how I would seek to identify such a Dark Horse candidate.

As a first step, let’s look at the prior electoral positions of the 18 Republican Presidents in our nation’s history. The clearest path to the White House for GOP aspirants is the Vice Presidency: six Republicans held this position before becoming Presidents (Bush Sr., Nixon, Arthur, Coolidge, T. Roosevelt, Ford), with the latter four of them ascending on the death or resignation of their predecessors.

We have three living GOP Vice Presidents now: George H.W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Dan Quayle. There’s not a future President in that troika, so that path doesn’t appear to be likely in 2012.

Four Republican Vice Presidents had no prior electoral experience before moving to the White House: Hoover, Taft, Eisenhower and Grant. The latter two were victorious generals of monumental, Nation-shaping wars, the former two had been cabinet members in prior administrations. I don’t see any of our contemporary or recent senior military officers having the political clout and gravitas, not to mention unquestioned public good will, that Grant and Eisenhower would have commanded after the Civil War and World War II. And the only nationally prominent, long-serving cabinet members in recent Republican administrations who seem to me to have potentially Presidential chops, and are not permanently tarred with Neo-Con and/or Iraq War taint and/or scandals of their own making are Robert Gates (who probably hurt himself in this regard by serving in the Obama administration, if the Jon Hunstman campaign is any indicator) and Elaine Chao (who wasn’t born in the United States, so is not eligible to serve as President). So this doesn’t look like a fruitful path, either.

Four Republican Presidents served as Governors before leading our Nation: Reagan (California, though he was a native of Illinois, which will be important later in this analysis), McKinley (Ohio), Hayes (Ohio) and Bush Jr. (Texas). Since the putative favorite at this point (Mitt Romney) is a former Governor himself, and since the impacts of plucking a Governor unexpectedly late in the national campaign would be far more serious on the emergent candidate’s home state than would be selecting a member of that state’s legislative delegation, I have a very hard time imagining a sitting governor being successfully nominated from the floor, support for the likes of Chris Christie notwitshanding. I don’t think anybody at a national GOP level is going to want to risk flipping New Jersey into the Democratic Governors’ column on a desperation nomination of a reluctant candidate.

The remaining four Republican Presidents did their prior elected service in Congress: two Senators (B. Harrison of Indiana, and Harding of Ohio) and two members of the House (Lincoln and Garfield, though the latter was a Senator-elect at the time of his nomination for the Presidency). All four of them were from the Midwest, as were most of the GOP Governors who became President.

I consider this important, as I see the Midwest as being the true cradle and heartland of the Republican Party, as much as the party has worked to position itself in the South and the Mountain West in the post-Reagan quarter-century. There is no denying that the Midwest states often stand as key battlegrounds, so the benefit of embracing a candidate from the former Northwest Territories would be significant, especially given the region’s proven history as birthplace (physically and philosophically) of Republican Presidents.

I believe the only way a regionally and philosophically divided party would be able to rally around a late-breaking, Dark Horse candidate would be for that candidate to come from the solid heart of the Midwest. I also think that such a candidate would need to be a Baby Boomer at this point, as I don’t see the Nation wanting to swing backward a generation after the relatively youthful Obama, Bush Jr., and Clinton administrations. Senator John McCain’s cranky old man candidacy in 2004 against then-Senator Obama should give proof to the futility of trying to pull a President from a generation that’s moving deep into its retirement years at this point, since it forced McCain to pick a plucky (relative) youngster as his Veep, and we all know how that worked out.

The party also would not likely rally around its more inexperienced members (e.g. Tea Party affiliates from 2010), so I think anybody who was proposed from the convention floor would have to have at least a full Senate term or three House terms under his or her belt to demonstrate their staying power and re-electability. I’d say anybody elected to Congress after 2005 wouldn’t have a shot accordingly.

So what do you see if you look at Midwestern House and Senate Republicans born between 1947 and 1962, with seniority dates of 2005 or earlier? You get 14 elected officials: one Senator (John Thune, South Dakota) and 13 members of the House. That’s a manageable pool to vet.

