The 10 biggest Iowa political blunders of 2011

Let’s review the most boneheaded moves from the year in Iowa politics.

This thread is not about wrongheaded policy choices. It may be stupid to cut early childhood education programs, kneecap the state Environmental Protection Commission, or pass an “ag gag” bill that would never survive a court challenge. Yet all of those actions carry potential political benefits, since they appeal to well-funded interest groups or a large group of voters.

My top ten list of Iowa politicians’ mistakes is after the jump.

10. The careless banter in the Iowa House chamber between Speaker Pro Tem Jeff Kaufmann, Majority Whip Erik Helland, and Representative Steve Lukan. They didn’t realize the microphone near them was switched on when they joked about what Kaufmann called “the crazy, give-a-handgun-to-a-schizophrenic bill.” Every politician should know that you always assume every mic is a live mic. The good news is that their conversation tanked chances to pass one of the National Rifle Association’s top legislative priorities in Iowa.

9. State Senator Merlin Bartz enforcing an outdated law against his neighbors to avoid paying the full cost of a new fence around his property. Here’s a public figure up for re-election in a new Senate district, with a Democratic incumbent and a Democratic voter registration advantage. Yet he generated lots of bad local publicity in order to pursue a claim against neighbors over a construction bill in the $600 to $1,000 range. Not a smart move, cheapskate.

8. The Iowa Democratic Party’s foray into hippie-punching by bashing the advocacy group Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement. Even if you don’t always agree with Iowa CCI’s tactics, how does it help Iowa Democrats to attack a non-profit group with thousands of progressive supporters around the state? The effort looks hypocritical when the state party repeatedly used the “corporations are people” quote against Mitt Romney (see also here). Romney never would have made that comment if Iowa CCI activists hadn’t tried to disrupt his speech on the Iowa State Fair soapbox.

7. The State Judicial Nominating Commission passing over women applicants when making a short list for three Iowa Supreme Court vacancies. The commission was working under heightened scrutiny after voters ousted three Supreme Court justices in the 2010 retention elections. Some statehouse Republicans were trying to overhaul the merit-based judicial selection system Iowa has used since the 1960s. Nevertheless, commissioners passed over many experienced women among the 60 Supreme Court applicants. Instead, they sent Governor Terry Branstad a list of eight men and one woman whom the governor would never consider appointing. It looked like an attempt to embarrass Branstad politically, rather than to select a balanced group of highly-qualified potential judges. The upshot is that for the first time since the early 1980s, not a single woman serves on the Iowa Supreme Court.

6. The Iowa legislature failing to act to secure extended unemployment benefits. By passing a simple bill, state representatives and senators could have helped tens of thousands of jobless Iowans qualify for up to $116 million in federal funds. Along with food stamp assistance, unemployment benefits are the most stimulative form of government spending, because recipients spend the extra income immediately on goods and services. Arguably this wasn’t a huge political blunder, because the issue received very little media attention. I’m including it on my list anyway, because a lingering weak economy isn’t good for any Iowa House or Senate incumbent facing re-election in 2012.

5. Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty’s all or nothing bet on the Ames straw poll. His campaign spent big money to rent space outside the venue, buy tickets, and run multiple television and radio commercials statewide this summer. His reward for draining his campaign treasury was a distant third-place showing that undermined his credibility. Pawlenty was out of the presidential race the next day. If he had bypassed the straw poll like Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, he would have had some money to spend in Iowa this fall, and he might have had a turn as the “not Romney” of choice after the decline of Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain.

4. Governor Branstad’s line-item veto of the earned income tax credit expansion–twice. It’s idiotic to veto a policy that would increase disposable income for hundreds of thousands of working Iowa families. Those taxpayers would spend that extra money, perhaps supporting some of the 200,000 new jobs Branstad has promised to create. (The Iowa Fiscal Partnership makes the case here.) But like I said at the top, this thread isn’t about policy substance. I’m including Branstad’s line-item vetoes from April and July because politically, blocking the Iowa Senate Democrats’ top tax policy priority was not smart. This provision was included in two different bills after difficult negotiations with Iowa House Republicans. Branstad gave Senate Democrats no reason to think he will deal with them in good faith. It may cost him a chance to pass education reform or other legislation he wants next year.

