INDIANOLA, Iowa—Inside a circus-style white tent on the soaked grounds of the Indianola Balloon Field, Democratic activists gathered Sunday afternoon for a fund-raiser and party pep talk hosted by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa).
A consistent drizzle didn’t dampen the spirits of the party faithful, who make an annual pilgrimage to pay homage to Harkin at his eponymous steak fry. Curiously, though, not a single Member of Congress or congressional challenger made an appearance to kiss the ring of the most powerful Iowa Democrat.
The event, which in other years has drawn presidential candidates and Democratic luminaries, offered a window inside the Democratic playbook and a preview of attacks that will be launched by President Obama’s campaign team as well as a flimsy rationale for his re-election (“consider the alternative”).
Considering the cocky chest-thumping from Harkin and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), it’s almost easy to forget that, back in the real world, President Obama’s approval rating is at his lowest point ever (52 percent disapprove of the job Obama is doing as president, while only 40 percent approve, according to the latest Gallup poll) and that Democrats face a good chance of losing their majority in the Senate.
Inside the tent, Harkin preached to his choir of 250-some party activists: “So, 34 steak fries; not one stake has ever been fried,” Harkin said. “We grill the steaks and skewer Republicans.
Harkin, who ran for president in 1992, invited Paul Begala, a strategist for the campaign of former President Bill Clinton, to energize the crowd: “It’s been kind of a tough political summer for us Democrats,” Harkin said. “But, you know, we owe a big thank you to all Republican candidates now visiting Iowa. You gotta admit, they’re lifting our spirits, making us smile.”
Begala brought up the recent MSNBC-Politico.com GOP debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library in Simi Valley, Calif.: “I had the sense that for some of them, it was their first time in a library.”
Harkin singled out a few audience members at the GOP presidential debates who cheered a question about whether those without insurance should be left to die and Rick Perry’s record on capital punishment in Texas. Much like the effort of Democrats to appoint radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh as the de facto leader of the Republican Party, Harkin is grasping to define the GOP by its most fringe elements. One audience member shouted that Republicans are “un-American.” Harkin agreed, and said, “I no longer recognize the Republican Party.”
Although laced with humor, Harkin and Begala’s jabs had a nasty twinge: “FOX is this comedy channel that pretends like it’s news. It’s hilarious,” Begala said. “But I do two things every day: I read the Holy Bible and I watch FOX News so I know what both sides are thinking—because I believe in good and evil in the world!”
Begala bashed the leading Republicans’ criticism of evolution, singling out Rick Perry: “I knew Rick Perry when he was first startin’ out. He was a Democrat, and now he’s a Republican, so he supports evolution of a sort.”
“Devolution!” someone from the crowd yells out. “That’s right,” Begala said. “That’s movin’ in the wrong direction; that’s goin’ the other way on that descent of man chart; about the third one from the left.”
“We have inflicted Rick Perry on you all… If you meet him, be nice to him, but talk real slow,” Begala said.
“He’s running as a job generator. Just know this about my beloved state of Texas: on the day Rick Perry became governor, unemployment in Texas was 4.2 percent. Today, it is 8.4 percent. And he thinks that’s a miracle. Holy smokes! What if he becomes president? What’s he gonna take it to 18 [percent]?”
“For a guy who got a D in economics, he’s made millions as a public employee, which is pretty remarkable,” Begala said. “He got a C in Animal Breeding. Hell, I got goats that got an A in that. How stupid do you have to be to get a C in Animal Breeding? … He may win the Iowa Caucuses, but he ain’t gonna win ‘Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?’”
Harkin piled on: “How ‘bout that Rick Perry? What a gift, huh?” Harkin said. “It just keeps on giving. I was watchin’ him in that first debate attacking Social Security as a monstrosity. He kind of reminds me, I tell ya, one time I was in the kitchen, I heard this voice, and I thought, ‘They brought back George Bush!’ I went in, and of course it was Rick Perry. But he reminded me of that sort of cocky, shoot-from-the-hip Texas Governor. His motto is ‘Often wrong, but never in doubt.’”
“Like a couple weeks ago, a reporter asked Perry how he differed from Bush,” Harkin said. “This is true, Perry said, ‘Bush went to Yale; I went to Texas A&M. In other words, Bush is the smart one.”
Romney also featured as the brunt of Harkin’s lame jokes (Harkin missed more than he hit): “Mitt Romney at the state fair insisting that corporations are people,” Harkin said. “Too bad he didn’t appreciate that all those workers he fired were also people.”
Paul Begala hit Romney on gay rights: “Mitt Romney, I remember when he was running against Teddy Kennedy, God rest his soul, back in ’94, and he got up in the debate… Mitt Romney… and he turns to Sen. Ted Kennedy … and he says, ‘If I’m elected to the Senate, I will be more pro-gay rights than you will.’ Even at the time, I thought, well Mitt, ‘unless you’re like doin’ it with a dude, you’re not gonna be more [pro-gay rights].”
“There was one poll… that showed Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin tied, and I thought… one of ‘em is just another pretty face, obsessed with hair and clothes and makeup; the other, the former Gov. of Alaska,” Begala said. “He’s beautiful. He looks like the guy in the picture frame.”
“He too wants to run on his record on jobs,” Begala said. “And he has created thousands of jobs in Bangalore, India, but shipped thousands of jobs from America over there.”
“Michele Bachmann keeps saying all kinds of weird things,” Harkin said. “Someone asked me, ‘What’s the appeal of Michele Bachmann in Iowa?’ And I got to thinking, and I thought probably Iowa Republicans are going to Michele Bachmann because they find Sarah Palin too cerebral.”
“I did see that Congresswoman Bachmann, who I guess is a native of Iowa, is still running pretty strong here,” Begala said, to boos. “Oh, come on, if I have to deal with Rick Perry, you all can take Michele Bachmann.”
Begala then mocked Bachmann for her mix up of the birthplace of John Wayne and John Wayne Gacy, among other misstatements: “My suspicion is that she’s hired Sarah Palin to be her fact-checker.”
“I don’t want to speak about the Santorum campaign, because I was raised not to speak ill of the dead,” Begala said. “And that campaign is dead, dead, dead.”
“But I cannot resist a little shot at our friend Newt Gingrigh, who’s apparently still running,” Begala said. “I was in downtown Des Moines and I asked somebody about that. I said, ‘Is Newt still running?” And this man said, ‘Yeah, we were just laughing about that a minute ago. But he is one of the finest minds of the Twelfth Century.”
Harkin, perhaps not the best judge of Republican philosophy, nonetheless took the opportunity to give the GOP some political advice: “The Republican Party has been taken over by extremists… who are just downright mean-spirited,” Harkin said. He called Republicans “bullies” for obstructing Democrats’ agenda in Congress.
“In my lifetime I’ve encountered a lot of bullies,” Harkin said. “They’re full of bluster, they run amok, they leave a path of destruction until decent people find the courage to fight back. I think that’s the challenge that we progressives have today. My friends, it is time for us to stand up and fight back.”
Harkin then framed the stakes for the 2012 elections and told Democrats what they need to focus on: “mark my word,  re-electing Barack Obama to another term as president.”
Even Sanders, who has criticized the president from the left and called a primary challenge to Obama a “good idea” as recently as last month, vigorously clapped at that call to arms.
Begala, Sanders and Harkin cast Republicans as not just misguided on policy, but evil or vindictive: “It is a debate about values,” Begala said. He mentioned Biblical story of Cain and Abel. Cain, after killing his brother in a rage and being questioned about his whereabouts, responds to God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
“How you answer that question will determine, frankly, if you are a good person or not,” Begala said.
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