I was struck down by the family gastric flu at around 4:00 P.M. in New York. By the time I had hobbled back to my Washington apartment, I was not in the sunniest of moods — but I was in exactly the right mood for the Iowa results, namely a sour determination not to be swept away by a very strongly based mood affecting everyone. Let me resist it: If we stand back, the basic message of the Iowa caucuses seems to be that the race is slightly open on the Democrat side and wide open on the Republican side.
On the Democrat side Hillary has lost two precious assets: the inevitability factor and the competence factor. She is no longer the front runner; Obama is. Inevitability was taken from her by the voters, and competence by Obama who has delivered several coolly effective put-downs to her in candidate debates.
Until now Obama has been the most popular of the candidates in all the parties; voters shrank from voting for him only because he was young and inexperienced. He still seems young, but he no longer seems inexperienced. That gives millions of voters across the spectrum permission to overcome their doubts and vote for Obama now. They already wanted to do that in order to demonstrate that neither they nor America are guilty of racism.
Obama possibly overplayed this theme in his victory speech which was, if anything, too self-consciously historic. He need not stress that theme overmuch since the media will stress it for him. And he take a very slight risk of cheapening a powerful message — and losing the plot — if he is seen to bully voters morally into his voting column, however gently.
Edwards is finished since Obama makes the same point without seeming to hate other Americans. So Hillary will have to fight hard without seeming to do so in order to stay the course. Nothing is over yet — and my taxi driver told me that the Democrats would somehow be forced to choose Hillary even if Obama won all the primaries. But that was yesterday’s paranoid orthodoxy.
Huckabee made the best speech of the evening — personal, direct, untechnical, and designed — well, seemingly not designed but effortlessly succeeding in reaching people who generally tune politicians out. It even contained a quote from G. K. Chesterton which will endear him to conservative Catholics.
Huckabee himself is the single best reason to vote for him. He is a first-rate natural politician, charming, shrewd, and full of surprises. He is right to focus on economic security — and on issues such as health care — both because the voters care about them but also because they are really important issues. Conservatives like me are reasonably worried that many of his actual policies will not solve the problems he correctly identifies. That will be solved (or it won’t be solved) in the following ways: either Huckabee will talk to conservatives and gradually move towards better policies or he will lose to other candidates — of whom three are seriously still in the race.
Romney was badly damaged by the result. After spending so much he ought to have done better. He now limps into New Hampshire. But his concession on FOX was not merely gracious, it was gallant and endearing. It seemed to me to refute the argument (heard from his conservative admirers as well as from others) that he has every good quality except likeability. I believe him when he says that he will fight on to the end — and that means we may not know who the candidate will be until the convention.
John McCain sweeps into New Hampshire now as the favorite, helped by the damage to Romney, not seriously harmed by the continuing rise of Huckabee (whom he probably hopes will be his last opponent standing), delighted to see the now terminal decline of Giuliani, and hopeful that Fred Thompson will abandon the fight and throw him his support. I argued yesterday that McCain’s victory would be a disaster for conservatives. He owes us nothing and has shown contempt for our opinions. That looks even more true after Iowa.
It seems clear that we should do all we can to help revive the Romney campaign. If that fails, we face a choice between Huckabee and McCain. Neither looks like a good bet against a surging Obama candidacy.
Until Thursday night I would have said that McCain would have the better chance of victory in November — the main argument against him being that he would probably succeed in transforming the GOP into a party of corporate multiculturalism. Huckabee would find it much harded to transform the GOP permanently into an economically liberal party simply because most strong ideological groups in and around the GOP are passionately opposed to such a transformation — even if he had a chance of winning. I didn’t think he had any chance of winning until Thursday night. I still don’t. But after hearing him and Obama both speak last night, I cannot be entirely sure.