Column, 651 words

You Can’t Milk a Butter Cow

Donald Kaul

Tim Pawlenty, erstwhile governor of Minnesota, gave up his bid for the presidency after finishing third in Iowa’s Ames Straw Poll, shocking the vast majority of Americans who didn’t know he was running.

I don’t know whether it was a wise move or not, but it doesn’t speak well of his perseverance. Getting knocked out of the race by the Ames Straw Poll is the political equivalent of being electrocuted by a flashlight battery.

The Ames poll is a completely fraudulent event. It has no statistical validity. It has no predictive value. It’s as phony as the Iowa butter cow at the Iowa State Fair, the one to which politicians make pilgrimages as though it were a holy relic.

What? You didn’t know the butter cow was a fake?

The Butter Cow (Iowa State Fair / Flickr)

The Butter Cow (Iowa State Fair / Flickr)

Let me tell you about that. Early in my journalism career, I went to the Iowa State Fairgrounds during the winter, long after the fair was over.

I got a little lost (an investigative technique I have often used to my advantage) and found myself wandering into a storage building on the grounds.

And there, standing before my very eyes, was a wire sculpture in the approximate shape of a cow. Yes friends, it was the butter cow without her makeup.

I was shocked. Like most people I had believed that the butter cow was just that, a cow sculpted entirely of butter. To find that it was a wire sculpture smeared with butter, then shaped to look cow-like, made me feel like a 32-year-old who’s just learned that there’s no Santa Claus.

I think my cynical nature dates from that moment. Believe me, that nature has come in handy through many years spent covering politics — particularly when it comes to straw polls.

Less than 17,000 Republicans showed up to vote in this year’s poll, and they were charged $30 each for the privilege of casting their straw. In previous years there have been accusations that some candidates rigged the election, Chicago-style, by busing in out-of-staters and paying their poll tax.

As a way of discerning the leader of the Republican field, it’s as empty of meaning as a politician’s promise.

Yet the national press, ever watchful of a trend, pays a terrifying amount of attention to it. After months of hearing the various candidates debate, give speeches, and otherwise make fools of themselves, it’s the first time anybody actually counts anything, so the press jumps all over it.

On this occasion Michele Bachmann was the close winner over Ron Paul and has accordingly been deemed a serious contender for the Republican nomination. Paul, who got nearly the same number of votes, continues to bask in irrelevance. I don’t understand it either.

However, if getting the support of 4,800 Iowans — many of whom don’t believe in evolution and some of whom even doubt gravity — constitutes seriousness, then the country is further along in its decline than I thought.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: Bachmann isn’t a serious candidate. She’s good at saying outrageous things with the utmost sincerity, but at the end of the day she seems about a ham sandwich short of a picnic.

Her chief value is as a firewall to the candidacy of Rick Perry, the governor of Texas. He’s as loopy as she is, but is also precisely the kind of swaggering, blustering bully that conservatives find charming.

But never mind him. Have you heard the news? The New York Times says President Barack Obama has adopted a new strategy to combat GOP intransigence. It’s called fighting back — you know, going out among the people and calling Republicans rude names.

He’s not very good at it yet, but he’s practicing. That’s something.

This campaign promises to be a lot like the butter cow — less than meets the eye.

OtherWords columnist Donald Kaul lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. http://otherwords.org