Six Ways Progressives Will Challenge Conventional Wisdom of Iowa Caucuses

Mickey Davis is a smart, politically engaged progressive Iowan with lots of opinions about the presidential race.

And, like a lot of Iowa progressives, he will be caucusing on Tuesday night.

Mickey Davis is a smart, politically engaged progressive Iowan with lots of opinions about the presidential race.

And, like a lot of Iowa progressives, he will be caucusing on Tuesday night.

"Of course, I'll caucus," says Davis, as he pauses in a Des Moines coffee shop. Flashing his forearm tattoo of a map of the Hawkeye state, he adds, "We're Iowans. We caucus."

But what is the point of progressives caucusing on Tuesday?

Actually, there are a lot of points to be made, even if most of the media are missing them.

The Republicans who are competing to be the candidate of the 1 percent will get 99 percent of the media attention devoted to the Iowa caucuses. But some of the most exciting activity with regard to the caucuses is not on the right, it's on the left.

Iowa progressives are organizing on a variety of fronts to raise issues, upset expectations and challenge the Republican and Democratic game plans for Tuesday night.

Both the Republican and the Democratic parties will begin their delegate-selection processes in Iowa, although the two party caucuses do not operate according to the same rules. The Republicans hold a straw poll that will get most of the attention once the results are in Tuesday night, especially if a surging Rick Santorum elbows his way into a first- or second-place finish. The Democrats hold more traditional "town meeting" style caucuses, and in many cases they may be little more than groundwork-laying events for President Obama's re-election campaign. But that will not be the case at every Democratic caucus, just as there will be surprises at GOP gatherings.

Both parties could see interventions by progressives in the form of calls for the endorsement of anti-corporate initiatives, votes for uncommitted slates that have been organized to protest politics as usual, send-them-a-message votes for outlier contenders (particularly Ron Paul) or protests.

Here are some interventions worth watching:

1. Using Democratic and Republican Caucuses to Move to Amend

Iowa activists associated with the Move to Amend campaign and the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom have been urging Democratic and Republican caucus-goers to endorse resolutions calling for the amendment of the U.S. Constitution to counter the U.S. Supreme Court's decision, in the Citizens United case, removing barriers to corporate spending on campaigns.

Local governments across the country have been passing resolutions backing Move to Amend's campaign, as have voters in referendums in Boulder, Colo., and Madison and Dane County, Wis. The resolutions vary in language but essentially resolve to work to "to defend democracy from the corrupting effects of undue corporate power by amending the United States Constitution to establish that: 1. Only human beings, not corporations, are endowed with constitutional rights, and 2. Money is not speech, and therefore regulating political contributions and spending is not equivalent to limiting political speech."

While there is some skepticism about whether many Republican caucuses will embrace the proposal, local activists hope to get Democratic caucuses to embrace the amendment campaign and to encourage the inclusion of an anti-corporate amendment in the Democratic platform.

2. Using Democratic and Republican Caucuses to Promote the 99 Percent's Agenda

Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, the group that challenged Mitt Romney's "corporations are people, too, my friend" line, has been organizing to make sure that issues are addressed at the caucuses of both parties. The group, which has deep roots in communities across Iowa, says:

"Everyday Iowans can -- and should -- fight for an economy that works for all of us. We are fed up with business as usual in Washington, D.C., and on Wall Street. We want to let Republican presidential candidates and Barack Obama know that we're sick and tired of politicians who care more about corporations than everyday Americans. Therefore we offer these resolutions -- and big ideas -- at our precinct caucuses and call for their adoption:

"Bust up the big banks and throw the crooks in jail. The global financial meltdown and economic collapse were caused by the big banks and corporate CEOs on Wall Street with no regard for the common good. So much wealth and power has been concentrated into the hands of the few that they have been able to break or rewrite the rules, gamble our lives away, and get away with it. No more. 'Too big to fail' financial institutions should be busted up and rebuilt to serve the needs of everyday people, not corporate greed, and the CEOs responsible must be brought to justice.

