Tom Harkin: reaching for the Truman legacy On Politics Today

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

September 17, 1991|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

WINTERSET, IA. — AS THE latest 1992 Democratic hopeful tossed his hat into the ring on a farm here the other day, supporters held a large sign that proclaimed: "Sen. Tom Harkin for President, Iowa's Harry Truman."

The crowd of Iowa faithful who listened to Harkin needed no explanation as he conjured up memories of Truman's 1948 give-'em-hell style that upset Republican Tom Dewey, launching red-meat assault on President Bush, the man he hopes to face as the Democratic nominee a year from now.

The pointed comparison with Truman started from the moment Harkin held up a new campaign T-shirt that said "Give-Em-Hell Harkin" and then immediately declared: "There are those who say that we're a long shot, that we might just as well call the election off, that George Herbert Walker Bush is so popular he can't be beat. Well, I'm here to tell you that George Herbert Walker Bush has feet of clay, and I intend to take a hammer to them."

Charging that Bush policies, like those of Ronald Reagan, have benefited the rich at the expense of working Americans, Harkin added: "Like Harry Truman asked my farmers back in 1948, 'How many times do you have to get hit on the head before you figure out what's hitting you on the head?' " And when a supporter yelled, "Give 'em hell!" Harkin replied with the Trumanesque response: "I just report the facts and they think it's hell."

Harkin's speech drew heavy applause from fellow Iowans sitting on bales of hay arranged theater-like in front of his flat-bed speaking platform. But when the speech was over and a campaign aide sought to lead a local band in "Happy Days Are Here Again," the old New Deal anthem of Franklin Roosevelt and Truman, he had to sing the first few lines to get the band going. That could suggest a core problem with Harkin's borrowed Truman style.

The Iowa senator was not quite nine years old when Truman gave Dewey hell, and most of those in the crowd who could remember it are old-timers. The appeal of the style of the Truman days and the substance of the New Deal he carried on for Roosevelt -- the notion of government as protector of the little guy -- has fallen out of favor with many younger Americans. They have bought into the Reagan-Bush philosophy of individual responsibility, and individual gain or pain.

In terms of practical nomination politics, however, there doubtless is widespread dissatisfaction among activist Democrats over what theysee as the failures of the last two Democratic presidential nominees, Walter Mondale in 1984 and Michael Dukakis in 1988, to preach the old Democratic liberal gospel early enough and strongly enough.

In Democratic post-mortems of those big Democratic losses, the assumption is that if only Mondale and Dukakis had from the outset declared and defended their allegiance to the liberal tradition of Roosevelt and Truman, they could have won.

Considering the margins of victory of Reagan over Mondale and Bush over Dukakis, the hypothesis is questionable. Nevertheless, the spectacle of Harkin aggressively defending the traditional Democratic values and going on the attack, rather than soft-pedaling liberalism or turning the other cheek, can help satisfy the frustrations of those Democrats who hold to that hypothesis.

In the contest for the Democratic nomination, no one is likely to out-Truman Tom Harkin. With the other two declared candidates, former Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts and Gov. Doug Wilder of Virginia, vying for the votes of moderate Democrats, presumably along with added starters Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas and Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, a solid liberal vote behind Harkin could be decisive.

Bill Gluba, a Davenport real estate salesman who backed aggressive populist Sen. Fred Harris of Oklahoma in the 1976 Iowa caucuses, says he sees a lot of Harris and Truman in Harkin. "Dukakis was a nice guy, but he didn't take it to Bush," Gluba says. "We need a guy who is mean as a junkyard dog. Democrats can't back away from our fundamental beliefs, like those of FDR and Truman. This one can be won, and Tom is the one who can do it."

Given the frustration level in the Democratic Party right now, there is undoubtedly considerable appeal in a candidate who throws verbal haymakers at the Republican president. Whether Harkin can translate that frustration into enough votes to be nominated is the big question.

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