Kathie Obradovich has a message for Iowans: you kids better get the heck off her lawn.
At least that is what I took away from her recent column How about a question with that caucus selfie? In her column, Ms. Obradovich makes clear that she is way, way more serious than the average campaign event attendee, and she is sick and tired of hooligans in silly hats ruining her day. She chastises people asking the candidates for autographs, taking selfies, or coming to events in farm clothes. She writes in her column that, “many selfie seekers don’t want to talk to the candidate; they just want to post a photo on social media. A cardboard cutout of the candidate would serve just as well. Campaigns have to build extra time into events that could have been used to answer more questions or add another stop in another town… Instead of selfies, we should just call them selfish.” She even suggests that people seeking an autograph should have to pass a current events test.
Those of you tuning in to Starting Line know Ms. Obradovich. She is a leading, if not the leading, political reporter in Iowa. She writes for the Des Moines Register and way more often than not, I agree with her editorial opinions. (Also, the few times I have talked to her, she has been pleasant as a plum.) However, this time, she is really off base.
I recently talked to a girl who will turn 18 in 2016. Clinton v. Trump or Chafee v. Bush will be her first opportunity to vote. She is trying to see every candidate and hopefully get her picture taken with each before she casts her first ballot next fall. Her story warmed my heart. This 17 year old’s ambition is so gosh darn romantic, it would make Mr. Smith cry all the way to Washington. But, apparently, it really ticks Ms. Obradovich off.
There are a lot of things to hate about politics. I could write a Starting Line post every day about something that makes my skin crawl. But there aren’t that many people who care what I have to say. Ms. Obradovich, on the other hand, has one of the highest pulpits in Iowa. With her great microphone in front of her, Ms. Obradovich surveyed the political landscape, spotted the 17 year old selfie taker, cleared her throat and went to work. What the duck!?! Honestly, I’m hoping Ms. Obradovich just woke up on the wrong side of the bed last week. I don’t think that she really believes that one of the most noteworthy issues facing the political process is the selfie. But, we are where we are, and I’ve got to take her piece at face value. Accordingly, let’s talk about it.
Ms. Obradovich’s column assumes that people who are trying to get a candidate selfie, or who want an autograph, are at campaign events only for those reasons. She thinks young people (the majority of the people asking for selfies) have ulterior motives for standing in the sweltering heat for an hour to see Ben Carson. In her view, teens score social points for snapchatting a Martin O’Malley pic or twittering a Rick Perry photo. She also suggests that people angling to meet Mark Everson are hoping to resell his John Hancock on EBay. I think she is wrong on both counts. (If there really is a huge secondary market out there for signed Lincoln Chafee headshots, I’ve discovered the perfect retirement job for my Dad. And if young folks get social points for candidate photos, my Homecoming crown must have gotten lost in the mail.) I think most people at events are there because they really care. They want to be informed, get to know the candidates and to make a difference. Getting a picture or an autograph are just neat bonuses.
But assume Ms. Obradovich is right. Is it really bad if political novices show up at events for a selfie? These candidates are supposedly canvassing Iowa to gain support. Even if people are showing up to their events with ulterior motives, shouldn’t the candidates be happy that they are getting a chance to talk to undecided voters? The 45 minutes that an attendee has to wait through an event for an autograph is all the time a good candidate should need to make their campaign pitch. A candidate loses if the only people he or she ever talks to are their hard core supporters, so they want to see unaligned voters when they pull into the Pizza Ranch. I’m guessing that when a crowd of selfie takers shows up for their events, Rick Santorum and Lindsey Graham thank their lucky stars. So it really doesn’t make sense for Ms. Obradovich to criticize something candidates want to have happen. (Also, a fun side note: Hillary Clinton is the leading Democrat and could be the next President. Although Hillary has a substantial resume of her own, the Clintons were introduced to the national audience because of Hillary’s husband, former President Bill Clinton. No matter what happens, the family Clinton is the most important Democrat family of my life time. And what inspired President Clinton to his life of public service? Meeting and getting his photo taken with JFK. Next time President Clinton is campaigning in Iowa, I wonder if Ms. Obradovich will tell him his Kodak moment was selfish?)
