Iowa Democrats held their Jefferson-Jackson Dinner last weekend
The dinners are full of political pageantry
Centro. Alba. Zombie Burger.
The dining scene in Des Moines is pretty hot these days.
So why did nearly a thousand Iowans pay $100-a-pop last Saturday night to chew wilted salads and poke at dried-out chicken breast with a bunch of strangers inside a drafty conventional hall? Politics, of course.
It was the Iowa Democratic Party’s Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, the party’s big annual fundraiser and final cheerleading session before next Tuesday’s midterm elections. We were there for this week’s edition of “Hambycast.”
Even as modern developments like Twitter, super PACs and micro-targeting erode the the quaint traditions of politics, the “rubber chicken circuit” endures. It’s a durable fixture of campaign life, as time-honored as the gaffe and gotcha question.
Democrats have their J-J Dinners, and Republicans convene at Lincoln Day Dinners or Reagan Day Dinners. There are variations of the form depending on local traditions: My favorite political banquet name is the Ruby Laffoon Dinner, held yearly by the Hopkins County Democratic Party in Kentucky and named in honor of the state’s 43rd governor.
But the pageantry is the same wherever you travel: Candidates and elected officials speak, rally faithful partisans and raise cash for the party organization.
In places like Iowa and New Hampshire, the dinners take on an added importance: Ambitious pols with their eyes on the White House come here to test drive their national appeal and forge relationships in crucial early nominating states.
On Saturday, we heard Amy Klobuchar, the Minnesota Senator and possible presidential candidate in 2016 or 2020, speak at the J-J in Des Moines. She was hardly the first White House aspirant to do so.
“He hadn’t said he would run in 1972, but there he was on the rubber chicken circuit, glad-handing county chairmen and looking for early commitments,” the legendary AP scribe Walter Mears wrote four decades ago in a profile of Ed Muskie, the Maine Senator who never made it to the Oval Office.
The rubber chicken phrase surfaces across the decades in political journalism, and with good reason — the chow ain’t grand.
On Saturday, the menu was roughly the same as any J-J Dinner — or Lincoln Day Dinner or Reagan Dinner on the GOP side — you’d find in counties and states from Maine to Hawaii.
There was some kind of mass-produced chicken breast, slathered with some indistinguishable sauce, accompanied by a passel of steamed vegetables. There was the all-important “vegan option,” for those rare Iowa herbivores in the audience. And attendees could choose from an assortment of cake slices that had been sitting out on their banquet tables for several hours before the first speaker even took the stage.
But the food isn’t why people come. That would be weird.
“If we lose this concept of having political parties, where people can gather and have a platform and join together, we really lose what’s been at the core of democracy,” Klobuchar said when we asked her about the importance of these dinners. “What’s missing of course if when people get there and get elected is their ability to put that aside some and work together.”