Friday, January 11, 2008

Iowa Caucus Analysis: A Special Mid-Week Dispatch

N AN ODD NIGHT, two of the oddest moments involved watching not the candidates themselves address the nation but the famous personalities on the dais near them.

In the case of Mike Huckabee, it was Chuck Norris. The plaid-shirted, red-bearded Norris captured as much of the camera's gaze as Huckabee himself. In Norris' countenance, one got a glimpse of the self-possessed smugness that comes with certainty--the certainty of right and wrongness, white and blackness, god and godlessness, gay and straightness. It was strange to see Walker, Texas Ranger asking to be taken seriously as a visual icon of the political process. For a little over a year now, Norris has been writing a pro-Republican, pro-Jesus column for WorldNetDaily, but Huckabee's decision to place him front and center during his Iowa victory speech says a great deal about both men, their values, and how each is asking to be read: Huckabee as badass and Hollywood cool; Norris as validated, anointed, chosen.

Similarly, during Hilary Clinton's subdued, seemingly rehearsed concession speech that conceded nothing, the real magnetism in the room was to her left--her husband, Bill. Clinton's third place finish was, clearly, a blow to her and her followers, but no one looked more devastated than Bill Clinton. It was difficult to know if his overt discomfort was caused by her address (more an argument as to why her experience and deep pockets qualify her for the presidency than an appeal to the heart and soul of the electorate) or by the stunning outcome of the caucus. Perhaps it was my own projection influencing my perspective, but he looked to be holding back the urge to grab the microphone and say everything that was not being said at his wife's presentation and all that would be coverd at Obama's. One also senses that the heaviness in President Clinton's features portends the potential crush awaiting his as he hits the campaign trail. If he pulls out all the stops stumping for his wife, he (and others) may see this as a statement, even a referendum, on his presidency. How painful this reality must be for him.

Watching both Norris and President Clinton drives home the fact that so much about the campaigns and elections are about more than the candidates. They are about what the candidates see when they look into the two-way mirror that is the American electorate.

Tonight's results confirmed what we all knew, know, and shall not forget: America is a divided country. Had McCain and Edwards both won, there would be compelling evidence that America's left and right wings might actually be able to fly the same bird. But, Huckabee's strong showing among Republicans merely reinforces the putative anxiety among the right wing about conservative values like anti-gay measures, hatred of Roe v. Wade, and skepticism of illegal immigration. Romney's second place finish and McCain's surprisingly distant third place showing indicate an urgency among conservatives, at least in Iowa.

Obama, on the other hand, is a model of progressive liberal values. To my knowledge, Iowa has never elected an African American to any position of note; and yet, this young, "inexperienced" junior senator ran away with the democratic votes despite pre-caucus polls showing a statistically even race among Clinton, Obama, and Edwards. One of the more anti-establishment, anti-run-of-the-mill-solution candidates in recent memory, Obama appeared to appeal only to the young, the naive, and the disenfranchised. And yet, in one of the Whiter states in the country, Obama defeated, soundly, two exceedingly White front runners in Clinton and Edwards. It is hard to overstate how remarkable his accomplishment is. His speech, unlike Ms. Clinton's, was transcendent, emotional, and, most important, unifying.

Oddly enough, Obama's endorsement by Iowans expands the Democratic party, whereas Huckabee's victory shrinks the Republican crew. Huckabee is a divisive figure. Iowa Republicans who are not Christian or Evangelical avoided him. Mainstream Republican voters in other states will likely not find what they seek in president in Mr. Huckabee. On the other hand, Obama is likely to parlay his surprising victory in the White, conservative, Bible-belted Iowa into an incredible bounce for the New Hampshire primary only five days away. McCain will likely win New Hampshire, which could, in fact, bifurcate Republicans; while the Democrats may just rally around an Obama win in Iowa and New Hampshire en route to South Carolina.

Lastly, Republican and Democratic turnout in Iowa may be a bellwether for the fall elections. So many more Democrats caucused than Republicans (and with such enthusiasm), the politics of xenophobia, restriction, and exclusion that have dominated American discourse for the last eight years, may just be giving way to a dialogue of engagement, integration, and collaboration.

When viewed through this lens, the values of Chuck Norris, despite their owner's martial arts proficiency, were scissor-kicked tonight by those of Bill Clinton's intellectual successor, Senator Obama.

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