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Iowa takes the curtain

As voting begins in the 2008 presidential campaign, Americans are in a “Take the Curtain!” mood.
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The voters in Iowa said it clearly: “Take the Curtain!” That’s was my sense of what they’d do, and they did. Fans of Monty Hall’s TV show, “Let’s Make a Deal,” know what I mean: the contestant can either take what they see and already know, or whatever is behind the curtain. The Iowa voters took the curtain.

You might think the challenges we face – $100-a-barrel oil, an $8 trillion federal deficit, a widening gap between rich and poor, a world that no longer enamored of our leadership in the war on terror or anything else – would send us scurrying to the polls in search of the most experienced, traditionally credentialed leadership.

But that would be to misunderstand the American character – and the voters of Iowa proved it by picking Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee as the winners of the caucuses.

In the midst of crisis, we often opt for the fresh start. We “roll the dice,” as Bill Clinton put it – especially when every Establishment in sight, from the media to Washington, is distrusted more deeply than at any time in recent decades. We head west. We invent something. We throw all the parts on the table and say “failure is not an option.” We look for the novel, the outside-the-box, the hard-to-categorize, the untamable, the new crowd or the new generation. We “Take the Curtain!”

Obama and Huckabee have little by way of foreign policy experience, little real contact with Washington, DC. They are both from the somewhat younger end of the Baby Boom. They both are harder to characterize than they appear to be at first glance. They both talk about bringing people together, even though at first glance they seem to come from the die-hard base of their parties – Obama from the black community, Huckabee from the evangelical Christian community. They were and are new.

Consider who has created the most buzz and ferment on the campaign trail. That list, by my estimation, includes Barack Obama, Mike Huckabee, Ron Paul, John Edwards and John McCain. They are hard to figure, hard to summarize and not really from Washington or any establishment – except for McCain, who is so ornery that it doesn’t matter.

The big losers in Iowa are the more traditional politicians.  I am talking about Hillary Clinton (and her husband Bill), Mitt Romney and the rest. (Rudy Giuliani doesn’t count, because he seems to be spending so much time working on his tan in Florida.)

Obama is of course the most interesting case. President Clinton thought that he was squashing the senator from Illinois when he made his “roll the dice” comment, but, if anything, that enhanced Obama’s momentum. Mr. Bill switched to touting his wife’s experience, but that didn’t work, either.

Given a choice between someone who claims a lot of experience (Hillary) but who really doesn’t, and someone who doesn’t have that much experience but who tries to make a virtue of it (Obama), voters choose to “Take the Curtain” of Obama.

On the Republican side, Huckabee is a breath of fresh air if for no other reason than he speaks English -- not political-speak. And his positions are more interesting and unpredictable than you might think. Being a governor, and he was the governor of Arkansas for ten years, makes you more of a pragmatist than an ideologue.

McCain in the end may offer voters the best of both worlds: a permanent outsider, a restless spirit, but one with more real-world experience than anyone else in the race.

It is Hillary’s misfortune to be a half-generation off on the “newness” front. Women-in-power is not such a new story; an African-American with real power is.

What’s new about Edwards? Well, he represents the rise of a potent force in American society, the trial lawyers, using the courts in our litigious society as an agent of economic justice. That’s new. Huckabee? The full merger of politics and pulpit in the new GOP grassroots. Paul? The rise of the libertarian internet.

So Iowa began it. They made the deal – and took the curtain.