Monday, October 02, 2006

Culver & Nussle: Debate # 1

More polls and it’s still a big tie. Big surprise. The DMR numbers are running at 44/44 and the new Zogby numbers are at 46/46. It might stay this way until the end, arriving at November 8th with a vote count nightmare ready to launch, but we're coming into debate season and we'll lose the tie.

Bloggers have discussed and categorized the upcoming debates, offering up some early handicapping on performance. The prevailing wisdom is that Jim Nussle is the better candidate in public forums. But why? Is it a comfort level with public speaking? Is it a law degree and 16 years practicing the give and take of public dialogue in Congress? Or could it be something more obvious?

Sunday’s Des Moines Register ran a front-page story filling in the supposed gaps a voter might have when considering Chet Culver and Jim Nussle. Honestly, the story doesn’t help the Culver cause with the Register’s upbeat spin on Chet’s “collaborative” leadership style; a style that has already produced multiple professional gaffs in the SOS office and in his campaign with the IPERS backpedals and the confusion over his stand on educational choice vouchers. Of course, the story doesn’t do much for Jim Nussle, but then it’s the Register and they’ve got that cost cutting policy in place finding ways to combine news and opinion.

… A glimpse into the workings of their campaigns for governor reveals that Culver, Iowa's secretary of state, consults a wide variety of personal and political advisers and accepts coaching from those more seasoned than himself.

Nussle, an eight-term U.S. House member, on the other hand, seeks little input from key Iowa GOP operatives and is surrounded by a much smaller circle with its roots in his early campaigns for Congress. …

Even with the friendly spin the Register put on the Chet Culver portion of the story, you get the idea the guy is currently being instructed not to take a piss until he talks to someone. That’s taking collaboration a little out of my comfort zone.

Back to the point of this pre-debate post: In 1998, Vilsack was well behind Jim Ross Lightfoot in September and by the end of October, after the debates, Vilsack was in the game to win. Something happened, voters started paying attention and listening to the candidates, and when the voters started to listen Vilsack sounded like the smarter choice. I think we’ll see something similar as October progresses with the more articulate candidate bringing his polling numbers out of the tie zone and into a solid lead.

Iowans like to believe our Governor is a competent person who falls somewhere on the upper end of the IQ scale. Nobody wants to spend four years cringing at every inarticulate statement that falls out of a pols mouth, so it tends to make voters a little leery of bad public speakers. We only need to look at Bush’s low approval numbers to understand that relationship. Likewise, Chet Culver is not exactly blowing our minds with eruditions of profound import; however, we can be optimistic that Chet’s been waiting until the debates to light up this race with his inspired genius.

We’ll find out later today.

…A debate between Secretary of State Chet Culver, Democratic gubernatorial candidate, and U.S. Rep. Jim Nussle, Republican gubernatorial candidate, will be held at 7 tonight in Ballantyne Auditorium on the Kirkwood Community College campus in Cedar Rapids.

Seating is limited and on first-come, first-seated basis; doors open at 5:30 p.m.

It will be broadcast live on KCRG-TV9 from 7 to 8 p.m. and will also be available for viewing at

Questioners will be James Q. Lynch and Carly Weber of The Gazette and Bruce Aune from KCRG-TV9 News

For online coverage, check www.GazetteOnline and

The debate is sponsored by The Gazette, KCRG-TV9 News and GazetteOnline.

"Iowans like to believe our Governor is a competent person who falls somewhere on the upper end of the IQ scale. Nobody wants to spend four years cringing at every inarticulate statement that falls out of a pols mouth, so it tends to make voters a little leery of bad public speakers."

Uh... Terry Branstad passes this test?

I think there is a sober modesty (real or manufactured) to most candidates who succeed in Iowa. Listening to the debate on CSPAN radio, driving around the beltway last night, it sounded to me like Culver played much better in the "My stars, but I wish my opponent would calm down and read my briefing papers" department. After a bit, I thought I was listening to Kerry for Pres: "I have a plan ....", though. Nussle's histrionics -- exploiting soldiers' deaths is mighty tacky -- would seem to indicate that it doesn't matter what he says, so long as he says "innocent life", "lower taxes", "marriage=man&woman".

Will there ever be a citizen-governor, again, instead of these careerist mediocrities?