3. Iowa Senate Republicans’ failure to capitalize on their chances in the Senate district 18 special election. Branstad handed them a golden opportunity in September. Yes, Democrats recruited a strong candidate in Liz Mathis. Yes, Democrats and allied groups executed a strong early voting effort. Still, how dumb was it for Senate Minority Leader Paul McKinley to take a previously planned overseas vacation that kept him out of Iowa for half of the special election campaign? How dumb was it for Senator Bill Dix to mount a leadership challenge that became a distraction when Senate Republicans should have been working together? (Dix didn’t even confirm that he had the votes to win before calling the leadership election.) No wonder the Republican early voting effort in Senate district 18 was weak.

2. Christie Vilsack running for Congress against Steve King in the new IA-04, rather than in the district that’s the best natural fit for her. Iowa’s new map created a perfect opportunity for Vilsack to run in southeast Iowa, where she grew up and lived for most of her adult life. But Democratic party officials wanted her to run against King in order to avoid a primary against three-term Representative Dave Loebsack in the new IA-02. I would rather let the Democratic voters decide. Now Vilsack faces an uphill battle in IA-04, whereas she would have been a strong favorite to hold IA-02 for the next decade. Loebsack has done relatively poorly in southeast Iowa counties he should carry. This fall he has been voting scared, joining Blue Dogs and Republicans more and more often.

Meanwhile, Vilsack’s campaign will energize GOP turnout in northwest Iowa strongholds. Assuming Mitt Romney becomes the GOP presidential nominee, thousands of Iowa conservatives who might otherwise have stayed home on election day 2012 have reason to show up to support their hero, Steve King. Longtime Republican power broker Doug Gross made this point on Iowa Public Television last weekend:

I think Christie Vilsack won’t have any trouble keeping activists engaged in northwest Iowa which is where it’s very important to be a large republican base turnout.  So, the irony of this is the fact that they got Christie to run against Steve King who actually energized a lot of the republican base.  

1. Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller’s slow-motion capitulation to financial giants as leader of the national working group on fraudulent foreclosure practices. For three decades, Miller built a reputation for consumer protection. He has enough law enforcement experience to know that you don’t enter settlement negotiations blind, without having investigated the alleged crimes in question. But Miller’s negotiators were willing to offer major lenders broad immunity from prosecution over mortgage servicing practices. It made him look like a tool. Compounding the political error, Miller kept promising that a deal was just around the corner, even as the banks upped their demands and attorneys general from several large states abandoned his effort. Fortunately, he is unlikely to deliver any comprehensive settlement.

CORRECTION: The working group Miller leads is negotiating release from civil liability for major lenders (not immunity from criminal prosecution) in exchange for a settlement including a refinancing program and some principal reductions. The release from liability would cover various forms of mortgage servicing fraud, as well as mortgage origination fraud. I still believe that the terms being negotiated are too favorable to the financial institutions, which is one reason several Democratic attorneys general have distanced themselves from the effort. I also remain skeptical that any settlement reached would be adequately enforced. One can only hope Miller proves me wrong about all of the above.

Any relevant thoughts are welcome in this thread.

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  • Sorry, but:

    as one of the so-called hippie punchers I stand by it. The Goodner/Cordaro faction that has successfully taken over CCI and Occupy has tried to spin this as the Democratic Party bashing them on issues, ignoring that what Sue Dvorsky (and less significantly Doug Burns and I) actually said: that we were criticizing the tactics. As for me, no, I don’t think the admittedly killer “corporations are people” soundbite is worth the degradation of the process.

    (And one bonehead move you left off: David Goodner putting himself in a risk-arrest position while he was holding. Weed should be legal, but it’s not, and whether you like his tactics or not he should have been smarter.)

    And why is everyone pretending that Christie Vilsack still lived in Mt. Pleasant? The Vilsacks re-registered in Des Moines as soon as Tom left office. It’s Leonard Boswell, who IS going to lose to Latham, she should have challenged, not Loebsack.

    • there was no good reason

      for the IDP to make a big public show of criticizing Iowa CCI’s tactics. I see nothing gained for the IDP from that.

      Agree, not wise to bring marijuana with you when you are occupying someone’s office.

      The new IA-03 would be a horrible fit for Christie Vilsack. I expect Boswell to lose to Latham, but she would lose that district by a larger margin. Running in southeast Iowa makes the most sense for her. She could hold IA-02 easily in my opinion. I am not convinced Loebsack can hold that district, especially in an off-year election.

