Civics: Iowa Caucuses, the Blob, and the Democratic Party Cartel

Matt Stoller:

It’s always been a bit of a puzzle for me to define just what the Democratic Party is. There are no formal membership dues, and registration varies by state. Candidates can sometimes run for the party nomination without being a member. And that leaves out the actual mechanisms of governance, the think tanks, banks, corporations, and law firms in which the various policy experts work as a sort of shadow government.

One of the better books on the Democratic Party comes from a former Joe Biden staffer, Jeff Connaughton, who coined the term “the blob” to denote the network of lawyers, lobbyists, Congressional staffers, foreign policy experts, podcasters, media figures and pollsters who comprise the groupthink of the Democrats. These people know each other, marry each other, take vacations together, book each other on shows, hire each other, and work together on policies and campaigns. It’s not a conspiracy, it’s a community.

But that community, if it becomes immune from external pressure, can become dangerous. And that’s what happened in Iowa. 

There were two parts to the fiasco. The first was the narrow community in Iowa.

The Iowa caucuses are for most of us an experiment in democracy, but for key actors in Iowa the caucuses are a business. Take former Iowa Governor and Obama Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack, whose endorsement was highly sought after. Vilsack is now a highly paid dairy lobbyist. Vilsack is well known, but then there are behind the scenes men like Jerry Crawford. 

A lawyer with white hair mowed like a golf-course fairway, Crawford is something of a kingmaker back home in Des Moines. He has shepherded every Democratic presidential nominee in the most important caucus state going back to 1980 — every nominee except for one, that is. Crawford, 65, still blames himself for Clinton’s 2008 third-place finish in the Hawkeye State, from which her campaign never really recovered. He vows that 2016 will be his year to make it right for her. “I’m trying to make amends,” he said.

Crawford was a lobbyist for Monsanto and Exxon. The Democratic Party is riddled with minor ward bosses like Crawford, especially in early states like Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. It’s not a criticism to observe that these communities have leaders. But of the insularity of the political class has enabled institutional actors within the Democratic Party in Iowa to become fused with corporate power through informal and formal financial and social relationships.

As corporations get more and more concentrated, these relationships eventually wear down the competence of a political apparatus. The night before the caucus, the Iowa Democratic Party head said, “These are probably the most prepared we’ve ever been as a party for these caucuses. We’ve run through a few different scenarios, but I can tell you, we’re ready.”

The rhetoric around a recent Wisconsin education event is informative.