What is a citizen-governor? Is that like a citizen-legislator? And do we really have any of those floating around in Iowa?

The nonstop campaign world creates a situation in Iowa where everyone is always lining up for the next game, often before a round is over. I think in that kind of environment even the uber volunteers are careerist. (And I know I need an umlaut, but I don't know how to play that trick.)

Any thoughts?
My impression is that the legislature doesn't pay enough to sustain anyone without a trust fund or with a family to support, so I presume there are people there who just do it for old fashioned reasons: they think they can influence the civic environment. But I'm out of touch with this stuff, living on the east coast.

My impression of the uber-volunteers is that they achieve deep personal psychological gratification by associating with the game's players, principally because politics seems to be, now, a game of competing definitions of personal virtue. So, by supporting this or that politician people feel they are annointing themselves of the superior virtue ("I am morally better than those who support the opponent, who are downright evil") represented by their chosen candidates. They are really defending a sense of themselves, and these dramas are really about themselves, not the chosen causes they shout about, and certainly not about the outside world. We don't have passion plays any more, we have political dramas.

My impression of politicians who have no life outside of their elected offices is that they are fragile creatures unable to contemplate existence in the putative little-people's world in which the electorate lives, which they presume to "help". Their sense of self fractures once they are chosen by less than half of a given voting pool. Here's a quick litmus test: how many times does a politician say, "Well, sure, you might disagree, and in that event, you really shouldn't vote for me!" Bob Kerry realized that there were a few things he would not do to be president, and he knew that life was short and it might be fun not to be a politician -- so he developed an ironic distance from the very contest he entered, in 1992. He could have dismantled Clinton but doing so involved behavior he could not countenance. Perhaps John Danforth is that way. But that sort of guy is rare. Instead, we get creeps who say, "Well, sure you might disagree, but that is because you are a fallen, deluded, or deranged. You are bad. I am right, and therefore I manifest superior personal virtue. Let me know when you come around and you are prepared to be saved through association with ... me." Campaigns that are all about social issues (marriage, gay or straight; abortion; creche on the courthouse lawn) facilitate these cartoon morality plays.

It is both flattering and a little odd to have someone come to this blog, which is a rather small & local space, and drop long complex thoughts in a comment string where the only other likely comments will come from the blogger. Now I sound a little suspicious. And if you're in this space for a friend, that's good; it's a difficult season and all of us can use as many friends as possible, even our friends that challenge our ability to keep in reserve that last smidge of generosity.

It's also clear that you are quite a good writer, perhaps you are fortunate to read and write for a living -- I work with lists. In any event, I asked for thoughts and you offered up some interesting ones.

I believed in a citizen legislature until the advent of the $100,000 Statehouse race, now the stakes are too high and even if someone starts out with the intent to improve the civic environment, that sentiment is soon twisted into a quaint notion and left on the Capitol steps.

On the uber-volunteer (again, no umlaut, but I did pick up the hyphen) and your suggestion that these volunteers connect to the poltical process and candidates as if they're making an emotional connection to a larger whole for the purpose of self expression. It could be that is the case. It's also true -- having the unique fortune to see it from the volunteer perspective -- that the uber-volunteers actually turf their little bit of political territory just as aggressively as the politicians. Seeing it from one side, it looks like a symbiotic form of "deep personal gratification", but when you get the tough phone call from one of the ubers suggesting that their beloved pol might be mad if you don't make fifty phone calls, that love fest you allude to can't often be described as gratifying.

You must have experience traveling with a candidate to look at the volunteers with such detached admiration. I do find it interesting that you didn't mention the True Believers, individuals that work for a candidate or campaign because the ideas that drive the candidate are most in harmony with their own.

Your impression of politicians in the generic is interesting and probably very accurate. To lose an election is akin to a death, and that death can be of any magnitude in the scheme of a particular politician's ideals. I love your take on Bob Kerry (& John Danforth); you eloquently identified what I like about both of these men: the ability to engage a rational, objective lens when looking at their milieu and then reflecting that clarity. Perhaps this election will be a beginning to our renewed interest in celebrating the ironic politician, we can hope.

Thank you for your comments. You're welcome here anytime; however, I am sure there are other blogs & things that need attention.
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