Blogs > HNN > Iowa: the snap of a starter's pistol not the roar of a rocket launcher

Jan 7, 2008 10:03 pm

Iowa: the snap of a starter's pistol not the roar of a rocket launcher

[Mr. Troy is Professor of History at McGill University, and the author, most recently, of Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady and Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s. He is a member of the advisory board of HNN. ]

The people have spoken: “Obama and Huckabee Triumph,” the headlines are blaring. Well, to be accurate, a small unrepresentative sample of the people spoke. The Iowa caucus is more like the snap of a starter’s pistol than the roar of a rocket launcher. Nevertheless, Democratic Senator Barack Obama and former Republican governor of Arkansas, Mike Huckabee, will enjoy a boost in momentum and fund-raising, especially because reporters choose to magnify minor Iowa victories into major national statements.

Even if they win no other contests, the emergence of Obama and Huckabee shows how wide-open both party fields are. Not since 1920 have Americans experienced a campaign with neither the president nor vice-president running in any way or any time (Harry Truman initially hoped to run in 1952, Dawes was a presidential hopeful in 1928). None of the candidates worked for George W. Bush, further proving the Administration’s unpopularity -- and the difficulty these days of launching a campaign for executive leadership from the executive branch (except the White House). Moreover, before his stirring debut at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, few Americans had heard of Barack Obama. Even though Mike Huckabee governed Arkansas from 1996 to 2007, he was nationally unknown until months ago, when his wisecracks started attracting attention in the televised candidate forums.

Obama’s rise, even if it proves fleeting, shows America making progress toward burying racism. Americans seem more worried that Obama is too green – inexperienced – than too black. Obama’s emergence is also the story of celebrity politics, especially because the talk show goddess Oprah Winfrey embraced Obama so enthusiastically. Obama wants to represent a national yearning for healing, appealing as a constructive centrist promising to end the Clinton-Bush baby-boom generational squabbling.

Huckabee’s rise is tied to another modern American political story, the rise of the religious right. Huckabee played to Iowa’s evangelicals, calling himself a “proven Christian leader” in some television ads. This crass appeal violated some of the delicate unspoken rules in the admittedly gray area where religion and politics overlap. Huckabee’s implicit, even more disturbing, appeal contrasts him as a true Christian, and thus a true American, with his runner-up in Iowa, Mitt Romney, a Mormon, whose candidacy has stirred some bigoted anti-Mormonism.

On the losing side, Romney and Democratic Senator Hillary Clinton may have suffered the biggest blows among the serious contenders. But both hope to rebound in New Hampshire next Tuesday. Both also now have a chance to show how they bounce back from setbacks with grit and grace. Reporters love comeback stories, as much as they love Cinderella stories, and reporters often knock down candidates to set up those comebacks

Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, among others, have gone from relative obscurity to the presidency in a flash. But victory in Iowa does not guarantee the nomination. In 1980 George H.W. Bush beat Ronald Reagan in the caucuses but still lost the nomination. Iowa triumphs can launch a candidacy to the party nomination but do not guarantee general election victory, as John Kerrey learned in 2004.

So, yes, some of the people have spoken. But there is a lot more jawboning and stumping, speculating and voting, that must occur before the Democrats and Republicans nominate their respective nominees and the American people pick their next leader – 11 months from now in November 2008. All we can predict is more – more speculating, more campaigning, and, thankfully, more voting from other parts of the country.

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