What is happening in Iowa is no longer boring but big, and may prove huge.
The Republican race looks—at the moment—to be determined primarily by one thing, the question of religious faith. In my lifetime faith has been a significant issue in presidential politics, but not the sole determinative one. Is that changing? If it is, it is not progress.
Mike Huckabee is in the lead due, it appears, to voter approval of the depth and sincerity of his religious beliefs as lived out in his ministry as an ordained Southern Baptist. He flashes “Christian leader” over his picture in commercials; he asserts his faith is “mainstream”; his surrogates speak of Mormonism as “strange” and “definitely a factor.” Mr. Huckabee said this summer that a candidate’s faith is “subject to question,” “part of the game.”
He tells the New York Times that he doesn’t know a lot about Mitt Romney’s faith, but isn’t it the one in which Jesus and the devil are brothers? This made me miss the old days of Gore Vidal’s “The Best Man,” in which a candidate started a whispering campaign that his opponent’s wife was a thespian.
Mr. Huckabee has of course announced that he apologizes to Mr. Romney, which allowed him to elaborate on his graciousness and keep the story alive. He should have looked abashed. Instead he betrayed the purring pleasure of “a Christian with four aces,” in Mark Twain’s words.
Christian conservatives have been rising, most recently, for 30 years in national politics, since they helped elect Jimmy Carter. They care about the religious faith of their leaders, and their interest is legitimate. Faith is a shaping force. Lincoln got grilled on it. But there is a sense in Iowa now that faith has been heightened as a determining factor in how to vote, that such things as executive ability, professional history, temperament, character, political philosophy and professed stands are secondary, tertiary.
But they are not, and cannot be. They are central. Things seem to be getting out of kilter, with the emphasis shifting too far.
The great question: Does it make Mr. Huckabee, does it seal his rise, that he has acted in such a manner? Or does it damage him? Republicans on the ground in Iowa and elsewhere will decide that. And in the deciding they may be deciding more than one man’s future. They may be deciding if Republicans are becoming a different kind of party.
I wonder if our old friend Ronald Reagan could rise in this party, this environment. Not a regular churchgoer, said he experienced God riding his horse at the ranch, divorced, relaxed about the faiths of his friends and aides, or about its absence. He was a believing Christian, but he spent his adulthood in relativist Hollywood, and had a father who belonged to what some saw, and even see, as the Catholic cult. I’m just not sure he’d be pure enough to make it in this party. I’m not sure he’d be considered good enough.
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This thought occurs that Hillary Clinton’s entire campaign is, and always was, a Potemkin village, a giant head fake, a haughty facade hollow at the core. That she is disorganized on the ground in Iowa, taken aback by a challenge to her invincibility, that she doesn’t actually have an A team, that her advisers have always been chosen more for proven loyalty than talent, that her supporters don’t feel deep affection for her. That she’s scrambling chaotically to catch up, with surrogates saying scuzzy things about Barack Obama and drug use, and her following up with apologies that will, as always, keep the story alive. That her guru-pollster, the almost universally disliked Mark Penn, has, according to Newsday, become the focus of charges that he has “mistakenly run Clinton as a de facto incumbent” and that the top officials on the campaign have never had a real understanding of Iowa.
This is true of Mrs. Clinton and her Iowa campaign: They thought it was a queenly procession, not a brawl. Now they’re reduced to spinning the idea that expectations are on Mr. Obama, that he’d better win big or it’s a loss. They’ve been reduced too to worrying about the weather. If there’s a blizzard on caucus day, her supporters, who skew old, may not turn out. The defining picture of the caucuses may be a 78-year-old woman being dragged from her home by young volunteers in a tinted-window SUV.
This is, still, an amazing thing to see. It is a delight of democracy that now and then assumptions are confounded, that all the conventional wisdom of the past year is compressed and about to blow. It takes a Potemkin village.
A thought on the presence of Bill Clinton. He is showing up all over in Iowa and New Hampshire, speaking, shaking hands, drawing crowds. But when he speaks, he has a tendency to speak about himself. It’s all, always, me-me-me in his gigantic bullying neediness. Still, he’s there, and he’s a draw, and the plan was that his presence would boost his wife’s fortunes. The way it was supposed to work, the logic, was this: People miss Bill. They miss the ‘90s. They miss the pre-9/11 world. So they’ll love seeing him back in the White House. So they’ll vote for Hillary. Because she’ll bring him. “Two for the price of one.”
It appears not to be working. Might it be that they don’t miss Bill as much as everyone thought? That they don’t actually want Bill back in the White House?
Maybe. But maybe it’s this. Maybe they’d love to have him back in the White House. Maybe they just don’t want him to bring her. Maybe they miss the Cuckoo’s Nest and they’d love having Jack Nicholson’s McMurphy running through the halls. Maybe they just don’t miss Nurse Ratched. Does she have to come?
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It is clear in Iowa that immigration is the great issue that won’t go away. Members of the American elite, including U.S. senators, continue to do damage to the public debate on immigration. They do not view it as a crucial question of America’s continuance. They view it as an onerous issue that might upset their personal plans, an issue dominated by pro-immigration groups and power centers on the one hand, and the pesky American people, with their limited and quasi-racist concerns, on the other.
Because politicians see immigration as just another issue in “the game,” they feel compelled to speak of it not with honest indifference but with hot words and images. With a lack of sympathy. This is in contrast to normal Americans, who do not use hot words, and just want the problem handled and the rule of law returned to the borders.
Politicians, that is, distort the debate, not because they care so much but because they care so little.
Hillary Clinton is not up at night worrying about the national-security implications of open borders in the age of terror. She’s up at night worrying about whether to use Mr. Obama’s position on driver’s licenses for illegals against him in ads or push polls.
A real and felt concern among the candidates about immigration is a rare thing. And people can tell. They can tell with both parties. This is the real source of bitterness in this debate. It’s not regnant racism. It’s knowing the political class is incapable of caring, and so repairing.