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Extended Discussion: An Outsider's View on the Iowa Caucuses

posted on January 4, 2008 at 9:28 AM

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Geoff Elliott, reporter for The Australian, and Matt Taibbi, contributing editor for Rolling Stone Magazine, are here to discuss the Iowa campaigns and caucuses from an outsider's point of view in this special web-exclusive extended interview.

Yeager: Is it good in Australia, that everybody has to go and vote? Do you feel that everybody benefits when they have to go?

Elliott: Yeah, I'm in favor of it. I think it's a good thing. Now, you'll hear from the right in Australia, and they'll say it hinges on your civil rights. You should just have the choice not to vote if you don't want to. But I think generally it helps broaden the Democratic base in terms of the voting population. People will get out there and vote.

It's interesting though, in Australia, the vote numbers -- you'll tend to see a vote result of 52-48 at the widest margin. It's probably similar to here, so in the end the results tend to come out the same.

But I do think that with the compulsory voting and the fact that politicians in Australia don't need to push so hard to get the voters to come to their ticket ...yeah, you have a little bit more civil discourse, perhaps. You might not think that if you went and watched Westminster Parliament. But generally, we tend to frighten up all those social issues. We don't tend to have that sort of discussion that you do here.

Yeager: A couple of those campaigns have seemed to hit each other pretty hard in the last final weeks. What do you think of Mike Huckabee's comments on Monday -- to say "I'm not going to run a negative counterpunch; here's the ad anyway." What do you think of his trying to change the tone of this cycle?

Taibbi: I blame all that stuff entirely on the press corp. Because what happens when you get closer to the vote, and you have this day-to-day barrage of coverage, there is no time for the media to talk about issues in the campaign. And, in fact, it doesn't really sell a whole lot of newspapers or get ratings. What they really want is conflict, the same way they want it in television entertainment.

And that's why you saw the reporters hitting Huckabee really, really hard coming into this race, saying: "When is nice guy Huck going to go after Mitt Romney?" They went after him day after day after day, and then finally he cracks. They hold up a hoop for him to jump through, and he jumps through the hoop finally. Next thing you know, you've got this rock 'em, sock 'em boxing match that all the press wants. That is what gets ratings. That's what sells newspapers for this kind of stuff.

Huckabee is complying now, and I think it kind of did him a disservice, actually. I think it was one of his worst -- it didn't seem to me to be his best performance when he kind of waffled about the attack ad, and also when he had this long diatribe on Saturday attacking Romney. I think it came off very poorly for him.

Yeager: Yesterday I was at a Fred Thompson event in Cedar Rapids, and he was critical of the press and the process and he wanted the crowd to, yeah, against the media. You've been to the scrums -- that's the best way to describe some of these post-event things. Does anything good ever come out of them or do we feel that -- what is a better way to get issues across? Is it a debate where you only get 90 seconds and 30 seconds to rebut? What is the best way to get a debate?

Elliott: The twenty-four hour, seven-days-a-week cycle here -- and it's happening in Australia too, now -- I don't know how you reverse the trend, if you can, really. But it is going to be the rock 'em, sock 'em sort of stuff. I can see that going on. Fred Thompson has a bit of self-interest in saying that, too, because he's hardly rocked 'em and socked 'em himself. He might have a different perspective if he was leading in the polls. I don't have an answer. I think maybe somehow there will be some equilibrium found, but at the moment I think that's the direction it's going.

Yeager: Do we need to have some type of overhaul in the system in this country to pick a president? Does it need to be a regional start? Do we need to go to the West to the East, to the East to the West to shorten the process?

Taibbi: Probably. There's a lot of things that could be done. I used to live in Russia and Poland before elections were legal in Russia, so you didn't have this constant speculation about who is winning and who is losing, which tends to dominate so much of the coverage. If you didn't have those results, then people wouldn't know who's winning all the time, and they would have to spend more time on the issues and less time attacking each other.

What happened before with this whole call for Huckabee to attack Romney, or when they called for Obama to attack Hillary earlier in the race -- the reason for that was they were saying, well, Obama's behind Hillary so he has to do something to attack Hillary. He hears that over and over, and he believes that's what he's supposed to do. He believes it, and next thing you know, Barack Obama -- who had run, I thought, a pretty dignified campaign up until that point -- next thing you know he's saying stuff like: "My experience in foreign countries wasn't limited to who I had tea with at the Ambassador's house."

It just devolves into this kind of ridiculous cat fight after a while. And that's unfortunate. It's a disservice to the voters when it happens that way.

Yeager: But somebody like Mike Huckabee, do you think he benefited from Iowa having a small retail approach? He was in single digits at the straw poll. He gets third. He's able to run a campaign on a smaller budget; he can drive across the state. He doesn't have to fly from San Diego to north of San Francisco -- say, if it was California, where geography is to play, or where the media market is expensive in New York? Does a smaller state maybe allow a better candidate to rise to the top?

Taibbi: Sure, absolutely. That's the argument in favor of Iowa. That makes a lot of sense. The only difference is that maybe if you had a smaller state that had a larger urban population, it would be more representative. But that is absolutely true.

Yeager: Do you want somebody who is representative, or somebody who is engaged in the process? Is there any difference?

Elliott: Well, he really didn't have any choice but to do that until the end, because he didn't have the money. But, again, that's why Iowa matters, I guess. But no, I think he's done a good job. I don't know how long he keeps going after Iowa.

Yeager: We'll find out who gets those tickets out of Iowa. Jeff Elliott of "The Australian". Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone. Gentlemen, thank you.


Tags: campaign 2008 caucuses interviews Iowa politics


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