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Saturday, February 9, 2008

Caucus-sucker Blues

posted by on February 9 at 17:31 PM

Over in the gym of Stevens Elementary, around 1pm, it was decidedly not a madhouse, though it was hot and sweaty. The precinct lines were orderly and easy to find, the conversation level was at a low murmur, there was even a woman sitting in a chair and knitting. Or crocheting. People talked about their everyday stuff (the onset of Osteomyelitis, working for Microsoft) and declared their affinities (“I’m Obama, I’m on the list”). I was mainly surprised to discover that there wasn’t one person I knew in the room, and only one or two that I recognized. After signing in, and being called back because I’d neglected to fill in the most important slot (UNDECIDED), I sat down and waited for the show to start.

By 1:15, it was becoming something of a madhouse, and people had to start stripping off layers of clothing to keep from being overwhelmed by heat. Not nearly enough folding chairs were available, so people stood in clusters while the registration lines snaked around and through them. Still, the tone was eager and cordial, even among the preachers.

In my left ear, an Obama proselytizer with short hair and a “Kennedy” button on his North Face fleece wooed an elementary school teacher like a Mormon elder on your doorstep. He extolled Obama’s $4,000 per student tuition credit, something I missed in his stump speech, so I listened in. I was eager for the moment when he would turn his pitch to me. His tone was a big turn-off, so I fanned myself with a Hillary flyer and waited some more. My undecidedness isn’t theoretical—I really can’t truly choose between these two candidates, both of whom I admire and mistrust separately and equally. I have been hoping to hear someone indicate to me just exactly what it is about either of the two—beyond the theater of the campaign, beyond the theater of their similar-but-not-the-same platforms, beyond even the theater of their voting records—is the reason I should want them to be president. I still have Kerry damage, I suppose. That sense of throwing all your will and hope and credulity behind a guy who just kind of wasn’t there, just because you had to get behind someone, and the long (three years and counting) walk of shame that followed. Not because he didn’t win, though that made it insufferable. But because who among us would vote for him today? That’s my objection to politics in general, I suppose: the arbitrariness. And for all the change rhetoric I keep hearing, I’m not fully convinced that either senator is going to be able to represent the kind of holistic moral/intellectual/ethical redirection the office so desperately needs. They might, though. I can’t decide. I wasn’t alone. There were 16 of us in my precinct, out of 229, when the first vote was tallied.

It wasn’t exactly true that I didn’t recognize anyone in that gym. This precinct is generally middle-to-upper-middle class liberal minded overwhelmingly (but no, not entirely) white Capitol Hill. My people, for whatever it’s worth. There were laptops, candidate stickers, conspicuous glasses frames, abundant fleece, slogan-bearing t-shirts, anti-war buttons both fatuous and sympathetic, the odd unironic mustache, the odd ironic one, etc. It was so tempting to generalize about them, about us, for the sake of clinging to the good old Seattle (or is it just adolescent) illusion that just because we inhabit the same neighborhood, the same commercial demographic and class prerogatives, didn’t mean we had anything in common. But the simple fact of not knowing anyone, not one single person, made it feel both unfair and irrelevant. I didn’t feel alienated. I felt like I was part of an actual literal community—that horrible, stupid word. And I was. We all were. For that, the caucus felt useful and positive. The one generalization that resonated: we were all there, all participating (or trying to), all eager for our effort to mean something. So we have that, at least, in common. Which is not nothing.

After the Pledge of Allegiance (is there anyone among us who doesn’t choke on “under god”?), the guy from the 43rd district announced on the almost inaudible PA that for the first time in many years, “Washington has a relevant role in the nomination process.” The whole place exploded with giddy applause. (He followed by saying how today would determine where ABC News, CNN, even Fox News would broadcast from tonight. There were predictable boos for Fox. I was hoping they would carry over to curse the idea that we should pay any attention to what those news outlets did or said, but no such luck. At the very least, the idea that the importance of today’s caucus was that it would energize Wolf Blitzer was fractionally less inspiring than the idea that we were helping pick the Democratic candidate.)