"Make Wall Street and the 1 percent pay their fair share. After the economic collapse, corporate interests immediately blamed everyday people and hardworking families for a budget crisis we did not create. The money to rebuild this country is not in the back pockets of school-age children, family farmers, teachers, workers or senior citizens. The money is on Wall Street. We need to pass comprehensive tax reform that raises marginal rates on millionaires and billionaires, cracks down on financial speculation and high-frequency trading, and closes corporate tax loopholes.

"Stabilize the housing market with across-the-board principal reductions. The big banks that inflated and then burst the housing bubble with predatory, subprime loans need to write down the debt that has forced 11 million mortgages under water. Stabilizing underwater mortgages will help fix the housing crisis and stabilize our neighborhoods, pump money back into our economy, and create 1 million jobs annually.

"Strengthen, not cut, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. These vital public programs are a promise to the American people. Social Security keeps tens of millions of retirees out of poverty and Medicare and Medicaid provide access to affordable care to millions of Americans. We need Medicare for all and to scrap the cap on wages subject to the Social Security tax so everyone pays their fair share.

"Break the chokehold that corporate power has over our democracy. Big money has corrupted our political system and allowed the corporate 1 percent to hijack the democratic process. We need voter-owned clean elections, public financing of campaigns, universal voter registration, and an end to corporate personhood."

3. Using the Caucuses to Deliver the Occupy Wall Street Message

"Uncommitted" slates have won Iowa caucuses before. In 1972 and 1976, more Democratic caucus votes were cast for the "uncommitted" option than for any of the announced candidates. As recently as 1992, "uncommitted" beat Bill Clinton. On the Republican side, "uncommitted" beat Bob Dole in the 1980 caucus race, and Alexander Haig in 1988.

This year, an Occupy Iowa Caucus initiative is urging voters to attend caucuses and back "uncommitted" slates. For Republicans, that would mean rejecting the current crowd of GOP contenders and beginning a process that could lead to sending unaffiliated delegates to the party convention next summer. For Democrats, that would mean rejecting a president who they see as too prone to compromise and backing a slate that is committed to pressing for more progressive policies than those adopted by Obama and his administration.

No matter which party the 99 percenters caucus with, the message of the initiative is the same: "Every Iowan who identifies with the 99 percent should caucus on the evening of Jan. 3. But after years of foreclosure, bailouts, corruption, warfare, corporate welfare and the erosion of our freedoms, we cannot support any of the presidential candidates. We cannot consent to this broken system any longer. We will join with our neighbors and caucus for 'uncommitted.' Uncommitted means we support no candidates and sends a strong message to the leaders of both parties."

4. Using the Democratic Caucuses to Send a "Health Care Not Warfare" Message

Several groups are encouraging Democrats to attend party caucuses and vote not for President Obama but for an "uncommitted" slate. Activists associated with the Iowa Health Care Not Warfare Caucus Campaign are "(encouraging) caucus attenders to support delegates at the Democratic caucus who are not yet committed to any presidential candidate, but who support (1) removing all troops from Afghanistan within President Obama's first year in office and (2) the enactment of national health insurance (Medicare for all) during President Obama's second term." The group recently sponsored training for potential Democratic caucus-goers in Iowa City. "I hope people see the point to go uncommitted," declared Jeff Cox, a University of Iowa history professor and former Johnson County Democrats head. "It allows people to go to caucuses and take a stand for peace and hope that Obama pays some attention to it."

Cox recently appeared at a Des Moines forum on how progressives should engage in the caucuses, which was organized by Progressive Democrats of America and drew activists from across Iowa.

Even Democrats who back Obama have recognized the significance of the uncommitted movement. John Deeth, a prominent blogger, attended the Iowa City training session to instruct Democrats on caucus procedures and practices. He says he is "for the president." But, Deeth explains, "I have some self-interest. I want the uncommitteds on board with Obama in November. But more than that, I want to be fair in January. These are the Democratic Party caucuses, not the Barack Obama caucuses."

