Allow me to begin this personal story by stating the way I earn my daily bread: I'm a focus group moderator by trade, one of those oft-vilified creatures in politics and corporate advertising who talks to regular people, finds out how they feel about specific issues, and relays that information to my clients to help them craft better messaging.
So you can imagine my delight at being invited by my better half to visit her relatives over Memorial Day weekend in rural Iowa, the heart of the "heartland" and home to the famed Iowa caucuses. The entire trip provided me the opportunity to use my moderating skills and probing techniques on the farmers, teachers, service employees and other denizens of this conservative, bellwether state. What I discovered there should strike terror into the heart of any Republican operative--especially one working for a candidate supportive of Bush's policies in Iraq.
The people I spent my time with were by and large, with a few pleasant and notable exceptions, your archetypical rural Midwest Republicans: generous, proudly self-sufficient, kindhearted people who often wear their religion on their sleeve, carry with them deep racial prejudice born of decades of Republican rhetoric and lack of contact with "the other", and deeply distrust government involvement. One of the houses I visited at length even sported a Ronald Reagan calendar facing a George W. Bush calendar, with an outsize W'04 re-election sticker plastered on the inside walls to overshadow them.
Even here, however, the tide has turned against the GOP to a strong degree--and against Bush to an even stronger one. My conversations, when they turned to politics, always eased into the subject gradually--but when they did, there was palpable discontent in the air. These are people who are extremely upset:
upset at the incursions of big agriculture companies into the marketplace that used to be dominated by small farmers; upset at the lack of economic and social incentives for their children to remain in their hometowns or even within the state; upset at the amount of out-of-control government spending and huge national and trade deficits; deeply
upset at the lack of enforcement of immigration laws; upset at the abandonment of the farming and industrial economies in favor of those that support the passing of money from one person to another without physical goods in trade; and upset, above all, at the pointless and hopeless occupation of Iraq. And while all of these issues may not be enough to drive many of them to vote for Democrats, more than a few are thoroughly disenchanted with the Republican party that they admit has been directly responsible for these negative repercussions.
It is also important to note that the demographic trends I observed strongly favor the progressive side: by a hard and fast rule, the oldest generation (75-100 years old among these resilient Norwegian descendants) was by far the most conservative; the next generation was fairly evenly divided with a slight conservative orientation; the next (somewhere between 25-40) leaned decidedly progressive; and the few young adults present were unanimously liberal.
But there was one conversation that struck me more than any other, truly encapsulating the heart of my Iowa experience and opening a window onto the sordid reality facing the modern Republican Party of Bush:
In the middle of my dinner at a restaurant near Des Moines, I arose from my chair to get a closer look at the television at the bar. Or should I say the televisions
plural, as one was situated in an ill-lit and out-of-the-way corner, while the other stood prominently on display at the center of the bar. The television-in-exile was set to Fox News, its anchors yammering mindlessly about Linsay Lohan's recent DUI arrest; the favored location was set to CNN's Situation Room, where the primary subject under discussion was that of Iraq. It was around this latter that three restaurant employees and one patron (all Caucasians) were seated, intently watching the report and murmuring to one another with the soft earnestness of communal resignation and disappointment.
I strolled up to the bar and approached nearer to the television--and to the far more interesting words it was obscuring from its denizens. When one of the employees turned to offer me a drink in the down-to-earth, friendly manner only a down-home Midwestern bartender can, I pointed instead to the television and indicated that I had sidled over for the news, rather than a drink. It was at that moment that another employee, a handsome, weary-looking woman in her late thirties with a heavy golden crucifix around her neck exclaimed, "What a damn waste!"
"The war?" I asked. Everyone at the bar nodded. It turned out that the occupation of Iraq was deeply personal for several of them: one, an attractive young woman in her mid-twenties with the demure earnestness of the reserved regular church-goer, had a cousin currently serving in Iraq as part of the first battalion to ever go there from Iowa under W's regime. He was supposed to be home by now, but his tour of duty had been extended through July. I wished for his speedy and safe return in July; her response was heartbreaking. "IF he gets home then; I don't know if he'll ever make it home, alive or not.
" Another had a cousin who had died from an IED in a poorly armored humvee. The third employee's son reportedly had a friend whose head was horribly disfigured in another IED blast, and was now struggling to survive through the paltry graces of the post-Walter Reed Veterans' Administration. I asked the woman whose cousin was on his extended tour how he
felt. She responded with a sigh, "Just like the rest of his unit. He was totally gung-ho when he first went in, but now he's 180 degrees the other direction. He says there's no reason to be there anymore, and he just wants to come home.
