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By John C. Williams
DES MOINES — On Jan. 3, the day of the Iowa caucuses, the front page of the local section of the Des Moines Register featured a story on Des Moines's recent growth: downtown d.m. became cool long before fear of frostbite.
The piece discussed how the capital city has sprung to life since the last presidential caucuses four years ago. A new library, a river trail and revitalized downtown have made Des Moines more palatable to the reporters who cover the quadrennial affair. But it also suggested something about the first-vote-in-the-nation status that Iowa's leaders so jealously guard: The Iowa caucuses are as much a tourist event for the press and political volunteers as an election.
“Iowa” — the state's name has become shorthand for the caucus process by which the state's delegates are chosen for Republican and Democratic presidential candidates — is essentially a huge fiesta that works roughly like this: Drag everyone involved out of the mundanity of quotidian existence, pack them into hotels, host campaign events at ballrooms with plenty of beer, then watch, charmed, as the little man of Iowa rushes into a small room to discuss the candidates, eat cookies and choose. The person Iowans anoint may not become the presidential nominee — the state has a mixed record of picking the eventual victor — but he will be thrust into the national spotlight during the hangover that follows.
This happens to be an ideal setting for a fundamentally unserious candidate like Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor. (It didn't work so well for former Arkansan Sen. Hillary Clinton, who finished third in Democratic caucusing.)
Allow me to enumerate the ways that Brother Mike managed to embarrass himself in the previous weeks without getting much more than a slap on the wrist from voters or most of the press. He professed ignorance of one of the most important foreign policy stories of the year when he couldn't tell a questioner what the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran was. He suggested that we need to seal our border with Mexico in order to thwart a terrorist attack from Pakistan — a nice sound bite, perhaps, but one totally divorced from the reality of the two issues it conflates. He held a confusing press conference to denounce his own negative campaign ad before playing the ad for reporters — which, many said, was a sly move to deal rival Mitt Romney a rabbit punch without seeming to do so himself. (OK, the press flagged him on this one — they don't like being taken for morons.)
But such mistakes apparently do not make a candidate politically irrelevant, at least not this one. Huckabee reamed the competition last Thursday night, taking 34 percent of the Republican caucus vote to Romney's 25 percent — the same Mitt Romney who outspent the upstart, as Huckabee constantly reminded voters on the stump, by a ratio of nearly 20 to 1. Would it help Huckabee to a stronger finish than expected in New Hampshire? No one knew (and the Times went to press before polls closed in New Hampshire Tuesday night, Jan. 8), but it's been an unusual year. The general thinking was that the religious voters who meant so much to Huckabee in Iowa would be in shorter supply in the more secular Granite State.
The Huckabee story sounds good. It sounds real good: The candidate who last year had less of a shot at getting the nomination than Big Bird rides on the backs of common people — well, about 40,000 of them — to vault himself into the national political elite. That's what democracy is all about, right? The process of people emerging from back-breaking labor in the cornfields in order to trek through the snow to choose the next president — that's the full-throated voice of the masses, ja?
Perhaps. But perhaps that's not all it is. It is also the product of a political system that insists on starting its engine each season with a series of elaborate photo opportunities — which, I should point out after being here for the first time, is a situation admittedly more obvious from the frozen Iowa ground than it is from your idiot box.
But let's discount that sentiment. Let's not be cynical. Let's assume that the process is pure and that when the polls are counted it is exactly the people, and not some opaque political machine, that has spoken. Mike Huckabee rode a groundswell of support to victory in Iowa, on a shoestring budget helped immeasurably by the free media generated by his quips, his winning rhetoric and his willingness to dash in front of whatever running TV camera or radio microphone he could find. The question, then, is: What have the volk wrought?
There once was a Southern presidential candidate who almost had the power to charm his way to the nomination — he blew away the competition in a very important Florida Democratic primary — before a would-be assassin's bullet took him down. Hunter Thompson described him to perfection in “Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72”:
The root of the Wallace magic was a cynical, showbiz instinct for knowing exactly which issues would whip a hall full of beer-drinking factory workers into a frenzy — and then doing exactly that, by howling down from the podium that he had an instant, overnight cure for all their worst afflictions: Taxes? Nigras? Army worms killing the turnip crop? Whatever it was, Wallace assured his supporters that the solution was actually real simple, and that the only reason they had any hassle with the government at all was because those greedy bloodsuckers in Washington didn't want the problems solved, so they wouldn't be put out of work.
The ugly truth is that Wallace has never even bothered to understand the problems — much less come up with any honest solutions — but ‘the Fighting Little Judge' has never lost much sleep from guilt feelings about his personal credibility gap. Southern politicians are not made that way. Successful con men are treated with considerable respect in the South.
