Thoughts on Iowa

AUSTIN, Texas -- Love those Iowa results. Nothing better than a huge political scrum where the front-runner stumbles, the guy everyone wrote off for dead six weeks ago comes roaring back, an unknown emerges, an old war-horse drops out -- a wonderful scenario. Let's hear it for upset, confusion and the conventional wisdom with egg on its face. A banana cream pie right in the kisser for everyone who pretends they know how a political race will turn out. Happy days. Ain't democracy grand?

Not saying I necessarily agree with the conclusions reached by the Iowa caucus-goers, but I do love it when voters make fools of the pundits, including me. My biggest reservation about the result is John Kerry, who could take the excitement out of a soccer riot.

Democrats, in an unusual fit of unity, are trying to find someone who can beat George W. Bush, period. Our usual inability to support anyone who isn't perfect on every single issue dear to our hearts is subsumed by the profound sense that this country is not just headed in the wrong direction, but literally coming apart. Electability is the primo consideration, and I think Democrats are making the same mistake the pundits did initially.

The pundits all thought Kerry was a lead-pipe cinch when this started (until, of course, the pack turned on him and pronounced him dead meat). He looks presidential, people in Washington know him, he knows how the game is played, he's got the war record and quite a few bright people find him mega-impressive at close range. But he's got no Elvis. You can't win without Elvis.

Kerry got some lucky breaks. A guy whose life Kerry had saved in Vietnam -- for which he got the Bronze Star -- turned up two days before the Iowa caucuses and, of course, burst into tears after endorsing Kerry. Who could make up stuff that good? All that bio, and Kerry still comes across as a tall Dukakis.

Much of the punditry has apparently decided to fall in love with John Edwards, which is fine by me -- he's consistently populist. A year ago, I thought Edwards was too pretty and too light, but by the time he made a terrific speech at Georgetown last summer, I started shifting my opinion. I don't consider being a trial lawyer a disqualifier, despite The Wall Street Journal's editorial tendency to break out in hives at the mere mention. To the extent that Edwards mostly sued doctors, he's in trouble -- a no-win PR battle. To the extent that he mostly sued insurance companies, he's golden -- a no-lose PR battle. Further adventures ahead, that's all that's certain.

My man Dean took a licking. Of course, he had the other candidates and the media ganging up on him, but hey, they always do that to the front-runner, and whining about it never helps. The Washington press corps can do the most amazing imitation of a clique of snotty high school kids, and they were determined to find that Dean was not good enough for their clique from the beginning.

I have long cherished a line from Max Frankel, editor of The New York Times, concerning Bill Clinton: "He came from nowhere, and nobody had ever heard of him." Clinton, like Dean, had been a governor for 10 years when he ran, yet Maureen Dowd recently wrote, "(Dean) comes from nowhere and wants to lead the world." The subtext here is: "Well we never heard of him. He's not one of us. We never see him at the best Washington dinner parties, so who does he think he is?"

In retrospect, it occurs to me that Dean is a perfectly decent, mostly moderate fellow who tried to become Paul Wellstone and it didn't work. The media kept translating passion as anger, and when Dean finally just made a bad speech on caucus night, the clique had a wonderful time announcing he was psychotic.

The trouble with Dean dropping back is that the D's then largely lose Iraq as an issue (unless Kerry is smart enough to use "I was fooled, too" without looking foolish). I think that's a mistake. In the first place, because it was so egregious, if not criminal. We were, in fact, lied into a war we didn't have to fight. And the results are not happy. In case you hadn't noticed, 100,000 Iraqi Shiites were protesting in the streets Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Bush was running the same old plays in his State of the Union Address: fear, threat, danger, terror, war, enemies. He even trotted out the weapons of mass destruction again, just as though they had actually existed. And the media accuse Howard Dean of being negative!

President Bush's speech contained so many outrageous distortions -- on No Child Left Behind, Pell Grants, the PATRIOT Act, job training, the deficit, on and on -- it takes the public interest groups pages just to correct the most blatant disinformation in the speech.

My favorite line was, "Jobs are on the rise." Not a hey or a howdy to the 9 million unemployed Americans, just a flat lie. Piece of work, isn't he?

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