Purple Promises

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Saturday, January 5, 2008

UNDERSTANDABLY, much has been made of the Iowa caucus results as a reflection of voters' desire for change. Both winners, Republican Mike Huckabee and Democrat Barack Obama, took on their parties' establishments, and both promise a new era in Washington. But the two share something else as well: a commitment, at least in rhetoric, to transcend partisanship and unite Republicans and Democrats. What's less evident is the basis for those claims.

Mr. Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, noted in his victory speech Thursday night that voters weren't opting for just any change. What voters seek, he said, is to "bring this country back together, to make Americans, once again, more proud to be Americans than just to be Democrats or Republicans." Similarly, Mr. Obama, the freshman senator from Illinois, told his supporters that "you came together as Democrats, Republicans and independents, to stand up and say that we are one nation . . . we are not a collection of red states and blue states."

For both candidates, personality is an important component of the bipartisan appeal. Mr. Huckabee's genial, self-deprecating humor, offering a contrast to the post-Sept. 11 sternness of the Cheney-Giuliani variety, could appeal to many independents. Mr. Obama to an even greater degree offers himself -- his life story, his Kansan mother and Kenyan father, his ability to lift up and inspire -- as a unifying force. In his breathtakingly eloquent victory speech Thursday, Mr. Obama said Iowa would be remembered as "the moment when we tore down barriers that have divided us for too long, when we rallied people of all parties and ages to a common cause."

But what cause, precisely? There's virtually nothing in Mr. Obama's platform that diverges from the standard, left-wing Democratic fare. He promised again Thursday not to "just tell you what you want to hear, but what you need to know." But virtually nothing he says is dissonant to liberal ears; in foreign policy, trade policy, education policy, fiscal policy, there is nothing with a nod to the possibility of good ideas in the red-state playbook.

Mr. Huckabee might appeal to Democratic voters with his recognition, unique among Republican candidates, that life can be tough for working Americans. His economic populism at times echoed that of Democratic candidate John Edwards. But his chief economic plank, the so-called FairTax that would replace all existing federal taxes, would be skewed against the middle class and for the rich. To the extent that his positions in Iowa could be seen as reaching out to Democrats, they were appealing to fears -- not hopes -- that Democrats may share with Republicans: fear of immigrants, fear of globalization. And, unlike in Mr. Obama's case, Mr. Huckabee's rhetoric is at times divisive -- most notably when he portrays himself as the Christian candidate.

The very fact of a black man triumphing in majority-white America, as Mr. Obama triumphed in white Iowa, would carry huge and happy significance here and abroad. But those who argue that his biography and charisma are sufficient arguments for Mr. Obama's election patronize him in a way he does not seek.

It may be that voters sense in the candidates' instincts and histories a nonpartisanship that, in the hunt for primary voters, neither aspirant dares display. Voters might find such hints in Mr. Huckabee's support, as governor, for children's health care; or in Mr. Obama's earlier statements on trade or accountability in education, more nuanced than his campaign positions. But now that Mr. Obama is the front-runner, and Mr. Huckabee is at least a leading candidate, hints are not enough, and neither are promises to bring the nation together. Both should be asked just how they plan to do so.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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