|Copyright © 2002 The International Herald Tribune
The whole exchange was conducted in a spirit of ribbing and good cheer, and it was apparently typical of what happened across the state.
We've learned a lot about the Democratic Party over the past few weeks, culminating with the astounding victories Monday night by Kerry and Edwards. We've learned that the Democrats are no longer primarily the party of union guys who want to restrict trade. We've learned that most Democrats are not really furious at "Washington Democrats." They desperately want to remove President George W. Bush, but they are not haters. They're not out to punish everybody who voted for the Iraq war resolution.
Instead, if you had to pick a quintessential figure to represent the Iowa Democratic voters who have been showing up at rallies over the past few days, it would be a 55-year-old teacher. She is a moderate, optimistic, progressive educator who wants to believe in politics again. She wants to believe that big changes can still be made in the United States, and that big challenges like poverty and the uninsured can still be addressed.
She has some pet peeves. She is upset by the billions of dollars that drug companies spend on commercials, which drive up the cost of her prescriptions. She loathes the No Child Left Behind Act, which threatens to brand her school a failure.
But it's the dream of big, history-shaking changes that really inspires her. She wants to talk about the issues that used to be so prominent but now seem never to get attention: urban blight, segregation and the misery caused by hunger and homelessness.
She remembers having faith in that kind of heroic politics when she was young. Conservatives sometimes say that Democrats want to go back to the 1960's of Woodstock and the peace movement. That's not quite right. The quintessential Democrat in Iowa doesn't want to return to the angry, disruptive long-hair style of the late 1960's. She wants to return to the confident, short-hair, pre-counterculture mood of the early 1960's.
She remembers President John F. Kennedy, the personification optimism. She remembers neatly dressed idealists infused with a sense of possibility. She's not hostile, as the late 60's/early 70's leftists often were, to the authoritative institutions. Back in 1972, Mark Shields, then a political consultant, advised George McGovern to play up his bomber pilot heroism in World War II. The campaign rejected that advice, fearing it would offend the Democratic base. But now the Democratic Party loves the idea of being led by a war hero.
The other thing about our 55-year-old teacher is that she has been disappointed so many times. The period of Kennedyesque hope was followed by the 1970's, then President Ronald Reagan and two decades of Republican ascendance. President Bill Clinton offered to rekindle her hopes but squandered it all so needlessly.
Like one who has loved ardently but not well, she is now wary about committing to a politician. At first she liked Dean because he offered to bring power back to the people who deserve to have it. But she's had second thoughts because Dean isn't the sort of kind and respectful student she wants in her classroom. She likes the way Edwards talks about visions of new possibilities for America, but without Dean's undertone of menace. She likes Kerry's steady earnestness and is intrigued by Clark.
Most of all, she is cautious and flexible. She wants to be sure that This Is The Guy before she gives her heart away one more time. After a year of being courted, most Iowa voters were still open to switching candidates even on caucus day.
I'm struck by how oblivious this campaign has been to the consequences of the Sept. 11 attacks. I'm struck by how the grand idealism of the crowds is out of proportion to the smallish policies on offer. Nonetheless, it's sort of inspiring in this cold Iowa winter to see at least some Americans who have preserved, despite decades of discouragement, a stubborn faith in politics, and the possibility of change.
Copyright © 2002 The International Herald Tribune