“Change” is the most protean of political slogans. Everyone claims to favor it — everyone including all of America’s presidential candidates — but it is really a string of empty boxes that the winners get to open and fill.
Iowa’s caucus results on Thursday night began to fill the first two boxes with the new themes of post-Bush politics — and the New Hampshire results continued but also complicated the definition process.
Iowa was supposedly the occasion of an insurgency against the political status quo led by U.S. Senator Barack Obama and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee. In reality it was the occasion of two quite different insurgencies.
In the first upset Obama overtook Senator Hillary Clinton as the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination with a decisive 38-29 percent victory — and immediately interpreted “change” to mean that America had finally embraced a new politics of post-racism uniting all Americans but benefiting especially minority Americans.
In the second upset, Huckabee who had emerged from a crowded field of also-rans a few weeks ago, defeated better-known and better-funded candidates — and immediately interpreted “change” as a new politics of social inclusion that would unite all Americans but especially help struggling American workers.
If Iowa’s winners were gain their party nominations, then the November election could well be a battle between two politicians saying much the same thing — national unity, social inclusion — but not quite the same things. Huckabee’s struggling Americans include many black and minority citizens but also poorer whites like his own family and even some firmly middle-class people hit hard by high college fees or medical bills. His politics is designed to alleviate middle-class anxieties as much as to relieve poverty. Likewise, many likely beneficiaries of Obama’s post-racist politics are not poor at all but belong to the growing class of minority professionals who see a black president as a catalyst to remove the few remaining race barriers at all levels — high as well as low — in the U.S.
It’s not quite race versus class — they overlap too much to be opposites — but there’s a touch of that. And what no one quite likes to say openly, for fear of seeming divisive, is that Huckabee’s social inclusion has far more unfinished business to transact in American life than Obama’s post-racism.
Obama’s success is itself evidence of this. Correspondents from both Iowa and New Hampshire report that among those joining the Democrat party to vote for him were not only young people and independents but also Republicans. The doubling of the Democrat turnout in Iowa suggests so — and also points to a wider truth.
Most Americans have long wanted to vote for a Black candidate to demonstrate their own lack of prejudice, to themselves as much as to others. If Colin Powell had run for the presidency as Republican in 1996, he would probably have defeated Bill Clinton and he would certainly have improved on Bob Dole’s performance. Twelve years later an Obama victory would be the celebration of a successful revolution for racial equality rather than the moment when the battle turned.
This sense of “change” already achieved explains why veteran black activists like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton have been so nervous of the Obama campaign: a black man in the White House would undermine the politics of white guilt/black exploitation that has long been their stock-in-trade. On the other hand, it also explains (along with Obama’s winning personality) why his campaign has such a joyful, relaxed, and oddly uncontroversial “feel” to it. On the morrow of Iowa, it seemed almost an apolitical celebration, and though the New Hampshire defeat has cooled the celebration, it has not altered its relaxed non-partisan character of complacent moral self-congratulation.
There is a much stronger sense of real insurgency about the Huckabee campaign. It is poorly funded, came out of nowhere, and is fuelled mainly by the candidate’s personality — which, like Obama’s, is charming, shrewd, and full of surprises. His standard political pose is that of the little guy standing up to the elites on behalf of the other little guys and their families.
This is not false, but not the whole truth either. Huckabee was a poor boy who became a Southern Baptist preacher, but his first job was in radio (like Reagan’s) and he later founded and ran a television station in Arkansas. He knows the media well and plays it brilliantly, getting free air time worth far more than the paid ads used by his rivals.
Once in politics, he was a slightly unorthodox Republican governor who raised taxes to spend more on schools, roads, and such pet projects as physical fitness programs and music teaching. (He himself plays the guitar and is famous for losing more than 100 pounds by dieting.) Huckabee argues strongly that he is an orthodox conservative. But as Kerry Howley demonstrates in a fair-minded portrait in Politics magazine, the former Arkansas governor is about one-half conservative, one-quarter diet-book, chat-show, Oprah-style moral uplift — his diet book is entitled Quit Digging Your Grave with a Knife and Fork — and one-quarter anti-elitist populist. (The percentage guesswork is mine not Howley’s.)
In Iowa and to a lesser extent in New Hampshire, Huckabee concentrated on the third: raising the anxieties of blue-collar Americans, white and black and suggesting implicitly that others are indifferent to them. Unusually for a Republican, his rhetoric at times came close to class warfare — but class warfare with jokes and a smile.
And that third Huckabee has a point: his struggling workers, independent until some crisis strikes, are the forgotten figures of American society between elections. Among Democrats in the current campaign Hillary and John Edwards both work hard at appealing to them. Hillary’s “Well, you are not invisible to me” in her New Hampshire victory speech was a strong and direct appeal to them. But all Democrats have to overcome the obstacle that these workers have conservative social values which, despite the insistence of the Left, they refuse to regard as secondary to their economic interests. Republicans mostly share their social values. John McCain appeals to the voters on the basis of his patriotic biography. Mitt Romney has raised some issues of importance to them such as immigration. But Huckabee is the candidate who has consciously set out to represent their economic interests, their moral values, and their social resentments. His inclusionary agenda — whatever its merits or otherwise as policy — is attuned to real needs still unsatisfied. His campaign accordingly strikes a more indignant note than Obama’s.