Suicide Bomber Meets Iowa Prairie Home Companion

Jan. 3 (Bloomberg) — The banality of Iowa is one of the themes this week as the country moves into the presidential primary election season. So what if Senator Barack Obama of Illinois is pulling ahead? Do we care if Senator John McCain of Arizona is also moving forward, just as he did in 2000?

The redeeming feature is the Prairie Home Companion quality of the event. The humdrum of groups of fifty-something Iowans getting together in a room and agreeing to settle on their second-favorite candidate has charm — especially compared with the election process in much of the world.

Contrast Iowa's campaign timeline with that of another place in election mode: Pakistan.

October: Suicide bomber gives up his life to disrupt Benazir Bhutto's return from exile. He and another bomber kill almost 140 and wound 500 others. Sorrow reigns in Karachi, but Bhutto escapes. "If it had killed only Benazir Bhutto then it would have been OK," the Associated Press reports Mahmoud Al Hasan, leader of a militant group, as saying.

October: Sam Brownback gives up presidential campaign, narrowing the field in Iowa. Sorrow reigns at home in Kansas, but the senator puts a good face on it: "My yellow brick road just came up too short," Brownback says of his insufficient funds.

November: General Pervez Musharraf deplores chaos in Pakistan, and declares state of emergency and announces that he will stay the course. "Dangerous," he calls the situation, echoing the analysis of dozens of leaders in his region before him. In following days unrest continues. In the town of Multan, 1,000 lawyers pelt police with stones.

November: Senator Hillary Clinton deplores chaos in Iowa and declares that she is tough and announces that she will stay the course in presidential contest. "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen," the New York Senator says, echoing Harry Truman. In Moultonborough, New Hampshire, McCain lectures on cheer in winter to a crowd that includes his 95-year-old mother.

December: "We're worried about the elections, we have our reservations," Bhutto says. "But we're going in under protest," she concludes about the format proclaimed by Musharraf.

December: "In the last election, congressional leaders ran on a promise they would reform earmarks," Bush says about a prison museum and a sailing school that Congress funded in this election year. "They made some progress, but not nearly enough."

December: Bhutto bags a few supporters on line, with a new Web site, "Pakistan is at a crossroads," she says.

December: Mike Huckabee bags a pheasant in Osceola, Iowa. "Maybe it will show that I really understand the culture of the outdoors," the former Arkansas governor says.

December: Assassins kill Bhutto in a bomb attack in the city of Rawalpindi, Pakistan.

December: "Pocketbooks Push Past Iraq in Polls," the Associated Press reports of the American electoral mood.

January: Musharraf postpones Jan. 8 election plan by six weeks. Troops, he announces, will police the election: "The army and the rangers will be fully deployed to ensure law and order."

January: Iowa is on schedule for this evening's caucus meetings. "The only thing that counts is whether you show up to the caucus," Obama says to a crowd in a gym.

The first meaning of the Pakistan-Iowa contrast is obvious. The Pakistan turmoil may boost McCain as the candidate with the most experience in handling international crises.

But we also see the difference in political dynamics. Instability begets instability in Pakistan. Each new event, from the attempt on Bhutto's life just as she returned from exile to the stone-pelting lawyers, seems to set off yet larger, more terrifying events.

And in Pakistan it's all tribal. Horrors are followed by greater horrors. What's worse than a suicide bombing? Using a 1-year-old to wear the explosives, as the bombers apparently did in the October attempt in Karachi.

Iowa, by contrast, seems to absorb the nation's tension. The state's caucus process is like a form of national therapy.

Some of this has to do with the weather — as I type this it is 8 degrees (-13 Celsius) in Des Moines, and a balmy 64 in Pakistan. Some of that has to do with the pragmatism of the Midwest, where kissing babies, not taping them with explosives, comes naturally.

The political candidate who reflects this truth best is one who is likely to do well — Obama. His full name is Barack Hussein Obama. Voters in Iowa don't seem put off by that "H." They know, as the rest of America knows, that Obama is less of a tribalist than Hillary Clinton.

It all serves to remind us that the fractious Florida of 2000 was an exception. At its best our process isn't merely calm. It's also calming. This should make even those of us who don't like politics thankful for Iowa, New Hampshire, and Super Tuesday after that.

(Amity Shlaes, a senior fellow in economic history at the Council on Foreign Relations, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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