" It was painfully reminiscent of a New York Times article
that came to similar conclusions when interviewing Delta Company of the First Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry, 82nd Airborne Division.
The original woman bearing the cross continued, "They're only there for oil, you know."
"Really!" I said. I explained that I talked to people for a living and had never been to Iowa before, and that I was deeply interested in what they had to say for my own education. "That's good," said the patron, a gruff man in his fifties. "Nobody else ever listens to us. Certainly not the people in Washington."
I asked the first woman why she thought it was an oil-driven war (I didn't use the Occupation frame--I was then involved in the discovery of opinions, rather than their creation), and when she had begun to feel that way. Her answer was at once surprsing and deeply revealing: "A few years after it started, when everything was clearly going downhill. Bush and those boys never changed anything about what they were doing there, even when it obviously wasn't working. And we're still there when everybody knows we got no business there. What else are we supposed to think? What other reason could there be?
I asked in turn each of the others when they had soured on the war; they would only answer after I had assured them that I felt the same revulsion to Bush's foreign policy as did they. Each and every one said that their discontent had begun two or three years back. Said the patron, "Like she said, we've got no business there. These people have been fighting one another since the beginning of time..." "Since Adam and Eve, almost," chipped in the third employee, whose vague grasp of even Biblically-inspired history did not diminish her moral judgment of Bush's Iraqi trail of tears. "It's not our job to civilize them and make them stop fighting, even if we could. It's pointless and ridiculous. We just need to bring our boys home." Although these good, God-fearing people could not bring themselves to take responsibility for what the government they helped elect had wrought on the Iraqi people, they still knew a skunk when they saw one.
It turned out, however, that their greatest concern was not even for the soldiers still stationed there, but for those already home and those soon to be home. "How many more billions are we going to have to spend on the medical care for the ones do make it home wounded? It's just never going to stop," said one. The patron told the tale of his son's friend's difficulties (the one currently with half a head) in procuring veteran's benefits or employment after being released from a California hospital. Said another, "We remember how many people suffered after coming home from Vietnam. This is just going to be so much worse.
Then came the Democrats' turn in the spotlight--though it was a far more favorable gaze than I had anticipated. The young woman mentioned that the Democrats had just given Bush more money; I affirmed that they had, and asked how they felt about that. Interestingly, each one responded with a slight variation on the original woman's response: "I don't know. They didn't have a choice, I guess. That's all the bargaining power they have when it comes to dealing with the President.
" I don't know if this attitude holds true for most of America's heartland, but if it is, it is at once deeply comforting and highly dismaying. On the one hand, it demonstrates that Pelosi's and Reid's gamble has paid off, and the public still considers this to be Bush's occupation opposed by the Democrats; on the other, it shows an alarming lack of understanding of Legislative's ability to act as a coequal branch to that of the Executive.
It was here that our little group was broken up by the arrival of other patrons to occupy two of the restaurant staff, and the call of nature upon the original patron. My last question--and most instructive--was for the young woman who remained.
"What," I asked, "is your most important issue right now when it comes to a candidate?" "The war," she said without a moment's hesitation.
Looking down at the wedding ring on this young woman's finger and the small crucifix she bore on a chain round her neck, I ventured further: "Let's say it's 2008, and you have the choice between a Republican who supports Bush's mission in Iraq, and a Democrat who you disagree with on important moral issues. What do you think you'll do?
Her answer should make Republicans nationwide tremble with the terror that only the swift and inevitable recognition of an approaching boulder of karma can bring.
"You know, it's tough. Usually I vote on moral issues--and so does my family. You can tell someone's character from the stand they take on those things. But at the same time, I think we've seen that no matter what you believe in morally, it doesn't really matter very much to what happens in the country. My family has talked a lot about this. We really need people who are going to make the right decisions, no matter what they believe personally. So I'd still definitely have to say I would vote for the person who says they'll stop the war.
There's trouble brewing in River City, Iowa. Big, big trouble. And that starts with a capital "T" and that rhymes with "B" and that stands for Bush. Mene, Mene, Tekel Upharsin...
Labels: George W. Bush, Iowa, Iraq, Iraq war, Occupation of Iraq, personal diary