“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.
Which is likely to be the more successful?
Obama and Hillary after New Hampshire are competing for the status of front-runner. They will probably continue to do so right through Super Tuesday. But exit polls following both Iowa and New Hampshire are beginning to reveal a pattern: Hillary tends to prevail among older voters, committed Democrats, blue-collar voters, and women. This last constituency may consist of merely temporary converts attracted by her tears, however. Obama won most women in Iowa. Obama wins the support of young people (17 – 29 years), independent voters, first-time voters, and upper-income voters. This social breakdown is still fluid and may change. But if it persists, it will reinforce the existing fears of the Democratic establishment that Mrs. Clinton is too narrow and divisive a figure to win the general election — and that Obama can win more voters to the Democratic standard.
Hillary therefore faces a very unusual dilemma. By traditional standards she is the favorite. She has a well-funded campaign, supporters throughout the Democrat and media establishments, and advice from the cleverest politician in her party. But she is still working out best how to deal with this frustrating new type of opponent who rises effortlessly above the political battle on a cloud of a-political decency. Before New Hampshire I wrote in the London Sunday Telegraph that Hillary could recover but that: “[She] is facing the crisis of her life — the first one in which she not Bill is center-stage. She may be able to win only by changing her personality and turning her life story into one as dramatic and compelling as Obama’s. But that would be complicated — and late in the day.”
In the event she did exactly that by tearing up on television while talking of her lifelong love for America. But New Hampshire, like Iowa, is likely to prove an evanescent victory. The problem of how to deal with Obama has not gone away. Hillary cannot keep crying. Political etiquette demands kid gloves in dealing with the first black man who has a realistic chance of being President of the United States. And the wonkish Hillary lacks her husband’s deftness and charm in debate that might otherwise match Obama’s appeal.
What of more conventional responses? In future debates Hillary could stress her greater experience — but that argument was making little impact until she cried. She could attack the liberal policies adopted by Obama over the years — but that is unlikely to win her votes in Democratic primaries and it would revive the impression that she is cold and negative. Dick Morris, her husband’s former advisor and her bitter critic, suggests that she will be reduced to the underhand racist argument that Obama is wonderful but, alas, “unelectable” because, well . . . Even if Hillary were to stoop to such tactics, however, they would almost certainly not work for the reason that Obama’s rise itself proclaims the falsity of the slur.
So Obama remains in control of the main post-racist insurgency in the Democratic campaign so far. Unless Hillary matches it with a revived feminist insurgency of her own — and that is a highly uncertain project — Obama probably retains a slight edge in future primaries.
Huckabee is not so fortunate. His Iowa victory established him as the “insurgent” candidate, but otherwise it made the Republican race more open rather than less. New Hampshire — where Huckabee came a poor third and Romney a good second to a revived McCain — confirmed that.
Michigan on the 15th of January is the next test. If Romney wins in a state where his family is well-regarded, he redeems his Iowa and New Hampshire failures. No longer just a corporate manager, he becomes (like Hillary) a more sympathetic figure who has fought back from adversity. If McCain wins, it is he who becomes the GOP favorite.
But fully five candidates — including former Mayor Rudy Giuliani (effectively an absentee candidate in the primaries already held) — would then face each other in the South Carolina and Florida primaries. Every contest so far has shown that front-runner status amounts to a very weak advantage. The contest would likely continue through Super Tuesday and perhaps into the Republican Convention itself. And no winner can be sensibly predicted today.
But if Huckabee remains in the race until the end — and that does look likely — he would significantly improve the image of a Republican party damaged both by George Bush and the spendthrift Republican Congress. He would make it seem relaxed, good-tempered and more concerned about life’s losers. And as Mark Steyn points out, if he were to be the candidate, his extraordinary campaigning skills and media experience would make him far more electable than conventional wisdom currently realizes.
Even so it is odd that Huckabee and Obama should apparently be riding to prominence on the back of social concerns after more than two decades of continual prosperity. Why? It’s hard to know. Some critics blame the media bias towards bad news, pointing out most people tell pollsters both that they are personally happy and that the nation is going down the wrong road. Both cannot really be right. In which case, what is the real discontent being expressed? A second possibility is that concerns that recently obsessed America seem to be fading. Iraq was one such concern in the 2006 election. But with the “surge” working, the Iraq war is ceasing to be a political issue: Republicans don’t raise it in case they are blamed for starting the war, Democrats in case they are suspected of wanting to lose it. Both may now want to turn inwards for a while. Maybe, third, as the success of the Obama campaign suggests, Americans now see the prospect of absolution for their “original sin” of race in the election of Black president. As they increasingly realize that this great historic wrong has now been put right, they find remaining social problems suddenly intolerable and in need of action.
If we step back from the campaign and examine recent political trends, however, it becomes apparent that the real reason for America’s social discontent goes deeper than all of these. As Peggy Noonan has speculated in the Wall Street Journal, the real anxieties besetting Americans are probably cultural rather than economic, or perhaps a mixture of the two — a feeling that their leaders don’t have their interests properly at heart in economic and social questions (especially those involving globalization.)
Evidence for this is that the first major political “insurgency” of the last few years was not that led by Obama and Huckabee in the campaign but the defeat of bipartisan “comprehensive” ( i.e., liberalized) immigration reform in 2006 and 2007. They were defeats inflicted by the mass of voters and some rebellious congressmen in successive years on the leaderships of both parties, Corporate America, Big Labor, Hollywood, the Catholic Church, the media, America’s great cultural institutions–in short on the nation’s political elites. The grass roots organizations of Left and Right that defeated these two reform bills did so with the explicit argument that the elites were elevating the interests of illegal immigrants (and their own economic benefits) over those of ordinary Americans.
Those battles have echoes in the campaigns of both Obama and Huckabee — but somewhat louder echoes in the Huckabee campaign. (Ironically, immigration is an issue on which Huckabee personally has equivocated.). Obama’s insurgency looks a little too comfortable and upper-class — a revolution already achieved now being celebrated by its beneficiaries: the academic-legal-media complex. That impression is stronger after New Hampshire where Hillary Clinton won against the odds by detaching the blue-collar constituencies from Obama. In a general election Huckabee would win at least some of those votes from a Democrat ticked headed by the Illinois Senator. It’s hard to see any other Republican doing so. And John McCain’s maverick reputation was earned by pushing issues, campaign reform above all, that animate Obama’s contented elite constituency rather than Huckabee’s resentful populist one.
Whatever the outcome of the primaries — both Obama and Huckabee have brought new issues to the forefront of America’s mind — and revived and refreshed their parties in doing so. They have also contributed, in Arnold Bennett’s phrase, to “the great cause of cheering us all up.” It is the Democratic insurgency, however, that is in Christopher Lasch’s phrase “the Revolt of the Haves.”
– Parts of this piece were previously published in the London Telegraph and are reprinted with permission.