Politics & Policy

Whose Change?

Impressions from Iowa.

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.)

This, the first half of Huckabee’s presentation, is extremely impressive. It makes you wish that his prodigious talent could be marshaled for the forces of good. If only his gut instincts for bread-and-butter middle-class concerns were matched with better policy instincts and a more serious approach to policy.

After all this, Huckabee goes into defensive mode. Because he hasn’t had the resources to respond to Romney’s ads in kind, he has to do it himself in person so it will be picked up by the free media. He’s good at this too. Huckabee says hundreds of thousands of dollars are being spent saying he’s a bum, when his wife, he promises, “will tell you for free, he’s a bum.” Only Huckabee could make the pardons and commutations controversy actually work for him with an audience, by highlighting a sympathetic petition for a pardon that Romney denied as governor, and contrasting it with one that he granted as governor of Arkansas.

But in the end, Huckabee is being forced to talk about things he wouldn’t otherwise. And his positive message is dented when he harshly criticizes Romney for not being positive too. In fact, for the candidate supposedly running only on why he should be president, not why the others shouldn’t, Huckabee blasts Romney in the harshest terms. He warns a couple of times over that “when [Romney] becomes president, he won’t start becoming honest if he was dishonest getting there.”

Huckabee concludes with a not-too-subtle class contrast with Romney. He “did not grow up in privilege,” and prior to him, no one in his family graduated from high school. In another Edwards touch, he talks of how his father made his living by lifting heavy things. By voting for Huckabee, people will, in effect, vindicate the American dream and the political process. Voters will show that elections are not about “who can run clever ads,” and prove wrong all those who say “no one being out-spent 20-1 can be elected.” Ultimately, it’s a very Huck-centric message, based on biography and character.

For Huckabee, change is voting for the underdog.


I catch the second half of a Mitt Romney event an hour-and-half away in Ottumwa, Iowa. It’s held in a room in a community-center-type building. About 100 people are sitting in neatly lined up chairs, like a seminar room — an appropriate setting for the buttoned-up Romney operation.

Romney’s argument is that he’s best suited to bring change because he’s “dealt [his] whole life with change.” He also criticizes partisanship in Washington, saying that his wife Ann compares it to people about to go over a waterfall in a canoe, who, instead of paddling, argue with one another. Romney says he wants “to strengthen the American people and change Washington.”

He talks about families, but in a different way than Huckabee. The former Arkansas governor tries to earn credibility on family matters by talking about economic struggle — while Romney gets it by implicitly invoking the cohesiveness of his family and his devotion as a father. In a very non-Huckabee touch, he talks of his father being the head of a car company, a three-term governor, a presidential candidate, and Cabinet member. But his dad’s proudest accomplishment was how he raised his four kids. Romney’s message is that he doesn’t share his listeners’ economic background, but he shares their values.

Romney recites his record. In another non-Huckabee touch, he says, “I started off consulting.” He talks about bringing change to business, the Olympics, and government. He strikes a unifying note, explaining that he finds Edwards’s two America rhetoric offensive because we’re one united country. The former Massachusetts governor tells an uplifting story from the Olympics and, in keeping with his emphasis on optimism, says he believes our “future will be bright.”

He’s not an electrifying campaigner. He ends by promising to fight like “the dickens” for change. Like the dickens! That’s not going to send many people to the ramparts. Romney doesn’t make much of an emotional connection, but he has a certain solid-citizen, Ward Cleaver appeal. What he lacks in inspiration, he makes up with discipline and tirelessness as a campaigner. He hasn’t caught up to Huckabee because he’s better on the stump, but because he has more resources, more organization, and a better campaign team. He is a merely adequate campaigner who has run a very good campaign.

For Romney, change is competence.


The John Edwards event in Knoxville is in the lobby of a high school. There are two or three times (maybe more) as many people as were at the Huckabee and Romney events, which is almost always the case: the Democrats just draw more people. Going from a Republican to a Democratic event is a little like moving from AAA to the major leagues. Everything feels like it’s on a larger scale.

The Edwards message is breathtaking in its anger. This is 100-proof populism. He’s like a stand-up comedian who has steadily honed his material down to the most effective stuff. In the case of the comedian, all that’s left is laughs; in the case of Edwards almost all that is left is anger. His campaign pitch is like a well-polished mailed fist, aimed at the gut of the establishment, defined by Edwards as corporations and the Washington politicians who do their bidding.

“Corporate greed is killing the middle class,” Edwards says, “and stealing your children’s future.” He promises to confront the corporate interests, and explicitly promises not to sit down with them. (In his mind apparently, Pfizer is less worth talking to than the mullahs of Iran.) He pours scorn on those who want to work with “stakeholders” on legislation. Corporate interests aren’t going to “voluntarily give their power away — they’ll give it away when we take it away from them.” “We’re going to fight,” Edwards says, invoking Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, and Truman.