“Is anyone here undecided?” It was the guy with the Kennedy badge and the Mormon mien. I turned and told him I was, hoping for discourse, but prepared for a verbal sparring match. Not that I have strong convictions about Obama, for or against. It’s more that I’ve developed a massive shoulder chip against politcal acolytes. He asked if I was undecided between Clinton or Obama, which confused me. He wondered if maybe I might still be for Edwards. I said I liked Edwards but there didn’t seem to be much point in being “for” him now. He countered, “there’s not much point in voting for Hillary, either, man,” and was very proud of the line, which I fully walked right into. He asked me if I knew who Bill Maher was, and I said yes (without bothering to disclose that I the first time I saw Maher was on the last episode of the old Max Headroom TV show in 1988). He told me how on Maher’s show, a leading Republican pollster said the Rs were champing at the bit at the prospect of a Clinton vs. McCain race, because Hillary mobilizes the right, and Obama isn’t as polarizing a figure and that’s probably the most important thing to think about going into the general election. I said I thought that voting for a president based on strategy like that was immoral. He said this, which I interrupted our conversation to write down: “Voting isn’t an expression of ideas. It’s a pragmatic decision of the lesser of two evils.” The thing is, I know that’s essentially true. But I also absolutely refuse to believe it. More to the point, this from the guy who’s making the case for the candidate of change? In fairness, this guy was just trying to say something he though would convince a political simpleton and contrarian to write his candidate’s name on the sheet so he could work his way up the ladder of delegates or whatever. You can’t blame him. And in the end, he had a VERY good day.

There then followed a period of everyone in the room seemingly talking at once while “votes” (or whatever you’re supposed to call them) were tallied. At length. The somewhat beleaguered woman running our precinct festivities introduced herself by saying “Hi, I’m Wendy and I don’t know what I’m doing.” This seemed to be the general trend; given that the turn out was more or less unprecedented, the efforts at pre-organization were a little undernourished (nowhere near as bad as the SCCCCC fiasco, it appears). But we eventually got to the part I was most looking forward to, when people got up to make the case for their candidates. And it was the part that was the most complicated. The gym was transformed into a giant speaker’s corner, an explosion of dueling advocacies—people up on tables, shouting about why Obama represented hope, or why Hillary represented experience, or why Hillary’s experience was actually a negative given the current climate, or why given the current climate, what we really needed was an agent of change. There was no part of this scene that excited even a whisper of cynicism in me. Some of the speakers were articulate and passionate, others were lackluster and cowed. But they all got up and were heard. Well, not all were heard, because some were drowned out by smatterings of applause from across the room or people shouting at other people to keep it down. It did in fact feel like democracy. It did not feel massively efficient. It also didn’t feel particularly dignified. The main thing was that however impassioned the various speakers were (6 or 7 for Obama, 2 or 3 for Hillary), no one said anything that we hadn’t heard. The point was their conviction. A few people mentioned 9/11, a few more mentioned the war and health care, citing specific issues with the candidates’ plans, but almost everyone said “hope” or “change.” When one of my fellow undecideds—who, like me, would be happy to vote for either Clinton or Obama—got up and asked a pointed, specific question about how either candidate was going to deal with the imminent recession and the already-here foreclosure crisis, the very next speaker was an utterly sincere, well-spoken young guy who said he was voting for Obama because of one word, “hope.” (I remembered when Mr. Clinton captivated the democratic constituency with the same word in 1992, though it was capitalized in his case.) The next speaker said her was “fed up with politics as usual. I’ve been fed up since Kennedy was shot. I don’t want that to happen again. It’s up to us.”

You can’t argue with that kind of conviction. It dominated the room. And it won the day, handily. The initial tally in our precinct was Obama 179, Clinton 34, undecided 16. When it was explained that there would be no “undecided” delegates, it became clear that even though I remained uncertain, “voting” to declare that condition would be a futile and vain gesture. So I made a choice and changed my vote, as did most, if not all of my ambivalent confreres. I spoke to one of them and we agreed that even though it was frustrating not being able to settle on a candidate, neither one of us felt particularly enriched for the experience of feeling like we had to choose one before leaving the gym so that our presence there would count for something. But I’m pretty certain we were in the minority. While walking home, I heard a middle-aged woman panting into her cell phone, “I haven’t felt this kind of… exhilaration… since Kennedy was elected! I just can’t believe it!”

Yes, I think she can.

RSS icon Comments


Dribbleglass the undecided! You attention whore, you.

Posted by mookie | February 9, 2008 5:59 PM

Dude, I can see you're very proud of what you secretly believe to be a highmindedness that is beyond the understanding of the simpletons who surround you, but get over yourself. It's not about you.

Posted by Terry | February 9, 2008 6:00 PM

I haven't yet read your post, but the subject line: Caucus-sucker blues. Fucking brilliant.

Posted by otla | February 9, 2008 6:01 PM

don't the Obamatons know that JFK barely won and without his Dad buying Illinois, he'd of lost?

