Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Ed Fallon Versus The Empty Podium

Days Until Bush Leaves Office = 237

Tonight at 7:00 at the State Historical Center in Des Moines, the Progressive Coalition of Central of Central Iowa (PCCI) and Central Iowa Operation Democracy (CIOD) are conducting a "Candidate Forum" Q&A for the IA-03 Democratic primary. Both six-term incumbent Congressman Leonard Boswell and challenger Ed Fallon, the former state legislator, have been invited. As of this writing, only Ed Fallon has committed to appear; Congressman Boswell has declined the invitation. However, according to the Forum's sponsors, the show will go on nonetheless, with Fallon on stage opposite an empty podium.

Debates in primary elections, at least at the congressional district level, are quite frequently commonplace. The topics are usually local, the arguments often familiar, the terms of reference reliably predicable: incumbents argue for a continuation of their tenure, and challengers argue that it is time for a change, with both making their case largely on the basis that one of them has been in Washington for awhile.

Incumbents, of course, dislike primary challenges from within their own party, viewing them as distractions from the real job of winning their biennial general election campaigns, and so feel little inclination to indulge in debating primary challengers. There is a certain amount of legitimate political wisdom to this. Allowing a challenger who is usually less than a household name to share the stage with an incumbent can automatically bestow a legitimacy and stature upon the challenger that they would otherwise be hard pressed to achieve on their own, so incumbents are often understandably reluctant to bequeath such a gift to their rivals. Most election cycles, it's a no-brainer.

But there are also times when, facing scandal or otherwise unpopular in their districts, incumbents are obliged to engage their primary challengers, or risk, even in victory, the prospect of greater vulnerability going into the general election campaign. The question in the Iowa 3rd this year is whether Leonard Boswell, perceived by many in the Democratic base as too closely aligned with President Bush on a number of issues, is therefore sufficiently compromised as to require him to confront Ed Fallon's candidacy, or whether the institutional advantages of incumbency will allow him to waive Fallon off and cruise to a seventh term in a district that has already been tagged as Safe Democratic.

Clearly, Leonard Boswell believes anti-incumbency to be a malady strictly confined to Republicans, with no contagion beyond the watershed 2006 midterm elections that saw Democratic majorities returned to both houses of Congress for the first time in twelve years. He may be right, at least with regard to the general political environment of 2008. Ed Fallon, on the other hand, sees Boswell's record on Iraq and other national security matters as an issue he can use against the congressman. Given that Democratic primary election results are mainly driven by the party's activist base, for whom Iraq remains the hottest of buttons, he may be right.

And so tonight's event at the Historical Society presents a view of the entire primary campaign in microcosm: an incumbent who sees no need to engage his challenger, and the challenger left with no one to debate but an empty podium, confronting thin air.

A week from today we'll know the result of the IA-03 primary, and whether Boswell or Fallon correctly judged the mood of the district. But it is often said, particularly with regard to politics and government, that history is made by those who show up.

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