Ms. Obradovich is also concerned about people who interrupt candidates. (She specifically cites Rick Santorum getting glitter bombed four years ago and Mitt Romney getting interrupted at the State Fair during the same period.) There is no doubt that discourteous people sometimes interrupt candidates. It is rare, but it happens. (In my experience, something goes sideways at an event about every fifth time.) But Ms. Obradovich knows that the interrupters are often campaign trackers or activists from organized groups. Average, non-aligned, Iowans rarely wake up in the morning and say “since I mowed the lawn yesterday, I think I’m going to glitter bomb Rick Santorum today.”
Let’s be clear. I’m against interrupting candidates. It’s rude. And, even if you have some ax to grind, I don’t think interrupting candidates is an effective strategy. More often than not, the candidate zings the rabble-rouser and creates an applause line in the process. (Chris Christie’s whole persona is designed around the zinger, as was Newt Gingrich’s before him.) I recently wrote about how I think people should handle candidate interactions. I totally agree with Ms. Obradovich that thought-out questions are the way to go. Nevertheless, Ms. Obradovich’s concern about candidate interruptions is disingenuous. The (rare) people who interrupt candidates or cause a ruckus are not average voters. Every candidate who can afford them has trackers following every other candidate. Some candidates hire trackers or organize volunteers to harass other candidates by asking embarrassing questions. Various political/issue groups also hassle politicians. Ultra-liberal groups may plant an audience member to ask Hillary a tough question about her ties to Wall Street, or a gay rights group may put a mole in a Mike Huckabee audience. In the end, that stuff is all a wash. For every Emily’s List intern shouting at Bobby Jindal, there is an NRA intern heckling Hillary Clinton. And these episodes have nothing to do Iowa or Iowa caucus events. Interruptions happen because, as Mitt Romney often reminded us, politics ain’t beanbags. Ms. Obradovich knows that. (And let us not forget that one of incidents cited by Ms. Obradovich as horrible, Mitt Romney getting interrupted at the State Fair in 2011, led to one of the defining moments of the campaign: “corporations are people, my friend.”)
Now that I’ve gently chided Ms. Obradovich for the cranky-pants tone of her article, I want to seriously criticize her underlying point. Ms. Obradovich’s argument is that it is bad if selfie seekers and autograph hounds monopolize candidates’ time. But she and I both know that monopolizing a candidate’s time would be impossible. No matter how many times Jim Webb has to stop for selfies, or how many bumper stickers Jim Gilmore has to sign, the amount of time these candidates will spend on the campaign trail is a tiny fraction of the time they spend fundraising. Whatever else selfie seekers are, they are real, average, folks. And as average folks, they will get ignored by political leaders for almost every single moment of their entire lives. While the average folks rise and fall, succeed and struggle, live and die, political leaders – these very caucus candidates – will spend their time schmoozing the ultra-wealthy. This last week saw the FEC reporting deadline. The media coverage of the FEC deadline made one point very clear. A handful of people control these candidates. As Politico reported: “[t]he 67 biggest donors, each of whom gave $1 million or more, donated more than three times as much as the 508,000 smallest donors combined…” I think we all suspect that what the candidates had to do to get those $1,000,000 donations would make for a pretty risqué selfie. Those 67 donors are the photo hounds and time monopolizers that political reporters should really be concerned about. Iowa mega-donor Bruce Rastetter got many of the GOP candidates to attend his Ag Summit this spring, and then got many of them to come to his annual summer party in Hubbard last Saturday. I can only imagine how many candidate photos Mr. Rastetter has.
In light of the fact that the candidates will spend almost of all of their time with those few people even richer than Donald Trump, my response to complaints about selfie seekers is this: who gives a rat’s ass?! (Sorry, apparently Madame Cranky’s tone rubbed off on me.) Is it really worthwhile to criticize ordinary people for asking for a single moment of a candidate’s time, even if average Joe uses that moment for a selfie? No. Sure, in a perfect world, everything would be pure policy all the time. But we don’t live in a perfect world. We live in this world. And if the worst thing happening in this world is Scott Walker taking a selfie with an eager to vote 17 year old, we are in pretty good shape.
by Jason Winter