      • what would be...

        the rationale for challenging Loebsack, given that Christie Vilsack wouldn’t have been running a Fallon style from the left challenge? “You have a job I want” isn’t a strong basis for a candidacy.

        The point of challenging the Grassley shout down is that the tactic alienates swing voters and IDP – and I – wanted to be clear that it wasn’t the Democrats doing it. The story wasn’t Grassley’s Social Security position, it was People Yelled At Grassley.  

        • what Loebsack challenge?

          no rationale needed. At the time, he was drawn in with Braley. Not sure why Vilsack’s mailing address is a big deal when Loebsack had to sell his house and move, right?

          How would the Dems benefit from this scenario? I already calculated and published 2010 head-to-head partisan shares of the Congressional vote for new IA-02, so I’m not going to re-do and am working from memory. The Dem advantage was less than a point — I think it was 0.6. It would not have been the worst thing in the world to see which candidate would have charged up Dems & independents the most in new IA-02.

          As an aside — and this is just a personal observation — there’s lots of rhetoric about gee, what a shame there aren’t more women or why don’t they step up?

          The incumbency protection program is a big factor in keeping women out of the process. I also look at how Bachmann “played by the rules” with the Straw Poll and dotted every i/crossed every t with the FAMiLY LEADER freak show, just to get dissed for weaker campaigns. I am of the opinion that if women want to play, they’re going to have to start breaking the rules or making their own, so I am unlikely to be “shocked, shocked” by a primary challenge, although in this case, it was an open district.

          • As far as I recall

            not a soul suggested that Bruce Braley should stand aside. It was always supposed to be Loebsack. Yeah, I’ll frankly admit a big chunk of this for me is my resentment at the implication that it was supposed to be my guy taking one for the team. I was a Loebsacker back in two thousand freakin’ five when no one gave him a chance.

            Thanks for just as frankly admitting that for you it’s in large part a gender thing. I submit my collected works for female candidates over the years. But we worked our socks off for three decades trying to beat Jim Leach and I for one wasn’t going to abandon the guy who finally did it.

            • it's a tough situation,

              I agree nobody called on Braley to take one for the team.

              I would say it goes beyond gender. It bothers me to see certain people called on to serve the party by way of publicity, fundraising and all that and then get the back of the hand when there’s an open district. Say what you want about her, but Vilsack has done a lot for the Dems.

              Loebsack was smart to call that almost-instant dibs, while her response was sluggish. That weakened her claim, IMO.

            • it's a tough situation,

              I agree nobody called on Braley to take one for the team.

              I would say it goes beyond gender. It bothers me to see certain people called on to serve the party by way of publicity, fundraising and all that and then get the back of the hand when there’s an open district. Say what you want about her, but Vilsack has done a lot for the Dems.

              Loebsack was smart to call that almost-instant dibs, while her response was sluggish. That weakened her claim, IMO.

      • CCI has been pathetic...

        …and antics of abusing others rights in shoutdowns and screaming matches make anything CCI does not credible.

        Corrupting and taking over the local Occupoo squatters and wingnuts just made their case worse.

        Sensible Democrats were absolutely right to distance themselves from these fringe elements.

  • in my mind, #1 falls under

    actions carry potential political benefits … for Tom Miller. It’s only a blunder if he plans on future office based on a consumer advocacy platform.

    • Future office?!?

      The guy’s had the same job since the Carter era, save for that brief Bonnie Campbell interregnum when Miller decided he was going to be the anti-choice Democrat for governor…

      • I agree

        he isn’t planning a conventional run for another office, kind of my point. I think he’s looking for an appointment in the next Obama administration.

  • Congrats to desmoinesdem

    for making Chris Cillizza’s “Top Iowa political tweeters ” list:…  

  • blunder

    handcuffing a 14 yo who gets good grades?

    • she got what she wanted

      Oh sure, there’s rhetoric about “we want to talk to the president” etc but civil disobedience with arrest is a  choreographed event. No one gets arrested unless they plan to or unless they deviate from the game plan. Or unless they do something dumb like forgetting to check their pockets.

  • Here's why #2 was smart

    “Bachmann later called protesters ‘Obama’s reelection advance team'” BZZT. WRONG/ And THAT’s why Sue Dvorsky did the right thing denouncing those tactics: because if we don’t, we get carp like this. Of course, we still get crap like this, but we’re on the record.