The Huey Longs of Iowa

by Dave Sirota, 11/9/07

The media’s version of the Iowa presidential caucuses is a story of five candidates and two rivalries. On the Democratic side, it is Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., against Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and on the Republican side it is former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney against former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson. But the numbers suggest the most compelling story is about two underdog candidates and one demographic: former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R), former Sen. John Edwards (D) and the middle class.

Huckabee gained 11 points in the latest University of Iowa survey, pulling himself into a statistical tie for second place with Giuliani, despite Giuliani’s national fame and huge fundraising totals. Similarly, Edwards remains within striking distance of first place in Iowa despite his rivals spending 300 times what he’s spent on television ads as of the end of September (Edwards launched his first ad last week).

What explains the unlikely rise of these two dark horses?

It’s the populism, stupid.Huckabee and Edwards are the only two major candidates staking their campaigns on an indictment of economic inequality, corporate power and corruption. As the latest Democracy Corps poll shows, these are the very societal ills angering a middle class whose real-life struggles with stagnant wages, layoffs, debt, foreclosures and health care costs chafe against a pop culture and political system that glorify fabulous affluence. The country, in short, seems ready to embrace Huey Long’s “Share Our Wealth” ethos, and these two southerners are resurrecting the best of the famed Louisiana governor’s legacy.

Just look at the stump speeches.

“The most important thing a president needs to do is to make it clear that we’re not going to continue to see jobs shipped overseas, jobs that are lost by American workers, many in their 50s who, for 20 and 30 years, have worked to make a company rich and then watch as a CEO takes a $100 million bonus to jettison those American jobs somewhere else,” Huckabee said at a recent Republican debate. “That’s criminal — it’s wrong.”

Edwards presents arguably the boldest challenge to the political Establishment of any major presidential candidate in contemporary history. Proposing sweeping health care, tax, trade and labor law reform, he says the only way “people who are powerful in Washington” are “going to give away their power is if we take it away from them.” The system, he says, is “controlled by big corporations, the lobbyists they hire to protect their bottom line and the politicians who curry their favor and carry their water.”

Huckabee and Edwards benefit from facing icons of the very problems they attack.

Romney oozes aristocrat, having made his personal fortunes as a financial speculator and his political fortunes as the son of a well-connected Republican politician.
Giuliani cashed in his 9/11 fame to start a political advocacy firm for pharmaceutical companies and the tobacco industry. Thompson has spent most of his life as a Washington lobbyist.

On the Democratic side, it is even more obscene. Between speeches pledging concern for the middle class, Clinton has graced the cover of magazines like Fortune with the headline “Business Loves Hillary!” She has publicly defended the influence of lobbyists, and she has raked in more defense and health industry cash than any other candidate. Meanwhile, Obama tells America to “hope” as he raises big money from Wall Street and endorses a proposed expansion of job-killing, NAFTA-style trade policy.

Huckabee and Edwards could not contrast better with these opponents in a place like Iowa that has been welcoming to populists, from caucus winners like Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Dick Gephardt in 1988 to Bruce Braley and Dave Loebsack — the two Hawkeye State lawmakers first elected to Congress in 2006.

Iowa’s diners, farms and small businesses are a long way from Washington — a long way from the think tanks, lobbying firms and television studios that manufacture a conventional wisdom that pretends America likes elitist politicians and power-appeasing politics. The beauty is that, occasionally, Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses shove aside that fake conventional wisdom and reward power-challengers like Huckabee and Edwards for the intensity of their middle-class populism, rather than the size of their campaign bank accounts.

Whether these two Huey Longs win or lose, their competitive position reminds us that underneath the campaign contributions and media coronations, that forgotten thing called democracy still beats in the heart of America.

Writer and political analyst David Sirota is the bestselling author of “Hostile Takeover: How Big Money and Corruption Conquered Our Government & How We Take It Back.” His daily blog can be found at To find out more about David Sirota and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at



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