Saturday, January 05, 2008


Your missionary to Capitol Hill, Washington, DC, Rob Schenck, reporting:

I’m propped at a lap-top counter at the Southwest Airlines gate in Chicago’s Midway airport en route home from frenetic—and extremely consequential—Iowa and its caucuses. I’ll have a day with Cheryl before heading off to New Hampshire to observe yet another round in this early stage of picking the ’08 presidential candidates.

The results were surprising. You know now that national political newcomers Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee swamped their more seasoned and well-heeled opponents, unsettling many a campaign strategy. From my vantage point on the ground, it appeared three elements combined to form this perfect storm. On the Democrat side it’s a surge in young voters for Obama. They told me Hillary is stale as last weeks’ bread and John Edwards is just phony. For the Republicans it was Mitt Romney’s unforgivable sin of going negative on Mike Huckabee, who was supported by a highly energized fundamentalist-leaning network of born again Evangelicals, mostly home-schoolers.

Let me give you a picture of what I saw and what happened: I watched common “heartland” folk who had organized and informed themselves, then braved very—very—cold weather with ice and snow, to make their way to the polling places. For Republicans it would have been an otherwise boring night sitting on folding chairs, listening to amateur speakers and trying to write something very important on a loose piece of paper supported only by their knees. Pen points frustratingly punctured the fragile leafs and no one knew where to put them when they were through. Still, they fulfilled their responsibility as American citizens. Good for them!
For Democrats the structure of the night was a bit more entertaining. I didn’t get to watch it (because I was at a Republican caucus meeting), but I was told it was pretty wild. Clusters of caucus attendees assembled in respective corners of their rooms, designated for the candidate of their choice. If that candidate didn’t achieve 15% representation of the registered voters present, he or she wasn’t considered “viable” and the “caucusers” could move to another candidate’s corner.

Most of this sounds as dull as a barn dance, but the outcomes were anything but! For the Dems, the less-favored Barack Obama bested Hillary Clinton by a full nine points. John Edwards squeaked just ahead of her by one point. (It was 38% Obama, 30% Edwards, 29% Clinton.) The Republican side was the real eye-popper. Going into caucus night, the former Arkansas governor, Huckabee, and the former Massachusetts governor, Mitt Romney, were in a dead heat. I knew Romney was in trouble when I heard the count announced at the Burlington, Iowa, 9th Precinct caucus. (I was invited there by the newly elected secretary of the body, the Reverend Morris Hurd. Pastor Hurd is an evangelical United Methodist and chairman of the Iowa Christian Alliance, a break-away of the old Christian Coalition.) The 83 voters in the room were the quintessential representation of all Republicans in Iowa: mostly silver-haired 55-plussers, a smattering of 30- and 40-somethings, and only a couple of young people. There were so many Romney lapel stickers in the room I thought for sure he’d have the edge. When Huckabee won the contest by two votes, for me it spelled a certain second place for the man who had once enjoyed a commanding lead in the Hawkeye State.

About the Republican upset, a lot of people have asked me if it was Romney’s Mormonism. I don’t think so. First, Iowa has a healthy LDS population. Burlington, the area I was in, has a relatively large number. It’s also close to Nauvoo, Illinois, a near sacred Mormon settlement. (It was while in Nauvoo that LDS founder Joseph Smith was jailed and later murdered by a mob.) I did not hear much objection to Romney’s religion. What I did hear was criticism—and even serious offense—at his campaign’s negative tactics hitting at Huckabee’s weak spots. Iowans are earthy, can’t-be-fooled-twice people who want a straight-up, “just-the-facts-ma’am” approach to politics. If there’s to be any swipes at candidates, they’ll make them for themselves, thank you very much.

One thing to keep in mind, Iowa has not historically done well picking presidents. Their early choices have rarely ended up the actual nominees and winners. I did say in a couple of media interviews that I think Iowa remains a good place to have the first contest, for precisely the above reasons. Iowans help expose the candidates’ strengths and weaknesses. Their no-nonsense approach helps weed things out. (Just as an aside, it is good to keep all this stuff in perspective. According to my calculations, 90% of Iowans did sit out this process. Still, when it comes to this sort of civic duty, 10% is an impressive number.)

This experience was renewing for me. To watch so many Iowans—in every way “ordinary” American citizens—fully engaged in the political process was heartening. (I only spoke with three people who didn’t seem to know what was going on: one sweeping the floor at the Walgreen’s pharmacy, the other behind the cash register, and the third, a waitress at Perkins. The waitress had a good excuse: she’s a single mom of an autistic teen. ‘Nuff said.)

May we all be as motivated as the tithe of Iowans at those caucuses. There’s much more to learn about the candidates—good and bad. The contest has only just begun. I urge you to be diligently attentive, prayerful and careful as we move ahead. The consequences of this next presidential administration will be enormous. Among other things, at least two seats on the Supreme Court are at stake. Presidents last only four or eight years, but the Supreme Courts they appoint last decades. This race is for our kids and grandkids. God help us to do the right thing.

Everywhere I went in Iowa I reminded God’s people to keep three things in front of them as they approached the caucuses and eventually the race itself: 1) We need a God-fearing president who unashamedly, unreservedly and unapologetically acknowledges we are “one nation under God” and that it is “in God we trust.” 2) We need a highly capable leader who can govern with strength and effectiveness at home and on the world stage during a particularly complex and dangerous time, and 3) We need a candidate with the stamina and resources to go the distance and finally win against a formidable opponent. Only one or two of these elements will not suffice; we need to the whole package. (I’ll take the same message to the Granite State.)

By the time you read this I will be in New Hampshire. I’ll try to post another audio report from the field. Watch for details . . .

Your grateful missionary to elected and appointed officials,

Rev. Rob Schenck (pronounced SHANK)
Faith and Action
109 2nd St., NE, Washington, DC 20002