Listen When I Tell You Not to Listen to Me

My gut instincts are mistake-prone.

If you are interested in the horse race nature of American politics, the drop-everything-every-four-years-so-we-can-fill-all-the-jobs-in-Washington portion of our public life, you could do no worse than live in either New Hampshire or Iowa for the year before Election Day. This is because, for reasons I could bore you with but will not, Iowa is the first state in the country to hold a vote for President, in January of election year, and New Hampshire is the second state, usually a week later. (Through the spring and summer of election year, the major political parties conduct state-by-state votes, and the winner of the most votes is sometimes, often, usually that party’s candidate for the national election in November.)

These two states fight very hard every four years to hold their place as first, fight so hard that both states always claim to be first every time, even a week apart, because Iowa uses one type of voting system and New Hampshire a completely different one. So they are both always first. It comes down to money: because they are first, both states receive a quadrennial economic boost unlike any other, with political candidates and their support teams and journalists and their support teams needing food, shelter, television time for months before January. Some nationally famous politicians have rented houses in Iowa to live in and signed year-long leases for the year of door-to-door campaigning they will do. Other states would love to be first in the nation, to attract those millions of dollars, but these two small-population states put up a winning fight with both the Democratic and the Republican parties every four years and get to be first in the nation to cast ballots.

From 2000 to 2004, I lived in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a city of about 125,000 in a state of three million. A state that is larger than New York State but with one-sixth of the population. So that means that in 2003, I was in the second-largest city in the first of the two “First in the Nation” vote-casting states for Election 2004: Bush v. Kerry. With George W. Bush running for re-election unopposed, it meant that almost every Democrat elected to any office anywhere in the country was campaigning in Iowa.

Cedar Rapids, Iowa. In the foreground is a Quaker Oats factory. My apartment building is the red brick building smack in the middle of the photo, across the highway from Quaker Oats.

Cedar Rapids, Iowa. In the foreground is a Quaker Oats factory. My apartment building is the red brick building smack in the middle of the photo, across the elevated highway from Quaker Oats.

I am a progressive voter, to the left of most Democrats but tending to vote for members of that party. But I also fall head over ballot for every candidate who claims to be the representative from the Land of New Ideas. Rarely do we hear what those New Ideas might be or how much he or she may think they will cost, but I love the idea of New Ideas. Selling New Ideas is an Old Idea, but it gets me every time. And so my life’s list of candidates I have rooted to run for the next office higher than the one they already possessed includes several people named Kennedy, Gary Hart, the late Paul Tsongas, Bill Bradley, and, in 2003, a North Carolina senator named John Edwards. There are others, but I am blushing with embarrassment while typing this.

I should retire my political instincts. Then-Senator Edwards was one of the few politicians I have ever heard speak about rural as well as urban poverty as a blight, a blight because it is a problem that can be tackled if the country’s political will can be inspired. I was inspired. From 2004-’08, it could be said that he pushed the bigger-name candidates to the left (some might think that a good thing), but from 2004-’08 it could also be said that he was doing some other (scandalous) things.

And I met him! And my immediate in-person sense of the man was: “I do not like him.” In January 2004, days before us Democratic Iowans were to cast our first in the nation votes, our so very first votes that New Hampshire was going to be the second first, so stuff it, New England!, just days before that, I saw him speak. Great speech. People are poor. Terrific. Speech over. In the crowded room, we all discovered that that single door entrance over there was now the single door exit for everyone, including the candidate and his handlers, who must hate situations like this in Iowa and New Hampshire. I was next to him for the five minutes it took to leave. He shook my hand—he shook everyone’s hand within reach. I have met a few politicians and I have met quite a few people who ought to run for office, but I have never been rendered invisible quite as quickly as I was by that man. It may qualify as the single most bizarre social encounter I have ever had: I have been dismissed mid-conversation plenty of times, even made to feel that I offended someone, but never looked at like I did not exist.

Perhaps it was the overwhelming crowd and the fact that I did not immediately produce a way out of the room while he was looking for a way out of the room, or perhaps it was the woman behind me. Or perhaps it was because, a bright man, a good reader of juries in his lawyer life, he felt my instinct to not like him. Or perhaps it was the woman behind me who wanted and received his autograph. I have no idea.

What did I do with this instinct to not like John Edwards? I convinced myself to ignore it and campaigned for him at my caucus site on election night and swung our district over to him. My instinct to ignore my instincts can not be trusted.

I did not reach out to the former Vice Presidential nominee, former Senator, one of the more disliked men in America, for comment.

(This column originally ran on August 7, under the name “Vote for Not-Him.”)

The WordPress Daily Prompt for December 6 asks, “When’s the last time you followed your instinct despite not being sure it was the right thing to do? Did it end up being the right call?”

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