Huckabee is not substantially alien from the Alabama demagogue Thompson describes. The difference between Mike Huckabee and George Wallace is one of style. Huckabee does not yell and whip people into a frenzy — he cajoles and makes them forget themselves with laughter. Huckabee does not race-bait — no fish nibbling in that pond anymore — but he does tell them what they want to hear, regardless of how practical his proposal actually is. Like Wallace, his motive is personal advancement and his vehicle is expedient policy.
I don't mean to say that Mike Huckabee is an irredeemable phony. That would be a severe discredit to someone who has positions that clearly stem from his faith, inscrutable as they may be to me. Elimination of abortion and the sanctity of family is not a ploy to this man, but a deadly serious aspect of his worldview.
But in other matters — those distinct from meat-and-potatoes Christian conservative issues — Huckabee has made up policies on the fly in order to appeal to his target constituency. Take, for example, his immigration paper, a hard-hitting screed, issued in the months just before the Iowa caucuses, that with its anti-illegal rhetoric sounds more like Tom Tancredo than the man who championed education for the children of unauthorized immigrants as governor.
Perhaps Huckabee's greatest act of fakery is his support of the FairTax, a national sales tax program that proposes to eliminate the IRS and collect a levy at the rate of 30 percent on all consumption beyond a certain point. Tax experts as well as common sense state that the implementation of this idea would amount to a highly regressive tax structure. If you eliminate taxes on everything besides consumer purchases, those with less money will be paying a greater proportion of their income in taxes for the things they buy. Advocates of the policy fend off the claim that it's regressive by proposing a “prebate,” which would offer a poverty-level-based refund on ‘necessary goods' to all people. Perhaps the FairTax would encourage people to save — but a slowdown on consumption that such a tax would cause is bound to put huge kinks in our consumption-based economy. And those with greater incomes will be advantaged. They will have an even easier time amassing investment wealth absent taxes than the lower classes, who will — I repeat — be burning a greater percentage of their paychecks on goods.
These nuances are difficult to digest, though, which is why they don't merit much mention by Huckabee. Either he's demagoguing the issue — judging by their cheers, voters he spoke to on the stump in Iowa loved the idea of abolishing the IRS — or he's simply too ignorant of the plan to fully explain how it would actually work. Most likely, it's a little bit of both — he came to the plan because it gave him a unique angle, he saw that it sounded good to voters, and he never bothered to study the details. (As a bonus, he also uses it to pump up his social platform, as when he says that it would cause people like “illegals, prostitutes, pimps, gamblers and drug dealers” to pay more in taxes.)
Huckabee, in fact, didn't come to the FairTax policy on his own — it came to him. As he was campaigning earlier last year, FairTax supporters — who are a special interest group with their own 501 (c) (4) nonprofit organization — approached Huckabee and sold him on the deal. The quick conversion only contributes to the impression that Huckabee's campaign is ad hoc and rootless.
It paid off in Iowa though — and not simply because the FairTax message was a beacon to a tax-hating electorate. It also gave Huckabee an added measure of campaign support in a state where he had little to start with and not much money or staff to build it. Americans for Fair Taxation, the organization behind the FairTax, sent a bus campaigning in Iowa. Technically this is legal, because the canvassers were advocating a specific issue rather than a person, but in reality they were supporting Mike Huckabee. He is the only candidate loony enough to drink their brand of Kool-Aid.
This was apparent on caucus night itself, when I attended a Republican event at Hoover High School in Des Moines. The Republican process is conducted in secret — each voter writes down the name of the candidate he plans to support and drops it in a bag — but, before the sheets of paper are passed out, time is allotted for supporters of each candidate to talk up their man. On this night, Ron Paul elicited a speech from a paint contractor who by all appearances did not lead the debate squad in college. Huckabee, on the other hand, got support from a slick dresser named Mike Rose, who announced himself as an advocate of the FairTax — its national grassroots director — as well as the former executive director of a state Republican Party. After the event he made clear to me that he had left the FairTax organization about a month and a half ago, but his support of Huckabee was clearly because the governor was pitching the policy Rose had worked for.
This, perhaps, is one of the most revealing quotes to dribble from Mike Huckabee's mouth over the past few months: “When the FairTax becomes law, it will be like waving a magic wand releasing us from pain and unfairness.” That sounds appealing — wouldn't you like all your tax problems to just go away? — without getting to the root of the issue. The problem is that tax policy is not easy and there is no magic wand in fiscal matters. Experts give the idea next to no chance of being enacted.
The FairTax issue and the former Arkansas governor are tailor-made for each other. Both require sleek marketing to cover up some hideous flaws. Which makes it ironic that Mitt Romney is the only candidate who has been dubbed a phony in this race. For sure, Romney's issue shifting has led him to be rightly labeled a fake. But Huckabee practices a brand of fakery that's just as bad as Romney's — if not worse. Like Romney, he makes up positions out of thin air to appeal to a target audience. But, unlike Romney, he doesn't even bother to consider if they make any sense.
