Tom Harkin and the politics of absolution On Politics Today

Jack W. Germond AND Jules Witcover

July 30, 1991|By Jack W. Germond AND Jules Witcover

MANCHESTER, N.H. — Manchester, N.H.-- TOM HARKIN practices the politics of absolution. He is telling his fellow Democrats that they have no reason to feel guilty about their liberal traditions.

"I think it's time for us to stand foursquare for the values of this party," he told a party brunch here the other day." It's time to say we weren't wrong, we were right."

The message of the 51-year-old senator from Iowa is unsurprisingly, reaching receptive ears these days. But at this embryonic stage of the campaign for the party's presidential nomination, the Democrats who are listening are most often the liberal activists who love to hear Harkin say that the Democrats "were not wrong, we were right" when they led the movements for things like social security and civil rights.

The operative question, however, is whether Harkin's message will be equally persuasive to the broader cross-section of Democratic caucus and primary voters who may see him as too much the lineal descendant of George McGovern, Walter F. Mondale and Michael S. Dukakis -- meaning a candidate easy to nominate but hard to elect.

There are elements of the political context obviously favorable to Harkin as he follows a timetable that should bring him fully and officially into the campaign in early September. For one thing, Democrats are looking for a candidate whose aggressiveness will contrast with the turn-the-other-cheek style of Dukakis in 1988. There is a feeling among Democrats, Harkin says, that "we got cheated out of our victory in 1988" by Dukakis' failures as a candidate and the harsh tactics of the George Bush campaign.

So it is not surprising if Democrats are attracted to a candidate preaching the old-time religion about the "greed" and "selfishness" of the Republicans and derisively referring to the president on every occasion as "George Herbert Walker Bush." When he made just such an arm-waving, red-faced speech to a

Democratic Party picnic here, the previously noisy-to-unruly crowd of perhaps 400 quickly simmered down to give him full attention.

There are, of course, many variables that will determine how Harkin's campaign for the nomination plays out over the next few months. If Mario Cuomo runs, the New York governor inevitably will supplant Harkin as the favorite of some liberals. If Cuomo does not run, it is possible that conservative Democrats will coalesce behind either Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas or Sen. Albert Gore of Tennessee to block Harkin-- just as they certainly will do if Cuomo enters the lists.

Harkin professes to be unconcerned about factions within his party. He has had no problems, he says, with the Democratic Leadership Council. And, he points out, he has been winning in a state whose voters have not been notoriously hospitable to liberal Democrats.

The more critical question, however, is whether what Harkin advances as "progressive populism" may not be translated by the Republicans, and some Democratic rivals as well, into a revival of "tax and spend" liberalism. Harkin argues the policies he is advocating don't require higher taxes but instead a redirection of resources to strengthen the economy and produce jobs. The United States, he points out by way of example, is pumping $50 billion a year into the German economy by keeping such a large military presence in Europe. Why not bring those troops home and pump that money into the domestic economy?

But political campaigns are fought in shorthand slogans these days. So Harkin can expect his critics to produce -- if only out of the air -- some assessment of how expensive he would be as president. The Iowa Democrat appears unconcerned at that prospect. "I'll just tell them they're full of crap," he says.

In any case, Harkin's message today has far less to do with specific proposals than it does with demonstrating that he is a take-no-prisoners Democrat willing to run on traditional Democratic values and to be aggressive. Asked what has surprised him about the campaign so far, he replies: "I thought I'd have a much tougher job of convincing people that we have to take the fight to Bush."

What Harkin also must do, however, is convince Democrats he has the potential to be a serious player and not just a revivalist leading them out of the depression in which they have been mired since 1988. Winning a Democratic nomination is one thing, winning the White House is quite another.

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