Caucus process doesn’t advance real democracy

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As the breathless, panting political class turns its eager eyes to Iowa, every sane American needs to step back and ask the obvious question: Is this any way to pick a president?

The entire country is essentially coming to a halt to watch what 120,000 idiosyncratic voters in an idiosyncratic state do.

This is like letting a single small city play a pivotal role in the selection of our next president.

If the people of Thornton, Colo., said that Newt Gingrich was their man, would anyone care?

If everyone in Allentown, Pa., stood up for Ron Paul, would the nation notice?

How about Lafayette, La.? Evansville, Ind.? Coral Springs, Fla.? Or Surprise, Ariz.?

All these cities have about as many people as will vote in the Iowa caucuses. The idea that any would play a special, outsize role in choosing the leader of the free world is absurd.

It’s not just that Iowa’s caucus electorate is puny. The far-right tilt of this band of atypical Americans forces Republican candidates to disavow ideas that might make them attractive leaders to the rest of us.

Forced to disavow good idea

Take Mitt Romney’s infamous (and unconvincing) contortions regarding his path-breaking health reform in Massachusetts. This “conservative businessman” enacted universal health care, for Pete’s sake! That’s what’s actually interesting about Mitt. Yet the imperatives of Iowa (and other small early states) have forced Romney to devote much of his time to convincing a few ideologues that his pragmatic, effective leadership on health care has no place at the national level.

It’s bizarre.

As was Newt Gingrich’s related “transgression” Tuesday — when old newsletters from his health care institute were found to have hailed Romneycare when it passed. Gingrich called the measure a potential model for the nation. Newt was right — and that was a good thing. Gingrich added that “we agree entirely with Gov. Romney and Massachusetts legislators that our goal should be 100 percent insurance coverage for all Americans.”

In the broader world, those judgments would mark Gingrich as a common-sense problem-solver. But in surreal Iowa, it means he’s “unreliable” and not conservative enough.

On one level, the groveling is amusing to watch. But on a deeper level, it’s crazy when a handful of right-wing Iowans have the power to tilt the tenor of presidential debate.

And that’s why, if we want something better, it’s up to us to change the system. The structure of the presidential selection process matters because the constituencies it empowers, and the incentives it thus creates, shape the debate.

This is why the Americans Elect process has so much potential power. The idea that we could be freed from having candidates chosen by a handful of zealots in either party, and instead have millions of Americans pick candidates directly via a secure online process, would be transformative. And this year is just the test run.

Matt Miller is co-host of public radio’s “Left, Right & Center.” Email: mattino2@gmail.com.