He was not a uniter. He was hated. He got _ _ _ _ BECAUSE he was hated.

Oops, taliking facts again. Sorry.

Posted by unPC | February 9, 2008 6:04 PM

Way to paint up the picture.

Posted by Lloyd Clydesdale | February 9, 2008 6:18 PM

what was the final delegate count? which way did the undecideds break?

Posted by josh | February 9, 2008 6:32 PM

whom is it about, if not me?

Posted by SEAN NELSON, EMERITUS | February 9, 2008 6:46 PM

I've been looking for someone to articulate this for me:

"...and Obama isn’t as polarizing a figure and that’s probably the most important thing to think about going into the general election. I said I thought that voting for a president based on strategy like that was immoral."

I ditto you Sean. It's immoral...or somehow just wrong.
Many many many Obamatons give this rationalization for their vote, but what is ironic about this rationale is this: instead of voting for hope, they are voting for fear. Just as much fear in this election as hope.

Posted by liked the caucus | February 9, 2008 6:55 PM

I always take a pause when the "under God" phrase comes up; it kind of fucks up the cadence, but I can never bring myself to utter out loud something I patently disbelieve.

Posted by COMTE | February 9, 2008 7:00 PM

I always take a pause when the "under God" phrase comes up; it kind of fucks up the cadence, but I can never bring myself to utter out loud something I patently disbelieve.

Posted by COMTE | February 9, 2008 7:02 PM

Well, I read six paragraphs of this tripe before giving up in disgust. I don't care how your tale ends. Undecideds are attention whores. Get over yourself.

Posted by elenchos | February 9, 2008 8:05 PM

@4 - Kennedy got shot because he was riding in an open limousine without the bullet-proof bubble top. Hated - by whom - oh yeah, the guy who shot him. The nation wept in unison - can you imagine the nation weeping for W?

Undecided = attention whore. Wow - that's so zeitgeisty. I used to make fun of people who are/were undecided. And now I am/are one.

Remember the upper Dean summer and then the ineluctably downer Kerry autumn? That's why Obama is so iffy on my radar. As much as we're all seeking some sort of deliverance, I can't wrap my mind around the idea that O is the deliverer.

Posted by RHETT ORACLE | February 9, 2008 8:44 PM

No, normal people are not seeking deliverance. Or a savior. Or any other freaky bullshit like that. Normal people are picking a viable candidate who has a shot at winning. Even if just picking does not lead to some kind of transcendent moral perfection. Please do not act like you are the only one on Earth who has noticed that each candidate comes with flaws. We know; we're the grownups, after all.

You'd have to have some kind of crazy inflated sense of your own importance to think that the world will end if you choose in error. Being unable to make up your mind is nothing to be proud of.

Posted by elenchos | February 9, 2008 9:35 PM

Glad you went to your caucus. BTW, you can certainly send uncommitted delegates to the convention. We had a few at our site. In fact, Washington State sent uncommitted delegates to the National Convention in 1992. So someone received some incorrect information.

Posted by me | February 9, 2008 10:24 PM

We sent the nation's largest uncommitted delegation in 1992. I remember helping forge the alliance of Harkin, Tsongas, and other people who made it happen.

But ... not this year. This year it doesn't seem that necessary, since we have some really good candidates to choose amongst.

Posted by Will in Seattle | February 9, 2008 10:50 PM

All I know is that my caucus was stressful as hell and the Obama kids were so rude to us Hillary supporters. I got there early and we were all told the rules and that we could put up campaign posters but we had to use blue tape (painters tape).

Me and one other supporter put up all of our Hillary posters since we had blue tape. The Obama supporters didn't have tape and so after we put up all the posters, the Obama supporters then made this huge deal "wait you can't put political posters up in a church" so they tore down all the posters. After they tore them down, the caucus leader said that they were wrong and that the posters should have stayed up, but by that time it was to late

Then at the end when Hillary and Obama supporters were allowed time to give their statements on their candidates, the Obama supporters hogged the mic and 4 or 5 of them talked and talked and talked, while only one Hillary supporter was given a chance to make their statement at which time the precinct leader who was an Obama fan said "you get one minute" even though the Obama supporters had just taken up a good 15 mins with their "Hope, Kennedy, Change, Hope, blah blah blah"

I absolutely hate the Caucus system.

Posted by Alex | February 10, 2008 12:14 AM

I had a good time at the caucus today. It was noisy, since we were in a big meeting hall with other precincts, but overall it was pretty mellow, and there wasn't really any attempt to convince people to change their candidate or not be undecided.

