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 State Senator Merlin Bartz enforcing an outdated law against his neighbors to avoid paying the full cost of a new fence around his property.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.