The former North Carolina senator frames this message very effectively around his parents and the sacrifices they made for him, like all good parents do. The fight he is asking people to make is in that tradition, parents working for a better future for their kids. “We’re going to stand on the shoulders of our parents and grandparents,” he says.

Taking a shot at Obama, Edwards says we need a president who feels this need to fight in his gut, for whom this fight is personal, “someone for whom it’s too important and won’t back down.” He talks of growing up in tough neighborhoods, where you “gotta fight to survive.” He says as a trial lawyer he fought with corporate lawyers, and learned that you “can’t nice these people to death.”

There is a strong element of paranoia to his message. The rich are getting richer according to Edwards, and “it’s not an accident, it’s not happening on its own.” He then cites alarming statistics about the suffering in America and urges, “enough is enough — I mean really.” He urges the crowd (which went on to give him two standing ovations) to “treat these people the way they treat you.”

On caucus night, he tells them, “you are going to rise up,” and “stand up to this corporate greed.” Then, he says, they will be able “to look [their] children in the eye,” and say they “left this country better than they found it.”

Republicans always accuse Democrats of class warfare, usually because Democrats want higher marginal tax rates. But this is real class warfare. This is a presidential candidate reading a whole class of people out of respectability, and promising, basically, to wage war on them. It’s a view that leaves no room for legitimate differences in point of view — on one side there are class enemies preying on the American people, and on the other, those who want to stop them. Edwards sprinkles hope in his message, but it still verges on the hateful, and if it were taken seriously would almost be scary.

For Edwards, change is confrontation.


Following the Edwards event, seeing Illinois senator Barack Obama next in Ottumwa is a welcome relief. The Obama event is held in a school gym with a couple of hundred people. Much smaller than Obama crowds I saw at the beginning of the year, but still large. Going to an Obama event is like entering a “nice zone,” where everyone is earnest and helpful and the young volunteers tend to be mop-haired boys and pretty girls.

When I saw Obama earlier in the year, there was something hesitant about his performances, like he was holding something of himself back, as though he didn’t want to give into the hype around him. At this event, he was holding nothing back, making the case for himself for an hour, in detail and in earnest.

Like Huckabee, he talks about transcending partisan differences, and explains how the unlikely nature of his own campaign is a testament to its virtue and its supremacy in the political process. Obama has basically the same anti-corporate sentiments as Edwards and generally the same policy priorities. It’s his style that’s a contrast, and Obama dwells on the difference as Edwards begins to rise here.

He implicitly contrasts himself with Hillary Clinton, as he has for a long time: “some candidates seems to change slogans every two weeks”; some people say they know Washington so “they play the game better,” but what’s necessary is “to put an end to the game-playing”; it’s unfortunate that some people allowed themselves to bend to “conventional wisdom on something as profound as when we go to war.”

Then he turns to Edwards. The argument is being made that “he’s too nice,” “not mean enough, not angry enough, not confrontational enough.” But Obama says he doesn’t need lectures about “how to bring change,” since he worked for it as a community organizer and civil-rights attorney, instead of taking high-paying jobs from law firms. He says we don’t need “just more anger toward Republicans,” but rather, we need true knowledge and belief in principles, which make it possible to reach out. Moreover, he promises to create “a working majority” for change.

Finally, he returns to his patented theme of hope. He says his belief in hope is not “naive,” that he “understands how difficult change is going to be and that’s exactly why [he] talk[s] about hope.” Great causes, he says, rely on hope — from the American Revolution, to abolitionism, to the civil-rights movement. “Hope is that instinct within us all — you know we can do better.”

For Obama, change is hope.


Former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson has a change message, but it’s less about how he’s going to change the country, than it is about how he’s not going to change himself to seek the presidency. He’s not going to change his convictions, the way he campaigns, the way he walks, anything. He often comes back to theme of ambition, and how he doesn’t have it — at least not in an untoward way — as if he’s still wrestling over whether he really wants to be running for president or not. Take me or leave me, Fred says, and sometimes you can’t help wondering if he prefers that people leave him.

People like Fred. The 50 or 75 people gathered at the front of a restaurant in Ames laugh at his jokes and seem to appreciate him and his “common sense, consistent conservatism.” But there isn’t a lot of charge in his performance, though according to a friend of mine he was more animated than he had been at other recent events in Iowa. He talked about his three or four top policy priorities, said people should choose the president they would feel comfortable with at a negotiating table with an adversary, and assured everyone that “better days are ahead of us,” before taking some questions and slipping out of the back of the restaurant as quickly as he could. Not typical behavior for a politician, but Thompson has little taste for standard campaign fare, and that’s just the way it’s going to be.

For Fred, change is electing the guy who you can trust not to change.


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