How did Huckabee win the big trophy in Iowa? He turned out the evangelical Christians who are his natural base — polls showed some 80 percent of those who voted for him were self-identified as evangelical Christians. And every vote counted. The Democratic turnout in Iowa was double that of Republicans. Huckabee, who led the Republican field by 9 percentage points, amassed a vote total that wouldn't have put him any better than fourth on the Democratic side.
Huckabee's Christian message and air of authenticity proved inspirational — as I found when I met a Christian couple who had traveled from London to volunteer for the campaign. They told me Huckabee's message and sincerity were the reasons they had made the transcontinental trip.
Huckabee brought in support from other places as well. One Arkansas contingent was particularly visible when Rebekah Swicegood, a 22-year-old homeschooled music teacher from Lowell, led a prayer circle at the hotel ballroom where supporters waited for the caucus results. The circle turned into an act of political theater, even if it was a sincere devotional. Twice as many media types crowded the circle as there were worshippers — but it suggested that the Lord was helping choose candidates in Iowa that night, and perhaps He was prepared to root abortion and homosexuals out of the U.S. at the same time.
Exit polls showed that 60 percent of Republican caucus-goers were evangelicals, and 46 percent of them made Huckabee their choice. Thus, almost all of Huckabee's supporters — an estimated 33,000 out of about 40,000 — were evangelical Christians. That's a substantial number when the total turnout was only 120,000 Republicans, about 70,000 of whom identified themselves as evangelicals.
Although Huckabee's support from evangelicals was not surprising, the power of their numbers was, and it exceeded the turnout in past caucuses by a large margin. It was spurred by get-out-the-vote programs the Sunday before the caucus at a number of major Iowa churches. These programs were not directed at a particular candidate. That would have caused complications with churches' tax-free status. But at the same time, it was no secret which major congregations were pillars of the Huckabee team, thanks to personal endorsements from several pastors.
The question that has yet to be answered is whether the evangelical vote will be enough to carry Huckabee to the nomination. His recent campaign activity suggests that he believes he needs to expand his base. Huckabee, with his anti-abortion and anti-homosexual stances, is a rock-solid Christian conservative candidate. But he has also positioned himself as a populist, stressing economic issues, particularly an us vs. them pitch against Wall Street. This helps explain antipathy toward Huckabee among many old-line good-suit Republicans.
His populist appeal is obvious in his stump speech, when he tells his listeners that he's there to serve and that “you are the ruling class.” It's obvious when he says, as he did at a caucus-day rally in Grinnell, that we pay the terrorists every time we buy their oil. And it's obvious when he calls his plan to abolish the IRS a victory for equality. All of this rhetoric comes short on policy detail, of course, but it's appealing to the gut, not the brain.
The results in Iowa have set up an epic battle in the Republican Party. When Huckabee rails at the “Wall Street to Washington axis,” it is not simply a talking point — it is a true statement about the opposition of a segment of GOP intellectuals that would rather run Richard Nixon's corpse than Mike Huckabee in the general election.
Before this caucus, some had begun to speculate that the Republicans could nullify the power of the evangelical machine by appealing to voters' concerns about foreign policy over their social neuroses. But foreign affairs hardly got a mention in Iowa, and the main vehicle for this strategy, Rudy Giuliani, skipped the state altogether. Huckabee stumbled badly on questions about Pakistan during the run-up to the caucus. This earned him sneers from the national press corps, but it had no discernible impact in the voting. Many sneered, too, when he left Iowa Wednesday to appear with Jay Leno on “The Tonight Show,” but he reached far more Iowans by the tube than he'd have ever seen on a chartered bus that evening.
Huckabee's victory here may very well turn out to be shallow. Though his win depended almost entirely on Christian support, he still failed to get a majority of the evangelical vote. Barack Obama's victory in the Democratic primary, on the other hand, was remarkable because of the fresh voters it attracted, many of them young. Afterwards, commentators said that an Obama candidacy could provide a means for the Democratic Party to encompass new voters, especially youths and blacks who haven't voted before. On the Republican side, it's difficult to envision a similar party shift with a Huckabee candidacy. One poll said the majority of his Iowa voters were white males older than 45. He turned out evangelicals in Iowa, for sure, but how many more are available? With a healthy push from that sector, he still scored only about a third of the overall vote. It would take a mighty Christian uprising to bring him to victory in the Minnesota nominating convention, absent broader appeal. The possibility remains of a brokered Republican convention.
The answer to the questions should become a bit clearer after South Carolina, where, after an expected defeat in New Hampshire this week, Huckabee would seem to have another natural base of support. If there is greater focus on foreign policy, then he might do poorly and John McCain might prosper. But if he gets the evangelicals of South Carolina to come out in force as he did in Iowa, and if he convinces enough people that he wants to serve them through policies such as the FairTax, then he'll be a giant step closer to the nomination.
See a video from John Williams' time in Iowa here.