Iowa's Verdict

The Democrats almost certainly have their nominee. The Republicans absolutely have a headache.

Barack Obama's strong victory last night, in a state that is 95 percent white, is that rarity of rarities: a positive shock to the American political system. And Obama played that for all it was worth in his victory speech, which came closer to King Henry's (well, Shakespeare's) Crispin Day oration to his troops on the eve of battle than any American political speech I can think of.

"This was the moment," Obama intoned again and again. It was the moment when "it all began," when we tore down the "barriers that divided us for too long."

"Years from now," he told his Iowa legions, and those in New Hampshire as well, "you'll look back" at this memorable moment when America ceased to be" -- well, he said, "red and blue," but he also really meant "black and white." It was the moment of the re-creation of the United States of America.

("And gentlemen in England now abed/Shall think themselves accursed they were not here…Whiles any speaks/That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's Day.")

Top that, Hillary. Top that, John (be he Edwards or McCain). The wind in Obama's sails just now is that of American destiny, if you view our history, as part of us always wishes to, as a long arc bending towards justice. The divisions in Washington that he rails against are real, but they are also code, Obama-code, for that greater division that has always defined us as a nation. Obama is our first leading national political figure to speak in racial code not to signal racism without actually saying anything racist, but to signal racial transcendence without actually saying we're transcending racism.

It's a message that resonates beyond the expanding ranks of the Democratic Party. (Though in Iowa, it resonated all across the party as well: Obama won more female voters than Clinton and more union voters than Edwards.) The message plays with independents and moderate Republicans, if any such remain. It plays with many upscale voters of varying political persuasions. I worry, though, about how well it plays with certain white working-class voters -- in particular, men who belong to no union and who live outside the Judis-Teixeira ideopolises.

I've seen this message work before, on a metropolitan level. I've seen it twice in Los Angeles -- first, when a city whose electorate was only 25 percent black elected Tom Bradley as its first black mayor in 1973; and then, when a city whose electorate was only 25 percent Latino elected Antonio Villaraigosa as its first Latino mayor in 2005. In each instance, vast numbers of Angelenos began to believe that they were actually doing something that would redefine the city for the better, however symbolic that redefinition may have been. It's precisely at the level of presidential politics, though, that symbolism carries the most weight. The promise of Obama in part is a promise that Americans will wake up the day after his election feeling better about America. That's potent stuff.

Iowa, however, leaves Republicans in a pickle. If Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani continue to fade from the scene -- and it's hard to foresee circumstances under which they can turn their campaigns around -- the race comes down to Mike Huckabee, who commands virtually no support within the party's establishment for fear he'll lose like Goldwater, and John McCain, in many ways a party maverick whom the establishment cordially detests even as it's coming to recognize it may have to rally behind him. (Iowa makes McCain the prohibitive favorite to win here in New Hampshire next Tuesday.)

In a sense -- in two senses, actually -- the Republicans don't deserve McCain. The first sense is moral -- unlike his fellow GOP candidates, McCain doesn't recommend either torturing our captives or persecuting the undocumented immigrants already among us. (His position on immigration, in fact, may yet cost him the nomination, though I can't imagine whom it would go to in his stead.) The second sense is political -- McCain is probably the strongest candidate the Republicans could run next November.

Now that would be a contest: McCain against Obama, the oldest candidate against the youngest, the navy brat turned POW against the Ivy Leaguer turned community organizer, the hawk (though not ravening, like Rudy) against the dove (a prudent dove), the past against the future. It should be a Democratic year (twice as many Iowans came out for the Democratic caucuses than for the Republican ones), but I'm not ready to place any bets.

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