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Politics

After Iowa

4 January 2008

 After Iowa

 By Gwynne Dyer

The best news from Iowa is that Ron Paul, the libertarian congressman from Texas, is still in the race. He will never win the Republican presidential nomination, because his policies would throw about half of the federal government’s bureaucrats and three-quarters of the US armed forces out of work, but he is a national treasure.

“They don’t hate us because we’re free; they hate us because we’re over there,” Paul says, and advocates the immediate withdrawal of all US troops from overseas. Who else in American politics has the courage to say that? And ten percent of Iowa Republicans supported him.

The second-best news is that Hillary Clinton came third in the Democratic race, far behind Barack Obama and just behind John Edwards. She is the “Washington consensus” candidate, the candidate with the biggest, richest machine, and even if she is still likely to win the nomination eventually — the biggest machine usually wins in the end — it is heartening that Iowans backed candidates less addicted to triangulation.

The truly puzzling news is that Mike Huckabee led the Republican pack, by a margin even wider than Obama’s lead over his Democratic rivals. Not only that, but Huckabee achieved this result even though the alleged front-runner in the Republican race, Mitt Romney, outspent him in Iowa by twenty-to-one. Even allowing for the fact that Iowans are relatively conservative and include large numbers of evangelical Christians, this is a strange result.

Huckabee believes that the world was created 6,000 years ago and rejects the theory of evolution, which would make him unelectable in most other countries, but it is no great handicap on the right of American politics. He promises energy independence for the United States in ten years — “We don’t need (Saudi Arabia’s oil) any more than we need their sand” — which is pretty implausible, but clearly has appeal to an American audience. But his tax proposals are astonishingly radical.

Huckabee would simply eliminate all income and payroll taxes — “and I do mean all,” he says on his website, “personal federal, corporate federal, gift, estate, capital gains, alternative minimum, Social Security, Medicare, self-employment.” He would replace all this with a flat 23 percent national sales tax. Millionaires would pay 23 percent tax on everything they bought, and so would widowed mothers of three.

A few post-Communist regimes in Eastern Europe went to this sort of “flat tax” in a desperate attempt to jump-start their moribund economies, but at least they still had social services of a kind that scarcely exist in the United States, so there was some protection for the poor. No developed country has such a tax, because it is so brutally unfair to those living on lower incomes.

Like George W. Bush, Mike Huckabee is a congenial man with a folksy manner, and like Bush his major domestic project is to transfer wealth from the poor to the rich. There are rational justifications for this in the more extreme forms of free-market ideology, but Bush’s handlers would never have advocated such a brazen assault on the poor. Subtler is always better. So how could the leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008 promote such a plan?

Huckabee may not remain the leading candidate past the New Hampshire primary on 8 January, but his rapid rise demonstrates the degree to which the Republican coalition that was first forged in Ronald Reagan’s time, and kept the Republicans in power for 20 of the past 28 years, is now disintegrating.

An important part of the Republican “base” consists of people who are poor enough (though not actually poor) to be badly hurt by Huckabee’s flat tax. They vote Republican because they share the party’s views on other issues, and they can ignore the fact that it does not serve their economic interests because they still believe the American myth of “equality of opportunity.” (Almost all Americans still believe it, although in fact the United States now has the lowest social mobility of any developed country.)

But Mike Huckabee’s policies are so extreme that middle- and lower-income Republican voters are almost bound to realise that they would suffer. In a more pragmatic time, the party elders would never have let such a divisive character gain such prominence, but now they can’t or won’t control it.

It was always hard to keep the richest 20 percent of the population, the “family values” crowd, the evangelicals (not necessarily the same thing), and the “angry white men” all harnessed to the same wagon,but the Republican Party managed it for almost thirty years. Now the coalition is unravelling.

Mitt Romney is the photo-fit candidate who best embodies the old coalition in this race — he even changed a number of his opinions to conform to the profile — but the formula doesn’t seem to be working this time. And none of the other leading candidates can appeal to all the different elements of that coalition. Not Huckabee, not John McCain, andcertainly not Rudy Giuliani.

What this may mean is that after two terms of George Bush, the Republican Party’s elders don’t really have much hope of winning this election. Let the lunatic fringe have its day, and we’ll do better next time.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 9. (“Huckabee believes…radical”; and “Huckabee may not…disintegrating)