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Political Mercury

What Tom Harkin would do if he were running for political office in 2024

1/31/2024

Tom Harkin still has it. The pulse of Iowa on instinct auto dial and a force of moral clarity and that defining doggedness, an aw-shucks ease with voters, and a rhetorical sledgehammer ever ready when he needs it. He’s fast, too, on the draw with a prescription for Democrats in Iowa in 2024.

It’s discipline of message, the former Democratic senator told me in an interview recently in Council Bluffs.

“If I were running for the Legislature in Iowa, there are only three issues I’d run on, no matter what part of the state I was in,” Harkin said. “First, no public tax money for religious schools, period. The second issue I would campaign on: government should not be able to take your private property for a private company, period. And the third issue would be reproductive freedom for women. I’d just do those three issues. I wouldn’t talk about anything else.”

The boost to private schools through vouchers/education savings accounts will come at an expense to the public schools, many Democrats and others argue. And the threat to property rights with pipeline proposals and roll back of women’s rights on abortion also leave Republicans vulnerable, Harkin said.

Simply put, Democrats should be focusing on economic messages more than cultural issues, he said, adding that Democrats also need to get back to a shoe-leather approach, face-to-face work with voters.

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“We Democrats have to get every one of our voters out,” Harkin said. “We have to double down on door knocking. We have to do better at making sure our voters are registered.”

There are big challenges looming for Democrats in the next year.

Politics are nationalized in the modern era. And more than a third of Democrats themselves don’t want to see President Biden run for re-election in 2024.

Harkin has a response to that.

“I would use Joe Biden’s favorite phrase, ‘Don’t compare me to the almighty. Compare me to the alternative,’ ” Harkin said. “You ask about Joe Biden, and they think, ‘Oh, there’s got to be somebody better and younger and all that kind of stuff. But when it gets down to Biden and Trump, all those Democrats are coming home. And I think a fair amount of Republicans who just could not abide about Trump being president again — and then really taking over the Republican party lock, stock and barrel. There are enough moderate Republicans out there who still don’t want that to happen.”

Harkin, 84, a native of Cumming who graduated from Iowa State University and first ran for Congress in 1972 (winning election in 1974), said he became involved — “came of age,” he said — in Iowa politics in the 1950s.

“The Democrats in the Iowa Legislature (in the 1950s) always joked that they could caucus in a phone booth,” Harkin said. “But then we just worked hard, and we started electing a few people that became good leaders, so we came up.

“These things kind of have a wave,” Harkin said. “I would say right now there is a lot of turbulence politically, and people are upset and they don’t know which way to go right now, so a lot of people gravitate toward a Trump for various reasons.” 

Recent elections have shown working-class, non-college-educated voters fleeing the Democratic Party.

“Well, bring them back home,” Harkin said. “I don’t think we have done a good job of responding to the base. We drifted off under Clinton and maybe Obama, those years, of appealing only to the educated class in America. What we forgot was our base was getting decimated, and we didn’t do things necessary to keep their wages and income up where it should have been. For probably 30-some years, our base kept losing ground, and we wonder why they left us. We never responded to them.”

A memoir?

At the end of the interview, I asked Harkin if he ever planned to write a memoir about his 40 years of service in the U.S. House and Senate — and his 1992 presidential run. He left office a decade ago.

Don’t expect one, Harkin said.

“Oh, I’ve thought about it, but I just never got around to it,” Harkin said. “But you know, I don’t know, a lot of these memoirs written by congressmen and senators, you know, they really aren’t worth very much. I’d rather put my effort into the (Harkin) institute.”

The non-partisan Tom and Ruth Harkin Institute is located in Des Moines on the Drake University campus. It assists in developing policies based on facts and data, he said.

“I’m hoping the institute will act as kind of a thing that maybe can even get the Republican Party back to a more moderate stance,” Harkin said. ♦

Douglas Burns of Carroll is fourth-generation journalist and founder of Mercury Boost, a marketing and public relations company.

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