Tuesday, February 4, 2020


There was a time in America when a Little League baseball team that won its local championship was recognized for excellence with trophies for each player on the team. The intended message was that if you work hard, if you work together as a team and if you see your goal through to completion, you will reap the benefits. The championship trophy usually went on display in some honored place in each player’s home. It was a source of pride and a reminder of a job well done.

As a kid who played competitive basketball I listened to some variation of the same speech at the season-ending banquet each year, with the coach of the winning team verbally recognizing the second place team, “It’s just a shame that we have to have a winner and a loser. The Blue Streaks were a great team and though they fell just short, they put up a great fight and no one should hang their heads. They should be proud of a great season.” It was polite and courteous, but ultimately the winning coach then went on to distribute championship trophies to the twelve kids on his team. The compliment to the runners-up was nice, but the real pride came with the hardware. 15 inches of gold-colored metal (or later gold molded plastic) in the shape of a basketball player atop some sort of marble or wood base signified the ultimate achievement.

Somewhere along the line, however, some well meaning Mom whose kid had limited athletic ability and thus, a much lower likelihood of ever hoisting those 15 gold inches in the air, decided her Johnny should have a trophy too. She projected her own feelings and shortcomings onto her child and determined that every kid should feel the joy that goes with a trophy. Thus began the “participation” trophy era. Win, lose or draw, everyone got one.

The truth is that a trophy for simply showing up elicits neither the joy nor the pride that comes with proving you are the best at something. Mom may be satisfied that Johnny has a tangible piece of evidence of his ten week season, but Johnny implicitly knows he didn’t earn the trophy and it means little or nothing to him. The intended lesson was that everyone should feel good about themselves, even if they don’t win. The reality is that it cheapens the reward for excellence into becoming virtually worthless. The unintended lesson is that it doesn’t matter if you win. It doesn’t matter if you try your best. It doesn’t matter if you work hard and practice. It doesn’t matter if you share duties as part of a team. Everyone will get something regardless.

That’s a bad lesson in Pee Wee basketball and an even worse lesson in life. Trying hard does matter. Being part of a team effort does matter. Finishing the job does matter. If you excel you should be rewarded.

That backdrop is what led to the ultimate irony in the 2020 Iowa caucus. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed socialist, got a lesson in the pitfalls of socialism.

One of many Des Moines, Iowa, precinct votes took place at the First Presbyterian Church. Eighty-six people showed up to participate in the Democratic caucus at this particular precinct. After the initial vote, 32 of those people, or 37 percent of the caucus voters, had voted for Mr. Sanders. That was far more than any other candidate. Former Mayor Pete Buttigieg came in a distant second.

Under the Iowa caucus rules, only candidates with 15 percent or more of the vote are deemed viable. Every viable candidate (15 percent or more) is guaranteed at least one delegate from that precinct. Any candidate below that threshold gets no delegates. Iowa caucus voters can change their support to another candidate during the course of the evening, so that if they have voted for a candidate deemed not viable, voters can switch and still make a difference in the outcome. This makes for some fascinating horse-trading as viable candidates try and persuade people from less successful campaigns to join them and bump up their numbers.

If you do the math, 13 votes were what was necessary for a candidate to be considered viable in the First Presbyterian Church precinct. With only Mr. Sanders (32) and Mr. Buttigieg (15) being considered viable on the first vote, it looked as though they would divvy up the delegates. Sanders people were ecstatic.

Until the second round of voting.

Somehow during the second round, Joe Biden’s people managed to convince a few folks from non-viable candidates to join them. The result was that Mr. Biden had as many as 16 votes and became viable. For their work, Team Biden was assured one of the five delegates from the precinct. If things had stopped there, Mr. Sanders would have received three delegates, Mr. Buttigieg one delegate and Mr. Biden one delegate.

Here is where the irony kicks in. Mr. Biden’s team didn’t want Mr. Sanders to be able to claim victory. They didn’t want him to be able to hoist the proverbial trophy from that precinct, so they began a clever scheme. Mr. Biden’s team had 3 votes to spare and still remain viable. Whether they had 16 votes or 13 votes made no difference. They were guaranteed a delegate either way, so the Biden folks went to the non-viable candidates and offered to share. By giving delegates to the Warren campaign and the Klobuchar campaign, Mr. Biden made sure each reached the viable plateau.

With all five candidates considered “viable” after the final vote, all five were guaranteed at least one delegate. The precinct offered only five delegates total. Despite the fact that in the final tally Mr. Sanders had 37 percent and his next closest competitor had only 17 percent, Mr. Sanders received no more delegates than anyone else. Everyone got a delegate. Everyone got a trophy.

Some would say that distribution of delegates seemed almost socialist.

Mr. Sanders’ socialist supporters were outraged. Several stormed out in anger. One supporter, Vicki Bennett, was quoted by multiple news outlets expressing her frustration: “These people finagled it, because nobody wanted Bernie to get more than one delegate. So now, it’s a wash. Now, it’s a tie. So, we might as well have all stayed home.” Despite her hard work and despite the Sanders team clearly doubling the support of virtually every other candidate, there was no reward. No recognition. No result. To Ms. Bennett this seemed unfair. All five candidates were getting “participation” delegates.

In what appears to be the ultimate irony, the socialist candidate feels cheated because despite winning by 20 percentage points, everyone else gets the same number of delegates that he does.

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