To make the next cull, I think you’d want a floor candidate to have the broadest appeal possible within a fragmented party, which means respected mainline rank and file members rather than leaders and followers from the far-right or centrist fringes. GovTrack.us offers an excellent analytical tool for assessing the political spectrum and legislative leadership ratings of all members of Congress, and using their model, you can eliminate Senator Thune and five of the House members as being further right or moderate than would be ideal for a unity candidate within the GOP, leaving eight rank and file members of the House still standing for scrutiny.

Who are they? In alphabetical order:

  • David Camp (MI)
  • Thomas Latham (IA)
  • Steven LaTourette (OH)
  • Candice Miller (MI)
  • John Shimkus (IL)
  • Patrick Tiberi (OH)
  • Michael Turner (OH)
  • Fred Upton (MI)

In order to evaluate the relative merits of these eight Congresspeople as potential uniters of their party, I set up a mathematical model to score them based on the following criteria, using data culled from the aforementioned GovTrack website:

  • Sponsored bills enacted per year of service: The GOP would want people who can get things done, and see their efforts through to legislative fruition. Michelle Bachmann was easily dismissed for (among other reasons) never managing to get an issue important to her passed into law. A GOP unity candidate would need to show lawmaking skills.
  • Sponsored bills failed per year of service: The GOP would not want people who spend all of their time crafting bills that never make it out of committee. Proposing a plethora of doomed bills may help incumbents demonstrate to their districts that they are working on their behalf, but if none of those home issues ever manage to pass into law, then they become pointless on a national front.
  • Success rate of sponsored bills: There’s nothing wrong with focusing on a smaller number of legislative actions, then getting them through to completion. I’d prefer a legislator who got 100% of his or her 10 bills passed into law over one who got 5% of his or her 200 bills passed into law, even though the total number of sponsored laws passed between these hypothetical officials are the same.
  • Co-sponsored bills per year of service: The GOP would want a unity candidate to be someone who was a proven collaborator, and not someone who marched to his or her own agenda, which appealed to no one else in Congress. Co-sponsorship demonstrates a willingness to read and respond to others’ work, or to craft legislation compelling enough to attract others.
  • Missed votes: The GOP would want someone who was serious about service, and couldn’t be viewed as a hands-off, unengaged elected official. As a general rule, declared candidates for national office fare poorly on this front, so a unity candidate would likely be someone who was hard at work doing the job they were paid to do, rather than campaigning.

Crunching these raw numbers into a multi-attribute utility model, I scored these eight members of the House in terms of their demonstrated performance per the criteria above, ranking them from best qualified (100 points) of the eight to least qualified (0 points) of the eight. Here are the results, top to bottom:

  • Steven LaTourette (OH): 100.0
  • John Shimkus (IL): 87.7
  • Patrick Tiberi (OH): 46.0
  • Fred Upton (MI): 44.4
  • Candice Miller (MI): 36.2
  • Thomas Latham (IA): 34.8
  • David Camp (MI): 2.1
  • Michael Turner (OH): 0.0

So . . . if the Republican Party remains divided going into the 2012 National Convention, I’d like to respectfully propose that some delegate(s) should nominate Congressman Steve LaTourette of Ohio to represent his party as its 2012 Presidential Nominee. Should Congressman LaTourette demur, then Congressman John Shimkus would be a worthy alternate, based his strong scores as well.

Please note that I say this knowing virtually nothing at all about Congressman LaTourette’s personal or family life, what his wife looks like, his religious beliefs, his relations with his constituents, what kind of car he drives, what sports he enjoys, how much money he has, what district controversies plague him, what he did when he was in college, whether or not he inhaled, nor any other media-favorite topics that have nothing to do with his ability to serve as an elected official right here, right now, today. Likewise with Congressman Shimkus, although I am aware that he is a West Point graduate and career Army reservist, which I respect tremendously, despite being an Annapolis ring-knocker myself.

And I like the fact that I don’t know much about these Congressmen, actually, since at this point, I’d prefer to have both parties nominating lower-profile legislators of proven accomplishments and thoughtful, consistent positions than charismatic wafflers driven more by ego or vendetta than by a desire to serve humbly and effectively. Here’s a list of issues important to Congressman LaTourette, in case you want to start pondering his Presidential campaign now. It’s not half bad. I could vote for a party platform that included many of these items.

I’d welcome thoughts on other such potential Dark Horse candidates. There’s always 2016, after all, and I always love a good, well-thought-out political insurgency . . .