Authenticity Wins in Iowa

Phonies take a pounding.


Back in the 1990s, Bill Clinton talked a lot about building "a bridge to the 21st century." Right now, his wife looks like an unappealing detour back to the 20th.

Having him stand behind her as she addressed supporters after her third-place finish in Iowa didn't help. She might as well have invited Fleetwood Mac to provide the music. Nostalgia isn't everything.

The Iowa caucuses, it should be noted, are rarely as decisive as they may appear. Since 1976, only one candidate has won Iowa on the way to becoming president—George W. Bush in 2000. But if you can't win the election in Iowa, you can certainly put yourself in a solid position to lose it, which is what Clinton and John Edwards accomplished Thursday evening.

The evening was full of surprises. I would not have guessed that Barack Obama would reprise a German slogan chanted upon the fall of the Berlin Wall: "We are one people." But it was appropriate, since the polarization of the last 15 years has featured everything short of an Iron Curtain between the red states and the blue.

Mike Huckabee waxed grandiose in his victory speech, declaring that "tonight, I hope we will forever change the way Americans look at their political system and how we elect presidents and elected officials." Somehow I doubt that 20 or 50 years from now, Americans will look back at Huckabee's upset and say, "That was the moment that changed us forever."

As he could learn from Pat Robertson, who thought he was White House-bound after finishing ahead of Vice President George Bush in the 1988 caucuses, it's one thing for an evangelical darling to win in Iowa. It's another to win elsewhere, especially when you lack money and face an expanded field of capable opponents. His victory was one for "none of the above." Once voters get to know the newcomer better, he may look worse than the other options.

But Huckabee was on to something earlier when he said voters should choose someone "authentic." That is not an adjective anyone would apply to Mitt Romney, unless it preceded "phony." The former Massachusetts governor is less a flesh-and-blood person than an assemblage of focus-tested attributes that could be instantly reconfigured on demand.

Romney brought a business executive's skill at raising money and identifying the demands of his customers, in this case Republican voters. But in trying to meet their every specification, he left the unappetizing impression he would say anything to become president.

A virtue in a capitalist—being willing to do whatever is needed to satisfy the target audience—becomes a vice in the political realm, where it looks like an acute lack of principle or character. Voters in Iowa seem to prefer a candidate who appears true with them, and true to himself.

Or herself, which raises a problem for Hillary Clinton. Like Romney, she executes programmed responses with the efficiency and warmth of a Dell Inspiron desktop. But while Romney gives the sense of having no inner core, Clinton gives the sense of having an inner core that she is stoutly determined never to let us see.

She has portrayed herself as misunderstood—"the most famous person you don't know." If Americans don't know her after 16 years in the spotlight, it's not our fault. But maybe we know her all too well.

Much has been made of Obama's complexion, with good reason. For an African-American to win the opening round of a presidential campaign is truly historic, even if it doesn't lead to ultimate victory. But his appeal has more to do with skin comfort than skin color. Obama is at ease in his epidermis in a way that Clinton and Romney are not.

He offers a reassuring grace and calm likewise absent in John Edwards, who pretended that finishing second in a state where he has concentrated his efforts is proof that Americans yearn for a pitchfork populist. From Edwards' speech Thursday night, you would never guess he did worse this time than when he ran in 2004, with a more genial approach.

Obama has succeeded by preaching our essential unity; Edwards has failed by trying to exploit—or, more accurately, create—divisions and resentments.

As with Clinton and Romney, the campaign raised the question of what about Edwards, if anything, is genuine. And this year that may be a fatal question.