The Magazine

Saint Barack of Iowa

The Democratic contest comes down to Hope versus Muscle.

Dec 17, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 14 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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When a student at Cornell asks him for his views on the value of a liberal arts education, Obama starts with a joke (I went to a liberal arts college and look at me now) and then spends several minutes on the pedagogical advantages of the liberal arts. He finishes where he started. "So, right on with a liberal arts education," he says, with a mock fist pump to accentuate "right on." The students look at one another and nod their heads with approval.

And later, at Wartburg College, a young boy, perhaps seven or eight years old, asks: "How are you going to stop, like, immigration and all that stuff that's happening right now?"

You know what? I'm going to talk about immigration and I'm going to talk about all that stuff. [Laughter] Because those two things aren't always the same. We have a real problem with immigration in this country. The fact of the matter is, since George Bush took office, 3.5 million undocumented workers came into this country. 3.5 million! We have--it's estimated, but we have 12 million illegal workers in the country.

Now, how we solve that problem? Number one: We have to have stronger border security. That primarily doesn't mean physical barriers--we're not going to build a wall along the 2,700-mile border. But what it does mean is we have to have patrols, we have to have surveillance. We're putting more money into patrolling our borders. That's point number one. And by the way, we also have to control the 40 percent of immigrants who come in legally and overstay their visas. Which means we have to monitor that more effectively.

Number two: The most important thing we can do to discourage illegal immigration is to crack down on employers who are hiring these folks [applause] hiring folks because they don't want to pay American workers what it takes to get them working. I don't blame the worker from Mexico who's making two dollars a day for coming here and trying to make $5 an hour. Look, if Canada paid $100 an hour, I'll bet there would be a whole bunch of folks who were flooding over the border in the other direction. But the employer--what they're doing is they're undercutting American labor. And oftentimes they're motivated by greed. They don't want to pay the minimum wage, they don't want to observe worker safety laws, they don't want unions. And we have to take that seriously. During the course of the Bush Administration, when you average it out, you were more likely to be struck by lightning than to be prosecuted for hiring undocumented workers. And that's not fair. And so we've got to have a system where we are placing big penalties on employers and creating a tamper-proof system to verify someone's employment status.

Now, here's the third step, which may be controversial. It is controversial. This is where "the stuff" comes in. What are we going to do with the 12 million people who are here? The politics of fear says we're going to wrap them up, no amnesty, throw them back. But you know what? That's just talk. That's just talk that doesn't solve problems. For us to round up every single undocumented worker in the country we'd have to devote every single law enforcement resource we have. It'd probably cost us billions of dollars in additional resources. We'd have to stop prosecuting regular crimes like auto theft or burglary. Because the only thing police would be doing would be rounding up people. The only thing we'd be using our jails for would be locking up people. Farm workers, factory workers, busboys at restaurants--you know, who pose such a severe threat to public safety. So when people say "Deport 'em," they're not being honest! They're trying to gain a political advantage. That's what they're trying to do. Once we have strong border security and serious employer sanctions, then we've got to get those 12 million people out of the shadows and that means giving them a pathway to legalization. It means--they've broken the law. They've broken the law. So they should be punished. You're going to pay a significant fine. You're going to learn English. You're going to go to the back of the line and cannot get citizenship before people who have been waiting legally to get into this country. But if you do all those things then you've got a possibility of becoming a legal resident and ultimately a citizen of this country. That means you can't undermine U.S. workers anymore because now you're subject to minimum wage laws, you're subject to worker safety laws, and you're subject to the ability to unionize. And if we do those things we will have a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants and those are both traditions of ours. And we don't have to betray either of those traditions.

It is a revealing answer, for while Obama eventually settles on the mainstream liberal position--path to citizenship, crack down on employers, don't punish the workers--he does so only after acknowledging (and in some cases, embracing) the concerns of conservatives. He begins by criticizing George W. Bush on immigration from the right and says that his first priority in ending illegal immigration would be securing the borders. (Ask John McCain if it's important to list border security first when detailing your solution.)

"Hillary Clinton is running from the center," says Dennis Goldford, a Drake University political scientist. "John Edwards is running from the left. And Obama is running from above. He wants to be above politics."

This is the Obama trick, and it explains why, despite his very liberal voting record in the Senate (and in the Illinois Senate before that), he is not viewed as a left-wing ideologue. When a student asks Obama for his views on the Second Amendment, he reminds his audience that he taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago and is thus familiar with the arguments regarding the right to bear arms. He acknowledges "a tradition of gun ownership in this country that can be respected," and says that his academic studies convinced him gun ownership "is an individual right and not just the right of a militia."

But he was not finished. "Like all rights, though, they are constrained by the needs and the rights of the community." Obama then spoke of 34 students who were killed on the streets of Chicago and called for sensible gun control to prevent senseless death. He speaks of the importance of parental involvement in education before listing the many ways in which he would expand the role of the federal government in the schools.

At Cornell College, Obama spoke of personal responsibility before unveiling a series of New Deal-lite programs to address the "nation's most pressing challenges." He said: "FDR not only enlisted Americans to create employment, he targeted that service to build our infrastructure and conserve our environment. JFK not only called on a new generation, he made their service a bridge to the developing world, and a bright light of American values in the darkest days of the Cold War."

Obama plans to expand AmeriCorps from 75,000 to 250,000, and double the size of the Peace Corps. How would we solve problems in education? A Classroom Corps, of course. And what about the environment? Energy Corps. What will old people do? Senior Corps. And how will people know about all of these opportunities to get paid for volunteering? "We'll expand USA Freedom Corps .  .  ."

