I’m a 60-year old first time caucus goer living in a middle class neighborhood in the 46th District. Over the years I’ve had a more than casual interest in national politics but I’ve never before been drawn to participate in any political activity so early in an election year. It has been a long time since national policy and priorities have gone according to my preference, so I guess frustration was part of the draw to this year’s caucus.
I had found McCain interesting until he started campaigning in earnest. He lost me in his efforts to blend into his party, a party that seems to have lost its roots and to have been hijacked by zealots committed to returning economically to the industrial age of the late nineteenth century and for foreign policy to the third century B.C. I miss the days not too long ago when Republicans advocated a balanced budget, and moderation in spending with some obligation to the poor and the middle class. So I was interested in attending the Democratic Party caucus.
As I walked down the street to the elementary school where the caucus was to be held, I noticed that there were significantly more cars parked on the street than usual. Three blocks from the school cars were circling the block looking for a parking place. I had never seen this before, as the neighborhood is entirely residential and school events never create such a parking problem. The scene reminded my of hunting for street parking before a Sonics game.
People got out of their cars and walked to the school as if they were going to church. Mostly couples but some singles and small groups; they talked quietly among themselves, no shouting or laughing. I fell into line and found myself conducted toward the assembly room of the school. The line slowed to a crawl outside the door, as people at the front of the line squeezed into the crowd within.
The congregation inside the assembly room was supposed to be organized by precinct. Looking over peoples shoulders you could see a few people were holding up scraps of paper with numbers on them. These numbers obviously were precinct numbers but you couldn’t read them very well and many were obscured by the crowd but it didn’t matter anyway because the people were wedged into the room so tightly that no one could move. Nonetheless, good tidings seems to emanate from his petrified thicket of lost voters. A warm murmur blanketed the throng, folks seemed congenial and patient. As the precincts were assigned rooms in the school, the assembly room cleared out enough for others to find out what precinct they were in and where that group had gone.
My precinct had a large class room at the end of the hall on the second floor. It too was filled with people standing around the sides of the room and at the rear. Perhaps from automatic respect for the absent teacher, people kept away from the front of the classroom and packed into the rest of it. It was a very well behaved group.
Most of the people in the class room were boomers, roughly my age. There were a few people of the 70’s set and very few people in their twenties or late teens. There appeared to be more women than men, but not by a wide margin, and the group seemed to be composed of comfortably middle class people. Demographically this appeared to be a Hillary crowd.
When we were all assembled a woman stepped to the front of the class and introduced herself as Diane something and said that she was the precinct chairperson. She quickly enlisted her husband and a friend to help and read a printed page describing the forthcoming procedure. She read kind of fast and the language seemed a little unclear, so at the end I had no idea of what we were going to do. She looked up and asked for questions. People looked at each other blankly but no one said anything so she pressed on. She described in her own words what we were about to do and it sounded like there would be a lot of talking and discussion, but I was still unclear about precisely what we were undertaking. They tallied up the voting sheets we had signed when we came in and determined that there were 72 people in our group and 14 undecideds among them, me included.
It was Clinton people on one side of the room, the Obamas on the other (like a spelling bee), with the undecideds sent to the rear. One person from each committed group spoke for one minute or so, then she selected one from each group to do it again. There was no opportunity for either group to speak among themselves and the undecideds weren’t given a chance to speak.
What interested me was that the speakers strongly tended to mouth the slogans bantered in the campaigns. There was very little reference to actual policy and what was said about it was not entirely accurate. Of course the one minute limitation had something to do with that, but it would be fair to say that most people in the classroom were not up on the details and did not seem to be terribly concerned about specifics.
One thing that I find very frustrating with campaigns is that the candidates exert a great deal of effort avoiding specifics. The idea is to avoid taking a position, so as to avoid alienating anyone. In 2004 most Democrats were against the war, but Kerry got the nomination because he was “electable” and a significant part of his being “electable” was that he didn’t say anything. I mean that in the most literal way, using “say” to mean transmit information. When he was campaigning for the nomination his talk about the Iraq War was incomprehensible. I found transcripts of some of his statements and, while long winded and full of terminology, it was literally gibberish. I couldn’t believe it at first but it truly was.
This caucus meeting though gave me the sense that the vagaries mouthed by politicians might mean something to people. No doubt people attach different expectations to broad words and phrases and in that way a politician broadens his or her base. The meaning associated with spoken generalities, however, could not be of primary importance to someone cleaving to a slogan-ish campaign pronouncement.
What was important to these people in choosing a candidate? For some of the women my age Clinton is a symbol of the recognition of women as equals. I know a woman for example who would never vote third party, voted for Bush twice but would vote for a woman regardless of party (that is Republican or Democratic) or platform. While such an extreme attitude is I’m sure rare, there were probably at least a few woman in my group who were influenced by gender sufficiently to lean toward Clinton. There was no one of color in my group so there was no such countervailing influence.
Nationally the issue of greatest significance has for years been the war. The subject did not even come up in my group until near the end when a little elderly lady stood up, spread her arms and loudly said “What about the war?” One person on each side of the room was promptly assigned that topic for a one minute discourse. Each speaker charged off into clouds of personal praise for his and her candidate and failed to mention the war, so people were again assigned the one minute topic. The Obama speaker said that Obama was more certain to end the war, but the Clinton speaker said that she was committed to ending as well.
Hillary Clinton drew cheers here this week when she shouted about ending the war, but to my knowledge she has never voted on significant war-related issue in a manner that was not endorsed by Bush. And I cannot discern anything in her voting record to indicate that she is not perfectly prepared to start bombing Iran. Her web site includes a commitment to keep permanent military bases in Iraq, to make a token withdrawal effort and have a few meetings on the subject. She talks about the strategic geo-political significance of the region. Getting out of Iraq clearly means something different to her than it does to most people I know.
My little precinct then took a second vote and one person went from Obama to undecided, thereby rendering his vote meaningless in terms in the final tally, as there were to be no undecided delegates. The undecideds seemed to split about evenly and three decided to remain undecided, putting them in the same position they would be in if they had not attended. The final vote: four to one for Obama.
The crowd leaving the school was almost as quiet as the one that had gone in, maybe a little more garrulous. It was a little bit like we had been to church. Participation in the caucus was a expression faith, faith in a political system and faith in the good will of neighbors. More than backing an agenda, the votes had been an expression of faith in one or the other candidate to do the right thing, however each voter saw that. My quest for some kind of analytical clarity was not advanced in the least but I walked down the street with a great deal of respect for the system and for my neighbors. People had been sincere, well intentioned, open and respectful of each other. A well spent afternoon.