By next week politically active Iowans will have met and tallied their votes. Their decision this year will have a huge impact on the 2008 election, and a decisive impact on various candidacies. Some will be done in. Some will be made. Some will land just right or wrong and wake up the next day to read raves or obits. A week after that, New Hampshire. The endless campaign is in fact nearing its climax.
But all eyes are on Iowa. Iowans bear a heck of a lot of responsibility this year, the first time since 1952 when there is no incumbent president or vice president in the race. All of it is wide open.
Iowa can make Obama real. It can make Hillary yesterday. It can make Huckabee a phenom and not a flash, McCain the future and not the past. Moments like this happen in history. They’re the reason we get up in the morning. “What happened?” “Who won?”
This is my 2008 slogan: Reasonable Person for President. That is my hope, what I ask Iowa to produce, and I claim here to speak for thousands, millions. We are grown-ups, we know our country needs greatness, but we do not expect it and will settle at the moment for good. We just want a reasonable person. We would like a candidate who does not appear to be obviously insane. We’d like knowledge, judgment, a prudent understanding of the world and of the ways and histories of the men and women in it.
Here are two reasonables: Joe Biden and Chris Dodd. They have been United States senators for a combined 62 years. They’ve read a raw threat file or two. They have experience, sophistication, the long view. They know how it works. No one will have to explain it to them.
Mitt Romney? Yes. Characterological cheerfulness, personal stability and a good brain would be handy to have around. He hasn’t made himself wealthy by seeing the world through a romantic mist. He has a sophisticated understanding of the challenges we face in the global economy. I personally am not made anxious by his flip-flopping on big issues because everyone in politics gets to change his mind once. That is, you can be pro-life and then pro-choice but you can’t go back to pro-life again, because if you do you’ll look like a flake. The positions Mr. Romney espouses now are the positions he will stick with. He has no choice.
John McCain? Yes. Remember when he was the wild man in 2000? For Republicans on the ground he was a little outré, if Republicans on the ground said “outré,” as opposed to the more direct “nut job.” George W. Bush, then, was the moderate, more even-toned candidate. Times change. Mr. McCain is an experienced, personally heroic, seasoned, blunt-eyed, irascible American character. He makes me proud. He makes everyone proud.
Barack Obama? Yes, I think so. He has earned the attention of the country with a classy campaign, with a disciplined and dignified staff, and with passionate supporters such as JFK hand Ted Sorensen, who has told me he sees in Obama’s mind and temperament the kind of gifts Kennedy displayed during the Cuban missile crisis. Mr. Obama is thoughtful, and it would be a pleasure to have a president who is highly literate and a writer of books.
Is he experienced enough? No. He’s not old enough either. Men in their 40s love drama too much. Young politicians on fire over this issue or that tend to see politics as a stage on which they can act out their greatness. And we don’t need more theatrics, more comedies or tragedies. But Mr. Obama doesn’t seem on fire. He seems like a calm liberal with a certain moderating ambivalence. The great plus of his candidacy: More than anyone else he turns the page. If he rises he is something new in history, good or bad, and a new era begins.
Hillary Clinton? No, not reasonable. I concede her sturdy mind, deep sophistication, and seriousness of intent. I see her as a triangulator like her husband, not a radical but a maneuverer in the direction of a vague, half-forgotten but always remembered, leftism. It is also true that she has a command-and-control mentality, an urgent, insistent and grating sense of destiny, and she appears to believe that any act that benefits Clintons is a virtuous act, because Clintons are good and deserve to be benefited.
But this is not, actually, my central problem with her candidacy. My central problem is that the next American president will very likely face another big bad thing, a terrible day, or days, and in that time it will be crucial—crucial—that our nation be led by a man or woman who can be, at least for the moment and at least in general, trusted. Mrs. Clinton is the most dramatically polarizing, the most instinctively distrusted, political figure of my lifetime. Yes, I include Nixon. Would she be able to speak the nation through the trauma? I do not think so. And if I am right, that simple fact would do as much damage to America as the terrible thing itself.
Duncan Hunter, Fred Thompson, and Bill Richardson are all reasonable—mature, accomplished, nonradical. Mike Huckabee gets enough demerits to fall into my not-reasonable column. John Edwards is not reasonable. All the Democrats would raise taxes as president, but Mr. Edwards’s populism is the worst of both worlds, both intemperate and insincere. Also we can’t have a president who spent two minutes on YouTube staring in a mirror and poofing his hair. Really, we just can’t.
I forgot Rudy Giuliani. That must say something. He is reasonable but not desirable. If he wins somewhere, I’ll explain.
Because much of the drama is on the Democratic side, a thought on what might be said when they win or lose. If Mrs. Clinton wins, modesty is in order, with a graceful nod to Mr. Obama. If she loses—well, the Clintons haven’t lost an election since 1980. For a quarter century she’s known only victory at the polls. Does she know how to lose? However she acts, whatever face she shows, it will be revealing. Humility would be a good strategy. In politics you have to prove you can take a punch. I just took one. (On second thought that’s a bad idea. She might morph at the podium into Robert DeNiro in “Raging Bull” and ad-lib the taunt: You didn’t knock me down Ray! I’m still standing!)
For Mr. Obama: a lot of America will be looking at him for the first time, and under the most favorable circumstances: as the winner of something. This is an opportunity to assert freshly what his victory means, and will mean, for America. This is a break with the past, a break with the tired old argument, a break with the idea of dynasty, the idea of the machine, the idea that there are forces in motion that cannot be resisted . . . But what is it besides a break from? What is it a step toward, an embrace of?
Good luck, Iowa. The eyes of the nation are upon you.