The Iowa Caucuses

January 4, 2008

The day after the Iowa caucuses, Thomas Mann discusses what happened in both the Republican and Democratic contests and looks ahead to the upcoming presidential primaries.


“There’s an extraordinary market for change – for discontinuity against stability, status quo, restoration in both parities. On the Republican side, it was fascinating to see Mitt Romney who had invested so much in the state, was constantly criticizing Huckabee and other candidates for treating President Bush harshly. His whole campaign seemed to be an affirmation of the Bush presidency and a desire to return to Ronald Reagan and the conservative Republican coalition. That was rejected decisively. Huckabee was the critic and the advocate of change and it came through loud and clear. Similarly, on the Democratic side, Barack Obama’s whole theme was change. Mind you, this not change defined in ideological terms. There are very little differences among the major Democratic candidates on any of the issues confronting the country. It had everything to do with style and approach. In the end, two of the three major candidates – Obama and Edwards – were arguing for real change and for reframing problems and issues in ways that might shake up the current alignments in American politics and Clinton was arguing more for, ‘I know how to play this game and make it work, we can do this and this and this and those pieces will add up to something.’  I think the public was less enamored of that and change – discontinuity were the order of the day.

“I don’t see Obama as changing the substantive agenda of the Democrats or of liberalism – progressivism – say as Bill Clinton did, who really moved the party back to the center. With Obama it’s more stylistic but that’s important. It is a desire to, yes, advance a set of policies that would counter what has happened under conservative Republican rule. But to do it in a way that doesn’t reinforce the ideological polarizations of the parties. His claim is to bring America together. There are many more divisions now within the Republican Party. It’s not surprising Reagan conservatism has dominated our politics for some time but the pillars of moral traditionalism, small government tax cuts and an aggressive nationalism in foreign policy are in tatters given recent experience. And, there’s real disagreement among Republicans as to the direction to move in.

“Basically, Huckabee signals, ‘We gotta to change this party.’  And the whole meaning of conservatism and the odds are he won’t be the person to do that.  If it’s going to happen this year, it’s more likely that tot happen in the person of John McCain. If it doesn’t happen this year, though, there’s going to be a lot of efforts among Republicans, at the election, to begin to remake their party. And, if that happens, we’ll look back and say, ‘Mike Huckabee played an extraordinarily pivotal role in that.’

“There was a mobilization of people in a way that, on caucus night, made those rooms so crowed they were violating fire code. In the end, I think, in spite of the flaws of this kind of process, we actually got some genuine deliberation on these candidates. Money didn’t buy the outcome, people thought long and hard on the particular characteristics of the candidates, the nature of the appeals they were making and that provided them the opportunity to set the plate for what follows. And what follows immediately is New Hampshire and once the results of that primary are in we will know just how short or long this nominating season will be.”