What Iowa Voters Want

Bill Scher

We don’t know who will win the Iowa caucuses, but we do know what Iowa voters want.

As the leading Democrats seek to eek out a final lead, each delivered copious servings of substance, all pledging to achieve the same goals: an economy that works for everyone, health care for all, a clean energy future, affordable education and the end of the Iraq occupation.

Sen. Barack Obama’s final major speech stresses the urgency for change:

At this defining moment, we cannot wait any longer for universal health care. We cannot wait to fix our schools. We cannot wait for good jobs, and living wages, and pensions we can count on. We cannot wait to halt global warming, and we cannot wait to end this war in Iraq.

Former Sen. John Edwards’ 36-hour marathon campaign swing highlighted 36 policy proposals to “Create More Good Jobs,” “Help Families Save and Get Ahead,” “Pass True Universal Health Care,” “Strengthen Our Schools,” establish “Smart Trade Policy,” “Invest in Rural Areas,” and “Achieve Energy Independence.”

And Sen. Hillary Clinton hit the same themes in one of her final speeches:

…I believe we can move toward a health care system that covers everyone, that decreases costs for everyone, and improves quality for everyone.

…I have proposed a comprehensive energy plan that will be good for our security, that will be good for our environment because we do have to deal with the greenhouse gas emissions in our atmosphere, and that will be good for our economy…

…we’ve got to make college affordable for middle class and working families. Let’s make it easier for those kids who want to go to school … who say they don’t know how they’re going to afford it. They have to go into such deep debt.

…We’re going to have a new beginning to America’s leadership in the world. We’re going to start with ending the war in Iraq and bringing our troops home as quickly and responsibly as we possibly can.

It’s no coincidence that all the leading Democratic candidates are running on the same issues. They’re hearing want voters want, not just among Democratic caucusgoers, but among the broader electorate.

Contrast that with the Republican leaders in Iowa: former Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Gov. Mitt Romney.

The Republican candidates listened to voters as well, but mostly to voters who hate immigrants and gays.

Even though poll after poll shows Iraq, the economy and health care as more urgent priorities to address, and even though both candidates used to support more sensible and humane immigration policies, both couldn’t pander fast enough to the anti-immigrant minority.

(Huckabee’s defense of his pro-immigrant policies as governor soon were superceded by proudly accepting the endorsement of the founder of the border vigilante Minutemen.)

But Huckabee’s rise — to be at least the second-place candidate among Iowa Republicans — shows the breadth of support for a renewed economic populism.

Huckabee’s policies may not do much for working families. He does raise the prospect of fairer trade and a cap on greenhouse gas emissions. But he rejects universal health care and his national sales tax would be a disastrous boondoggle for the middle-class.

Nevertheless, he has rhetorically responded to the nation’s increasing economic angst.

For example, while Romney emphasizes his corporate background, Huckabee said last night, “People are looking for a presidential candidate who reminds them more of the guy they work with rather than the guy that laid them off.”

Huckabee’s campaign has exposed a rift within the conservative movement. More conservatives recognize that the corporate wing of the movement is not looking out for their interests.

And it’s an open question whether that rift can be healed by November, as the economic struggles of Americans of all ideological stripes is sure to continue.

No matter who wins the Democratic race, voters will be rallying behind an populist agenda that garners broad support beyond party lines.

No matter who wins the Republican race, conservative voters will show a split that further speaks to the reach of the populist message.

And that threatens the viability of the decades-long conservative project to use “God, guns and gays” to persaude working-class Americans to vote for politicians who let irresponsible corporate behavior run rampant.

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