Will Iraq and NAFTA Determine Iowa?

What I saw at Saturday's Los Angeles presidential forum on the environment was a strong and competent Hillary Clinton taking the most far-reaching positions on global warming and climate change Americans have ever heard from a front-running candidate. Eight years after an election stolen from Al Gore, the hunger to catch up with the world was palpable in the audience of 1500 Democrats and activists. The Clinton platform included:

Reducing carbon emissions to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050; raising fuel emissions standards to 55 mpg by 2030; a national energy council like the council of economic advisers; and a hint that Al Gore will find his voice in the next Clinton Administration. She projected the front-runner status she holds nationally, and her environmental positions were too strong to be dismissed by Dennis Kucinich or John Edwards, the other two candidates present, as merely warmed-over Beltway centrism.

Bu there is a very serious four-letter word threatening Clinton's impressive campaign.

Iowa.

The coming caucuses in this otherwise quiet state are the vortex of the Democratic Party's grass-roots left-of-center insurgency against Democrats who supported the Iraq War and NAFTA. That would be Hillary Clinton and her husband. It's not Anbar province, but it's the hottest center of anti-war resistance that can make an early difference in 2008.

There is little defense industry in Iowa, so few military jobs are at stake among Democrats who vote in the caucuses. AIPAC has little clout. Economic stagnation leaves bitterness towards NAFTA-style trade agreements. It's easy to see why most Iowa Democrats would be cautious about sending the Clintons back to the White House.

How else to explain Hillary Clinton's anemic 25 percent showing among Iowa Democrats after 25 trips to the state and her expenditure of $1.9 million to air 3,191 television commercials? [data from NY Times, Nov. 18] That means that three-quarters of Iowa's Democrats must have uneasy feelings about Clinton and her husband's legacy.

By comparison, second-place John Edwards stands at 23 percent, with a favorability advantage of 73-59 over Clinton. Edwards has only spent $600,000 on 627 tv spots, which means Edwards would be leading if his finances were on a par with Clinton's.

Barack Obama has a healthy 22 percent with a favorability rating equal to Edwards, but has spent by far the greatest amount on television: $3.1 million on 5,640 spots.

Clinton still leads, definitely can grind out a victory, and can perhaps even pull far in front of her competitors, by doubling her Iowa spending, sending in thousands more volunteers to knock on 50,000 doors, and scheduling herself and her husband, the former president, to endless tiny meetings begging for votes in Iowa kitchens. From Iowa she should be able to win New Hampshire and, whatever happens in South Carolina and Nevada, amass a substantial lead via television spending in the 20 state primaries February 5. Even if she loses Iowa, she still has the resources to gain the nomination in such a front-loaded primary season.

Or maybe not. If Obama or Edwards voters shift to the anti-Clinton candidate they perceive as most electable, that candidate might win in Iowa. If several of the lesser candidates threw their support to Edwards, he might prevail in Iowa. More specifically, if supporters of any candidates getting less than 15 percent in the caucuses switch to Obama or Edwards as their second choice, one of them might win. Richardson, Biden, Dodd or Kucinich could impact the outcome by endorsing Edwards or Obama.

At this point, Edwards seems to have the greatest chance to slow Clinton down and at least extend the primaries' competition, especially with an infusion of money. He has spent the most time in Iowa of any candidate. He smartly apologized for his 2002 Iraq vote, moved to the left on NAFTA, health care, labor and poverty issues, and describes both parties as corrupted by corporate influences. Listening to Edwards is like hearing someone from the Campaign for Economic Democracy in its California heyday in the 1970s. His positions may be to the left of the electorate generally, but they resonate now with the experience of enough Iowans to win one-third of the caucus vote. Some of those voters may calculate that a vote for Edwards in January will stop or at least slow down a premature nomination of Clinton before more Democrats nationally have the chance to make their own evaluations.

Obama is not to be discounted in Iowa, partly because he has sufficient funding to "introduce" himself by way of house meetings, radio and television. But while Edwards' differences with Clinton over Iraq, Iran and trade are sharply defined, Obama's quarrel is becoming a more subtle one over style.

Kucinich appeared at the LA environmental event dressed in earth-tones, and began his remarks by extolling the modest size of his Cleveland home, his fuel-efficient car, and his vegan diet. He has gained a grudging respect in many quarters for his early opposition to the war and NAFTA and for his proposals for a Department of Peace and a Works Green Administration, but the Kucinich campaign proves once again that electoral politics is about more than issues. The danger for Kucinich and his followers is that they could become more righteous, even cult-like, in the face of the vast tide of rejection that seems to be rolling their way. The tragic missed opportunity of the two Kucinich campaigns is the failure to invest the millions of dollars available in federal matching funds into a lasting infrastructure for grass-roots progressive Democrats in the future. Jesse Jackson, for example, was able to build the Rainbow Coalition into an effective force for many years, not just an instrument for himself, and Kucinich could have done the same. But Kucinich folded his feisty 2004 campaign at the Democratic convention, refusing to wage a floor flight or speak out against the party's meaningless Iraq platform. In exchange, he was permitted to speak to the convention. But his followers were forced to build the Progressive Democrats of America, a nationwide progressive network, on their own, without his involvement or resources.

As far as I could see, Kucinich didn't gain a single follower among the 1,500 activists who applauded and agreed with his positions at the Los Angeles event. The consciousness of most Democrats is that the times are too alarming, after eight years of Bush and the prospect of a widening war ahead, for indulging in a campaign with no promise of stopping Bush or even continuing past February.

The question is whether Democrats are ready to unify around Hillary Clinton or let the process play out further. In Iowa and beyond, the legacy of supporting the Iraq war and NAFTA is proving a heavier burden than the party elites ever expected.

Tom hayden is the author of Ending the War in Iraq. [Akashic, 2007]