Tom Harkin: the Democrats' Echo Candidate

GEORGE F. WILL

September 09, 1991|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Tom Harkin, 51 and feeling free and itching for fun, plans to have fun hammering George Bush's ''clay feet.'' The only Iowa Democrat ever re-elected to the Senate, he plans to be the Democrats' Reagan, storming the presidency by reviving his party's fundamentalism.

Republicans dismiss him as the Democrats' Goldwater, a kamikaze candidate they want to see nominated. But in 1966 California Gov. Pat Brown and in 1980 President Carter felt that way about Mr. Reagan.

Mr. Harkin says victory can come from turning out non-voters who supposedly are mostly Democrats waiting to be stirred by a fire-and-brimstone liberal. Do you think you have seen this movie before? You have. In 1964 Goldwaterites expounded the ''conservatives in the woodwork'' theory: Non-voters were mostly conservatives anesthetized by Republican moderates practicing ''me-too'' politics as pale Democrats.

Barry Goldwater lost 45 states but won the future, which suggests that maybe the message was just a tad early, or the messenger was wrong. But recent political arithmetic should puncture Senator Harkin's confidence.

Surveys show that if only voters from families earning less than $50,000 had voted, Mr. Bush still would have won. He would have won by about 5 million votes even if the poor, blacks and Hispanics had voted at the same rate as everyone else. If absolutely everyone had voted, Mr. Bush would have beaten Mr. Dukakis even more decisively than he did. Which age group votes least? The young. Which group is the most Republican? The young. Is Mr. Harkin sure he wants more of them to vote?

Mr. Harkin excites those Democrats who hanker to go back to the future, who are still loitering in the 1930s waiting for lefty to rally working stiffs. The senator is indeed one of organized labor's pin-ups. But only one in six workers is unionized, and many have been Reaganized. In 1988 about half the union voters supported Mr. Bush, who won a majority of blue-collar voters.

Mr. Harkin sees an advantage in having his base west of the Mississippi. But since the Civil War only two Democratic presidents have been elected from states not on the Atlantic seaboard and both (LBJ and Truman) were first elevated to the presidency by deaths.

He notes that in 1984 Walter Mondale running against President Reagan was stronger in many cities than Mr. Dukakis was in 1988. But cities are no longer the crucial battleground. The 1992 election almost certainly will be the first in which an absolute majority of votes will be cast in suburbs.

The senator says Mr. Dukakis could have won if he had fought back against Mr. Bush's Willie Horton and Pledge of Allegiance attacks. But Mr. Bush was legitimately making an issue of the political culture of Massachusetts liberalism. Senator Harkin, asked today if he would furlough murderers, says ''probably not.'' Probably? Regarding the sort of Pledge of Allegiance legislation that Mr. Dukakis vetoed, Mr. Harkin sounds Dukakisian.

He does understand that Democrats lose when campaigns are dominated by cultural rather than pocketbook considerations. He thinks the middle class is seething about the 20-year stagnation of real incomes. But urging voters to ''vote their pocketbooks'' amounts to in- citing a mood of micro-greed, unless economic worries are linked to larger concerns about national vigor, justice and pride. And liberalism has long since lost its knack for appealing to nationalism.

Senator Harkin has a reputation for, shall we say, not making a fetish of accuracy. He recently told the political columnist David Broder that his five House victories came in ''one of the most conservative Republican congressional districts on the country.'' Oh? Mr. Dukakis carried it. Mr. Harkin says: ''When Franklin Roosevelt initiated Social Security, and the Republicans all voted against it . . . '' All? In 1935, on April 19 in the House and June 19 in the Senate, 91 of 114 Republicans voting supported Social Security. He boasts that in his 1990 re-election campaign he got more labor money than any senator ever got. Nope. Even in 1990 several senators got more.

However, Mr. Harkin, unlike, say, Nebraska's Senator Bob Kerrey, already has his message honed. Another Harkin rival, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, will appeal to moderates. Mr. Clinton may find that moderates are, by another name, tepids. Nomination contests involve a small sliver of the electorate and are won by intense minorities.

Senator Harkin's candidacy may benefit from its implausibility: The more invincible President Bush seems, the more likely some Democrats are to say, ''The hell with it -- if we can't win, let's at least have fun.'' For them, fun is coming out of the closet wearing their liberalism on their sleeves.

His slogan can be, ''In your heart, you know he's left.'' He is the ''a choice, not an echo'' candidate. And he is an echo, probably the Democrats' version of Goldwater, but perhaps of the Gipper.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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