And all of that came before Obama came to the second thing he'll do: "invest in ideas that can help us meet our common challenges." How? A "Social Investment Fund Network." What else? An "American Opportunity Tax Credit" and a "Green Job Corps."

Obama often seems to favor more government, even if his own campaign proposals do not reflect it. If his health care plan is not quite Canadian, that is much more a matter of practicality than desire. "If you're starting from scratch," he told the New Yorker's Larissa MacFarquhar, "then a single-payer system would probably make sense. But we've got all these legacy systems in place, and managing the transition, as well as adjusting the culture to a different system, would be difficult to pull off."

Later, when she asked for an example of an issue on which he had changed his mind, Obama said, "I'm probably more humble now about the speed with which government programs can solve every problem." So the issue is not one of effectiveness, but efficiency. Government can solve every problem, just not quickly. Perhaps sensing his overstatement, Obama tried to recover with a conservative-sounding non-sequitur. "For example, I think the impact of parents and communities is at least as significant as the amount of money that's put into education."

The most striking thing about Obama on the campaign trail is how little time he spends discussing national security issues. He acknowledges, characteristically, that we are at war, but then does little to explain how he proposes to win. We will withdraw from Iraq in 16 months, he promises, and fight al Qaeda in Afghanistan. What if al Qaeda remains in Iraq? Aside from a "strike force" ready to take them out, we are left to wonder.

Mostly, Obama thinks America will be stronger when she is more respected, and she will be more respected when she is more engaged. (He does not explain the simultaneous growth of al Qaeda and multilateralism in the 1990s.) To that end, he boasts that he plans to talk to our enemies, including Kim Jong Il and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Although Hillary Clinton criticized his position as "naive," when he first articulated it in a debate, crowds here in Iowa give him sustained applause every time he mentions it.

The other subject that gets little attention from Obama on the campaign trail is Hillary Clinton. Although the former first lady intensified her attacks on him over the past week, Obama has largely chosen to ignore her. Wofford, for one, thinks the attacks won't help her. "Starting an assault on each other is unfortunate. I'm sorry that she's taken that tack," he says. "It's not helpful."

He may be correct. Iowa is a state in which negative attacks rarely prove effective. And the media criticism of Clinton since she first took a more aggressive posture has been considerable.

But Clinton does have several distinct advantages going into the final weeks of the campaign in Iowa. According to a report on the Washington Post blog, two of the nation's largest and most active labor organizations, the AFL-CIO and AFSCME, are running ads for her in Iowa. (AFSCME plans to spend more than $1 million boosting Clinton on television.) EMILY's List, the Washington-based liberal advocacy group, is also planning extensive get-out-the-vote efforts on Clinton's behalf.

Obama supporters will tell you that their man, too, has been building an impressive ("unprecedented" is a favorite word) ground operation. Indeed, it is difficult to leave an Obama event without being assaulted by dozens of campaign volunteers shoving clipboards in your face and urging you to sign an Obama supporter card, which provides the campaign an opportunity to get you to the caucuses.

But it looks increasingly as if the Democratic contest might come down to a battle of Hope vs. Muscle. If Clinton is deploying the strength of her machine (inherited from her husband), Obama is putting his faith in hope. And Oprah. The ever-popular talk show hostess--with more than 7 million viewers daily--will be traveling to the early primary states on behalf of Obama, hoping to enlist her admirers in his cause.

But Obama supporters believe they have a built-in advantage because of the way things happen in Iowa. The caucuses work in an unusual way. At 1,784 precincts throughout the state, Iowans gather to discuss and then select their candidates. At each site, supporters of the various candidates form groups and separate themselves from the rest of the crowd. At a designated time, participants are invited to speak on behalf of their candidate and to urge others to join.

This is crucial: A candidate must have the support of 15 percent of those gathered at that caucus in order to be considered "viable." If he does not meet that threshold, his supporters join the group of their second choice. This process continues--interrupted by mini-speeches and lots of dealmaking--until all the caucus-goers have distributed themselves to "viable" candidates. At this point there is a final headcount. (Don't ask how the state's convention delegates are ultimately chosen.) So second choices--and maybe even third--will be huge. And that should be good for Obama.

I spoke to a lawyer from Des Moines whose first choice is Dennis Kucinich. (We agreed that I would not use his name because, well, would you want your name used if you supported Dennis Kucinich?) Since Kucinich is unlikely to be viable, the lawyer's second choice will be particularly important. Right now it's among Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Barack Obama. The lawyer told me that he has problems with each of them. Clinton is too opportunistic, too corporate, too Washington. Edwards is too insincere. Obama is too inexperienced. Still, of the three, he prefers Obama.

Obama's inexperience is actually the flip-side of a positive quality: He is fresh and voters believe that he is more likely to bring real change to Washington than the other two senators. This, of course, is precisely what Obama wants Iowa voters to think and why he often speaks in front of a large blue banner that reads: "Change We Can Believe In." In one of his few references to Hillary Clinton on the stump--like almost all of the others, indirect--he says: "I don't want to spend the next year or the next four years re-fighting the same fights that we had in the 1990s."

How many Iowa voters, having chosen not to support Hillary Clinton as their first candidate, are going to choose her as their second? Dennis Goldford, from Drake, says that many Democrats see Clinton as "back to the future." And that's not good for her. "For Democrats, the common theme is change, and nobody represents change like Obama. If they've already made their decision not to support Hillary, they're much more likely to move to Obama."

And if Obama wins Iowa, he may well give the major address at the Democratic National Convention this year.

Stephen F. Hayes, a senior writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD, is the author of Cheney: The Untold Story of America's Most Powerful and Controversial Vice President (HarperCollins).