Harkin Harvest Fails In Granite State

prairie-dog-logoThis article originally appeared in the Spring 1992 issue of the Prairie Progressive.

MANCHESTER, NEW HAMPSHIRE—The 727 landed in a dense fog. One year ago today, the ground war had begun.

One year ago, perhaps, yellow ribbons festooned the trees and telephone poles. Now the streetswere littered with leaflets from yesterday’s ACT-UP rally (“Read my lipstick – no new taxes on the rich!”); photos of people dead or dying from AIDS hung from bare branches.

The ground war of the First Primary had begun.Troops from the seven major campaigns skirmished up and down Elm Street. Solitarydark horse candidates (more than fifty on the ballot) sought to establish beachheads. Platoons of journalists and camera crews patrolled the perimeter.

But Manchester was not only a battlefield. It was also a small town before a big football game. Store windows and apartment buildings sported Homecoming-style banners (“Sununu for President – no more wimps!”). Pickup loads of beefy young Buchanan supporters careened through the business district, blasting their horns and chanting through bullhorns. Smug Kerrey volunteers planted themselves in front of the Merrimack Restaurant and cheered themselves hoarse. Kittycorner
to them was a well-coiffed Clinton crowd, waving signs and exchanging taunts with smaller knots of Cuomo and Harkin flagbearers who darted in and out of traffic. Occasionally a Nader mobile-home rolled through the streets, an enormous yellow write-in pencil mounted on its roof.

The crowds and the cacophony grew as Game Time neared. Warm weather on the day before the primary brought out hundreds more, as adrenaline-and-caffeine-crazed staffers croaked “Visibility!” to their workers, who surged out of their headquarters, jockeying for position on the best turf. At one point a beat-up van screeched to the curb and disgorged a dozen pumped-up twentysomethings brandishing Laughlin signs. They claimed the corner.

By nightfall of Primary Eve, Manchester had become a surreal blend of street theater, Mardi Gras, and Prom Night. Twenty-four hours later, the party would be over for Tom Harkin.

Was Harkin’s problem “the message or the messenger?” That’s how the major media posed the issue of Harkin’s failure to ignite Democratic primary voters.

Nothing was wrong with Harkin’s fundamental message. It was a simple amalgam of: 1) Jesse Jackson’s message in ’88; 2) some facts and theories lifted from Republican analyst Kevin Phillips’s book, “The Politics of Rich and Poor;” and 3) Harkin’s own instinctive populism.

The message, however, had two strikes against it. First, the primary schedule was less than ideal. New Hampshire, one of the most anti-government, antitax, anti-labor states in the nation (and the food’s not very good, either),is a terrible place to begin the Democratic primaries. Even one little industrial state with a minority population could have injected some momentum into Harkin’s campaign earlier in the process.

Equally problematic was the media’s aversion to openly class-based politics. “Class-resentment anger,” the Des Moines Register labeled Harkin’s rhetoric. The Wall Street Journal dismissed his attacks on Reaganomics as “classwarfare.” They just don’t get it. Class remains America’s dirty little secret, one which well-fed columnists from the finest schools are ill-equipped to explore.

Harkin’s strengths as a messenger were outweighed by two flaws. The decision to go negative in New Hampshire was a crucial mistake. His Iowa victory did give Harkin a bump going into New Hampshire, with tracking polls showing slowly but steadily inching ahead of Kerrey toward 15%.

Had Harkin been content to make a few comparisons” of his record with Kerrey’s, his upward trend probably would have continued. Instead, Harkin took shots at all of his competitors, thereby defusing the attack on Kerrey while increasing his own junkyard-dog image. What worked against Tom Tauke backfired in a larger field.

Harkin’s staff apparently realized that something had gone askew, because they hastily resurrected a softer ad featuring Harkin’s hearing-impaired brother.

The kind-and-gentle persona came too late for a knock-out of Kerrey, which was crucial to the long-range goal of a Harkin-vs.-Clinton showdown. Harkin’s hopes, and the struggle to define the Democratic Party in 1992, were finished.

The messenger may have made another serious mistake by abandoning his stance as an outsider.  Harkin’s claim of being “the only real Democrat in the race” was accurate in many respects, but it didn’t play well in an anti-establishment atmosphere. And Harkin’s style, epitomized by his beautifully-orchestrated announcement event on a farm in Winterset, began to reek of the Beltway. Neither Harkin nor Kerrey, flying firstclass with bloated entourages, could adjust quickly enough to the twists and turns of a national campaign. Yet, with little money and less than ten staffers, Jerry Brown (a quintessential insider) is still in the race.

Withdrawing from campaigns brings out the best in presidential hopefuls. Kerrey was far more lively and appealing during his exit remarks than he ever had been as a candidate. A trace of self-deprecating humor somehow found its wayinto Harkin’s withdrawal speech. The account of  his campaign, Harkin joshed, should be called “Memoirs of an Invisible Man.” Both he and the crowd were startled by his halting attempt to poke fun at himself, but the joke was okay for a first try. A little more of that could go along way in ’96.

— Dave Leshtz campaigned for Sen.Harkin in New Hampshire in 1992.

The Prairie Progressive is a newsletter for Iowa’s Democratic Left.  Available only in hard copy for $12/yr.!!  To subscribe, send check to PP, Box 1945, Iowa City 52244. 

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