Mike Huckabee and Barack Obama have a lot in common. Of course, the winners of the respective Republican and Democratic Iowa caucuses Thursday couldn’t be more different on matters of policy. Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, is a hard-core social conservative who is supportive of the war effort and has embraced a hard line on illegal immigration. Illinois Senator Barack Obama is pro-choice, an outspoken critic of the war in Iraq, and supports a federal role in providing health insurance anathema to a conservative like Huckabee.
Yet the both represent the same brand of politics—the politics of authenticity. To their supporters, each is viewed as speaking from the heart about the things they truly care about. Though both talk of seeking common ground and overcoming division, both speak about upholding values and causes with a high-minded idealism seldom heard in today’s debate. They promise a vision that will win converts rather than strategies that will thwart opponents.
They offer more than rhetoric for voters weary of the Bush era’s divisiveness. They promise that politics is still about something more meaningful than money and power games (to borrow a phrase from one of the 20th century’s greatest idealist politicians, late Senator Paul Wellstone). Politics, they assert, is not a dirty enterprise for a craven few, but a noble endeavor for making a better world.
On both the Republican and Democratic sides, voters were offered a choice between candidates with carefully crafted images and establishment credentials—Republican Mitt Romney and Democrat Hillary Clinton—and newcomers to the national scene. When voters told pollsters they thought the establishment candidate was more “electable,” they may have meant that they were the least objectionable to undecided voters, or that they were such disciplined politicians that they were likely to compensate for their weaknesses by technical competence. But on some level, when a primary voter says a candidate is “more electable” in a general election, they are signaling that the candidate doesn’t represent their views as well as they like. And they may harbor suspicions that the candidate has tempered his or her own views in an effort to alienate voters on the other side.
So perhaps Huckabee and Obama’s unanticipated victories by wide margins—both beat their nearest rival by more than 8 points—shouldn’t have taken observers by such surprise. I made my own predictions based on the belief that organization would be decisive in the caucuses complicated and tedious voting system. But passion counts for a lot. To borrow a phrase from a less-idealistic context (Democrats explaining why they acceded to Chief Justice Roberts appointment), voters chose to vote their hopes rather than their fears. They chose the candidate who represented the things they still wanted politics to be about rather than the one they were least frightened would screw up.
Now, I’m not so naïve to believe that Huckabee or Obama’s style is uncontrived. As I wrote recently in the Huffington Post, Huckabee’s congenial mask is belied by his long track record of a culture warrior’s harsh rhetoric. Obama, too, is a polished campaigner who has given much thought to how he presents himself. My point is not that these politicians are more authentic than their rivals, but rather that voters perceive them to be so. But that still counts for something—voters are selecting a brand of politics that prizes high-minded values.
Neither candidate is perfect, and I confess I find some of their policies downright scary. But if Iowans have not chosen ideal presidents, I’m heartened that they’ve chosen an idealistic politics. And their enthusiasm—especially on the Democratic side, which had whopping turnout—holds out hope for a rejuvenation of grassroots political engagement.