We were lucky because the guy who volunteered to be our precinct coordinator had been a delegate last time, so he knew that we could in fact send an uncommitted delegate (we didn't; enough people committed or changed so we had 4 for Obama and 1 for Clinton).

I also felt that everyone respected other people's opinions or decisions about who to support; what I find most heartening was that it seemed like even though the majority of people were passionate about either Obama or Clinton we were also willing to support the eventual nominee if it wasn't our candidate.

We also only had one exactly-timed one minute speech for each candidate - I don't know if that's because we weren't really interested in trying to sway the others' opinions or because of a misinterpretation of the instruction print-out that we were going by.

Here's hoping the dems figure out how to do it better and are better prepared next time! I also think there should be some kind of absentee participation available for people who have to work or aren't into the caucus thing.

Posted by michelle | February 10, 2008 1:11 AM

"I always take a pause when the "under God" phrase comes up; it kind of fucks up the cadence, but I can never bring myself to utter out loud something I patently disbelieve."

Me too, especially after doing some research on the pledge recently. Better late than never, I guess.

Posted by dittoforme | February 10, 2008 1:24 AM

Dear 13: I am on the cusp of turning 70 years old. In 1960, I was fortunate enough to work for JFK - Bobby was my boss. I know what unendurable political excitement is all about, and I know all about hoping to change the things one can and accepting the things one cannot.

As I said: never before have I been undecided in choosing a candidate. This time, I am. You must be on lots of retsina to think that because I have announced my unprecedented indeciseiveness connotes some sort of self-inflated self-importance.

Both Hillary and Obama are equally qualified and equally impressive. But I must say there is a lot of self-fulfilling prophecy going on out there in slogdom. "Polls say" and all of that meretricious bullshit. What about Iowa, what about New Hampshire? The polls were dead wrong, and they will continue to be dead wrong because people are going to lie.

So I really need no lectures about how I should feel, or how I should conduct myself, or how I should think. Obama is not the second coming of Christ - would that he were. You may dismiss Hillary for all of the right or wrong reasons, but you still dismiss her. That's something you should get over.

Sounds trite: but may the best person win - Seattle PC and all.

Posted by RHETT ORACLE | February 10, 2008 2:18 AM

You and I were at the same caucus, but different precincts. I didn't know anybody either, and didn't really care to get to know all the middle-glass trendy-glasses-wearing Boomers. But the process was interesting and I felt good about being able to participate and knowing that it would make an impact in the election. I agree with pretty much everything you said here, except for the part about cynicism; there were plenty of times I felt cynical.

Posted by Emily | February 10, 2008 3:09 AM

there's no shame in being vacillant about touching the fire twice.


there really is only one way to settle this. did the woman have one needle or two?

Posted by unbreecided | February 10, 2008 11:01 AM

During our speech time, a woman on the overpopulated Obama side of the small gymnasium my precinct was ushered to made an impassioned plea for our sewing-circle-evoking Clinton group to change our minds and support the less-polarizing candidate, the candidate Republicans don't hate so much. That is my least-favorite pro-Obama argument, and hearing it again made me glad to be on the side I had chosen only the day before.

What infuriates me so much about that argument is that few people are willing to acknowledge why she is so hated; because she's a she. That they are willing to choose a candidate based on avoiding the repercussions of other people's misogynism makes me want to throw up. As was succinctly said @8, they are voting for fear. I refuse to disabuse myself of the notion that we have the luxury of making decisions based on logic and reason, not fear.

I have no problem with people who prefer Obama based on who he is, his policy, or his voting record, and obviously I will vote for him if he is nominated. I do have a problem with being treated like I was the enemy because I had the audacity to prefer the candidate who hateful scumbags like Rush Limbaugh think they have a better chance against.

Anyway, thank you for this, it was a great read and I don't understand how it could elicit such vitriol from the likes of Elenchos; I read honesty and observation in this story, not pride or attention-seeking.

Posted by Aislinn | February 10, 2008 2:19 PM

@22 - true, Aislinn, it is unfair that the GOP and Independents are attacking Sen Clinton more due to her gender than they would if she was a he.

However, it's also reality. It may be unfair, but it's the ground on which we have to consider all our options.

Hopefully, most people made decisions based on who they wanted for President, and not on things like that.

Posted by Will in Seattle | February 10, 2008 7:12 PM

After the Pledge of Allegiance (is there anyone among us who doesn’t choke on “under god”?),

It always bothered me until I was twelve or thirteen.

Posted by T.J. | February 11, 2008 5:32 PM

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