Change is in the air in Iowa, certainly in the candidates’ rhetoric. Four of the candidates I saw on the trail over the weekend — Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney, John Edwards, and Barack Obama — are selling their candidacies in terms of change, but in different ways. (The fifth, Fred Thompson, is a different case.)
Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee promises to bring change first by winning the Iowa caucuses. That would show that money can’t buy elections and a guy with an awkward last name and a pure heart can shock the world. As Huckabee’s Iowa chairman says while introducing the candidate at a “meet Huckabee” event on the second floor of a neighborhood restaurant in Indianola, a Huckabee win would show “the media doesn’t tell us” who to vote for and “money doesn’t buy us” — “it’s the message and messenger.”
Huckabee returns again and again to this David vs. Goliath theme. At times, it seems he believes that the victory itself would be more important than what a victory might allow him to eventually accomplish.
Huckabee has an underappreciated Obamaesque side. Like the Illinois senator, he urges us to look beyond partisan differences, and claims that people aren’t defined primarily as Right or Left, Republican or Democrat; instead, he stresses, “before they’re anything else, they’re Americans.”
He criticizes Washington spending, illegal immigration, and the tax code. It’s the tax code that’s the entree to his populist message, which is quite stirring. He talks of small-business owners in evocative language, describing them as coming up with “an idea over a napkin,” then striving to make it reality. But what gets in the way? The IRS. “The toughest competition they’re going to face is from their own government.”
Huckabee notes that he’s been “getting a lot of hammering from Wall Street.” (Really? Has Goldman Sachs been hitting him lately? He’s referring to the Club for Growth, of course — and practically anyone else who criticizes his economic record.) He says his Wall Street tormentors misunderstand that he doesn’t want to make the rich poorer, but create an environment in which “poor people can get rich.” Current circumstances allow people to try to better their lives, but in their endeavors they get “pushed down every time they try by their own government.”
(Later, I overhear a young DNC tracker who is filming Huckabee complain that if Huckabee gets the nomination, “It will be ‘Fair Tax time.’ We’ll say, ‘He wants to raise your sales tax 900 percent’ — sweet.”)
Huckabee talks about conversations parents have about education and health care, but only after their children go to bed because “you don’t want to scare them about the future.” Huckabee talks about gas prices, and the cost of education, and car and health insurance for families, especially those with teenagers. (He quotes Mark Twain for the proposition that kids should be locked in a barrel and food stuffed through a hole to them starting at age 13, and then at age 16, the hole should be stopped up.) “No matter how much you’ve saved, you haven’t saved enough,” Huckabee says.
He then launches into an explanation of his gubernatorial record, arguing that he improved education, health care, the roads, and the economy in his state, all with an eye “to make life better for a seven-year-old kid” living in impoverished Dermott, Arkansas. Huckabee has an Edwards-like obsession with this metaphorical kid, whom he mentions over and over. (Personally, if a politician mentions the kid once, I can believe thinking about him was a priority; twice, and I might think he’s trying to make a point; more than that, I think he’s just playing me.)