The Message From Iowa

Published January 23, 2004, issue of January 23, 2004.
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Twenty-eight years ago, in January 1976, Democrats in Iowa put their peculiar caucus system on the national map by upending conventional wisdom and making an obscure Southern governor, Jimmy Carter, the party’s presidential front-runner. With the Watergate scandal still searingly fresh, Iowa sent a message to the political establishment that Americans wanted new faces in Washington, not business as usual.

This year Iowa did it again, but the message was reversed. Right now, Iowans told us, America is looking for a leader who knows what he’s doing. The problem in Washington isn’t that there’s too much business as usual, but that there’s not enough. In too many areas, the nation’s affairs seem to be out of control. The solution is more wisdom and control, not less. Given the rough seas ahead, we need a steady hand at the tiller. That, we believe, is the reason for the stunning blow to Howard Dean’s campaign and the equally unexpected resurgence of John Kerry.

The backdrop to the drama, of course, is the Bush administration’s reckless radicalism, combining the worst aspects of fiscal irresponsibility and cultural extremism at home with blustering unilateralism on the world stage. It’s all been said before, yet each new week seems to bring more bad news. The world’s most powerful nation is threatened with isolation and bankruptcy.

The critique sounds harshly partisan, but it’s no longer just Democrats saying it. Earlier this month the administration’s budget-busting policies were criticized by no less an authority than the International Monetary Fund, the lordly guardian of worldwide fiscal conservatism. In a devastating report on the U.S. economy, the fund warned that the administration’s combination of tax-cutting and spiraling defense spending had produced a level of debt — “unprecedented” for a “large industrialized country” — that was threatening the stability of the world economy as a whole.

Bush himself seemed to recognize the hole he was digging for himself and the nation when he delivered his State of the Union address this week. The president spent much of his speech replying to critics rather than laying out an agenda for the coming year, as is traditional in the annual address. The reason he needed to reply so directly is that the criticisms are starting to hurt. The reason he didn’t lay out a real agenda is that he can’t. He hasn’t left himself any money.

All he had to offer were a handful of minor initiatives, most of them costing pennies. The plans he did lay out were mostly wrong-headed sops to the religious right, such as a program to check sexual diseases by teaching teenagers abstinence, a proven recipe for failure.

But the failure of the Bush record was only half the message from Iowa this week. The rebuke delivered to Howard Dean was a repudiation of the politics of anger that has come to dominate Democratic partisan discussion these days. America has become dangerously polarized in the past decade. Much of that is due to the angry radicalism of the GOP. The answer isn’t more anger, but less.

It’s not clear that John Kerry is now the anointed Democratic standard-bearer. There’s still a long primary season ahead. Wesley Clark and Joe Lieberman have yet to be heard from. Howard Dean may yet recover his footing and present a more credible face. For that matter, it’s possible that Bush himself will learn from the current crises and begin to steer a more responsible course.

What is clear is that America needs a more civil discourse from both sides of the aisle.

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