5. Using the GOP Caucuses to Send an Anti-War, Pro-Civil Liberties Message

A number of Iowa Democrats and independents have announced plans to re-register and participate in the Republican caucuses. Some, such as former state Rep. Ed Fallon, a veteran activist who mounted a serious campaign for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 2006, are urging Iowans to consider several dissident contenders on the GOP side. While Fallon urges those who would attend Democratic caucuses to "go uncommitted," he suggests that progressives attending GOP caucuses should: "Support one of the less extreme candidates: Ron Paul, John Huntsman, Buddy Roemer or Fred Karger. Any of them would provide a far healthier debate with President Obama on key issues. Of course, three of these candidates have long been dismissed by the corporate media and the Republican Party. That's wrong, it's unfair, and pre-picking an 'acceptable' field of candidates must change ... but that's a battle for another day."

Other progressives are more specific, urging a Paul vote. In an opinion piece that ran in the Des Moines Register, a pair of nationally prominent anti-war activists -- Colleen Rowley, an Iowa native and former FBI agent and Democratic congressional candidate, and Dr. John V. Walsh, a professor of microbiology and physiological systems at the University of Massachusetts Medical School who has been active with Physicians for a National Health Care Plan -- wrote: "There is today only one anti-war, anti-corruption, pro-Constitution, pro-civil liberties candidate for president in either party who stands squarely against expanding military empire and for democracy. That candidate is Ron Paul. Like prairie anti-interventionists Eugene McCarthy, George McGovern and Harold Hughes in an earlier era, Paul is a maverick in his own party. He believes in an adequate force to defend America but not 1 cent for wars of aggression. Tactically it makes sense for anti-war activists to vote in the Republican caucuses/primaries for Paul. If he wins or does well in Iowa and New Hampshire, then the questions of war and peace will appear on the national scene. If Paul goes on to win his party's nomination, these questions will finally make their appearance in the general election."

Responding to legitimate concerns regarding Paul's stances on social and economic issues, Rowley and Walsh argue that "democratic checks and balances" would prevent a President Paul from doing the damage others fear. For instance, they argue: "So long as open debate is preserved, we are confident that programs like Medicare and Social Security will be preserved if Paul were elected. Such programs as Medicare may be more secure with a Republican president, as the Democrats might finally stand up and defend these programs if only to secure votes for their election."

At the PDA forum in Des Moines, there were objections to this view, and there were also expressions of broader concerns regarding racially insensitive statements published in Paul's newsletters. Still, some in the crowd stood up and made passionate pleas for using Paul's candidacy to send a clear anti-war and anti-intervention message.

6. Protesting the Whole Process

The very active Occupy Des Moines movement -- and their friends with Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement -- has been present on the streets in front of Democratic and Republican campaign offices, and at forums where the candidates appear. They've been peaceful and respectful of the democratic process. But some have been arrested as they have participated in nonviolent civil disobedience. Occupy Des Moines activists were big backers of a "People's Caucus" on Dec. 27. "People are tired of being ignored by the political establishment in both parties, tired of having the common good placed last when it comes to government's priorities," says Fallon, one of the organizers of the Dec. 27 event. "Holding the People's Caucus before the Jan. 3 precinct caucuses (told) America's corporate and political elite that we demand that our voices be heard, that the public interest must come first."

The Occupy Des Moines movement, which has been such a presence during the caucus competition, isn't going anywhere. It will be highly engaged even after the presidential contenders leave. Among the events on tap: An "Occupy the State Capitol" protest on Jan. 10.

And what will Mickey Davis do Tuesday night?

The college student, who attended his first caucus as an Obama backer in 2008, will attend his local Democratic caucus.

"I'm frustrated with Obama, especially on Guantanamo and civil liberties," he says, "so I'll caucus for uncommitted."

He may ultimately vote for Obama. But Davis, like a lot of Iowa progressives, will try first to deliver a message.

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