Published in the New York Post on January 4, 2008.
The amazing victories by Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee in Iowa last night are truly historic. They demonstrate the impact and viability of a message of change in both parties.
On the Democratic side, Obama – by winning in a totally white state – shows that racism is gone as a factor in American politics. On the Republican side, Huckabee’s win shows how a truly compassionate conservative can win by harvesting voters who want the message of concern for the poor and for values to prevail.
But what of Hillary Clinton? She’s down but not out. In the first really contested election of her own political career, she lost dismally – outclassed, outdrawn and outpolled by Obama.
Her campaign professionals (including Bill) decided to stress experience, precisely the wrong message in a Democratic primary. Prematurely appealing to the center and abandoning the left, she fell between two chairs – not sufficiently centrist to win independents or liberal enough to attract Democrats.
On the GOP side, Huckabee brought a new phenomenon into politics. A New Testament Christian politician, he takes the Biblical message to the center-left, clothing the naked and feeding the hungry. His refusal to indulge in negative advertising sent a message to Iowa voters showing his strength under fire.
The Obama win last night probably presages another in New Hampshire and follow-up victories in Nevada and South Carolina. (Clinton will carry Michigan: She’s alone on the ballot).
So Hillary’s argument that her record of defeating the “Republican attack machine” means she should be the candidate will backfire. Sold as a winner, she’s exposed as a loser. The Iowa overhang will dog her for all the early primaries.
Particularly important for Obama is the poor finish of John Edwards, who has campaigned in Iowa for six years. Despite that almost-exclusive focus on continuing and expanding his 2004 base, he has once again finished second. Now Obama can count on being the nearly unanimous choice of the anti-Hillary voters. No longer will the vote be divided.
Hillary faces a serious problem: Voters rejected her and rejected Bill on a very personal basis. Iowa was a referendum on her, and she lost 30 percent to 70 percent. Her argument of experience only reinforced her phoniness and her issues-positioning showed how contrived her ideology is. This is a stinging personal defeat for Sen. Clinton.
But what will happen next? With the limelight comes the spotlight. Obama will be subject to the scrutiny that comes with being the leader. Can he weather the examination?
Perhaps not. Democrats may turn on him, worried that he may not win in November. The doubts about Obama, up to now hidden behind concerns about Hillary’s candidacy, will be on center stage.
Much the same process will evolve on the Republican side. With his fifth-place Iowa finish, Rudy Giuliani appears to be in even worse shape than Hillary. But the scrutiny unfolding for the Republican Party may leave voters wondering if all that stands between the White House and the Democratic Party is a Mormon (Mitt Romney), a Christian evangelical (Huckabee) and a 70-year old (John McCain). Rudy, like Hillary, may look start looking better.
But don’t write off Obama or Huckabee. Their appeals are truly unique and obviously resonate with voters. Their approaches are now and the outcome shows how relevant their message is.