And so it begins.
We wanted exciting, we got exciting.
As this is written, late on the night of the caucuses, the outlines of the decisions seem clear: Barack Obama won.
Hillary Clinton, the inevitable, the avatar of the machine, lost.
It’s huge. Even though people have been talking about this possibility for six weeks now, it’s still huge. She had the money, she had the organization, the party’s stars, she had Elvis behind her, and the Clinton name in a base that loved Bill. And she lost. There are always a lot of reasons for a loss, but the ur-reason in this case, the thing it all comes down to? There’s something about her that makes you look, watch, think, look again, weigh and say: No.
She started out way ahead, met everyone, and lost.
As for Sen. Obama, his victory is similarly huge. He won the five biggest counties in Iowa, from the center of the state to the South Dakota border. He carried the young in a tidal wave. He outpolled Mrs. Clinton among women.
He did it with a classy campaign, an unruffled manner, and an appeal on the stump that said every day, through the lines: Look at who I am and see me, the change that you desire is right here, move on with me and we will bring it forward together.
He had a harder row to hoe than Mrs. Clinton did. He was lesser known, too young, lacked an establishment. He had to knock her down while building himself up. (She only had to build herself up until the end, when she went after his grade-school essays.) His takedown of Mrs. Clinton was the softest demolition in the history of falling buildings. I think we were there when it happened, in the debate in which he was questioned on why so many of Bill Clinton’s aides were advising him. She laughed, and he said he was looking forward to her advising him, too. He took mama to school.
And so something new begins on the Democratic side.
Something new begins on the Republican side, too.
Everyone said Mike Huckabee was a big dope to leave Iowa Wednesday to fly to L.A. to be on Jay Leno, but did you see him on that thing? He got off a perfect line on why he’s doing well against Romney: “People are looking for a presidential candidate who reminds them more of the guy they work with rather than the guy that laid them off.” The studio audience loved him. And you know, in Iowa they watch “The Tonight Show” too.
Mr. Huckabee likes to head-fake people into thinking he’s Gomer Pyle, but he’s more like the barefoot boy of the green room. He’s more James Carville than Jim Nabors.
What we have learned about Mr. Huckabee the past few months is that he’s an ace entertainer with a warm, witty and compelling persona. He won with no money and little formal organization, with an evangelical network, with a folksy manner, and with the best guileless pose in modern politics. From the mail I have received the past month after criticizing him in this space, I would say his great power, the thing really pushing his supporters, is that they believe that what ails America and threatens its continued existence is not economic collapse or jihad, it is our culture.
They have been bruised and offended by the rigid, almost militant secularism and multiculturalism of the public schools; they reject those schools’ squalor, in all senses of the word. They believe in God and family and America. They are populist: They don’t admire billionaire CEOs, they admire husbands with two jobs who hold the family together for the sake of the kids; they don’t need to see the triumph of supply-side thinking, they want to see that suffering woman down the street get the help she needs.
They believe that Mr. Huckabee, the minister who speaks their language, shares, down to the bone, their anxieties, concerns and beliefs. They fear that the other Republican candidates are caught up in a million smaller issues—taxing, spending, the global economy, Sunnis and Shia—and missing the central issue: again, our culture. They are populists who vote Republican, and as I have read their letters, I have felt nothing but respect.
But there are two problems. One is that while the presidency, as an office, can actually make real changes in the areas of economic and foreign policy, the federal government has a limited ability to change the culture of America. That is something conservatives used to know. Second, I’m sorry to say it is my sense that Mr. Huckabee is not so much leading a movement as riding a wave. One senses he brilliantly discerned and pursued an underserved part of the voting demographic, and went for it. Clever fellow. To me, the tipoff was “Don’t Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?”
My sense is that Mr. Huckabee’s good supporters deserve a better leader.
His next problem may be not so much New Hampshire as Ed Rollins, the Reagan White House political aide who came in a week ago to manage his campaign. Mr. Rollins began his tenure announcing to respectful young reporters that he—“the grizzled veteran,” the “old battler”—would like to sink to his knees and “shoot Romney in the groin” and “punch his teeth out.” Such class is of course always welcome on the trail, but one senses the verbal ante will constantly be upped, and I’m not sure that will work well for Mr. Huckabee. Self-inflated dirigibles, especially unmoored ones, can cast shadows on parades.