Tom Harkin. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Tom Harkin's decision to retire from the Senate at the end of his current term will create an immeasurable void in the chamber where he has served for more than a quarter century. A progressive populist with a history of defending organized labor, working farmers, public education and public services, the Iowan arrived in the Senate as a fighting FDR Democrat and he will leave as one.
As The Des Moines Register well recognized in its editorial on the Iowa Democrat's decision to retire:
"A variety of terms have been used to describe Harkin's politics. He has been called a progressive or a populist from the prairie school. He is that but more: He was a close friend of the late Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone who used to say he belonged to the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party, meaning he was not ashamed to be called a liberal. That's the same wing of the party Harkin has represented without apology.
"Actually, Harkin's politics and his philosophy of government are rooted in the age of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, which swept in a historic change in the role of government in the affairs of the nation."
On a national political landscape that could use a good deal more of FDR's ideological and political determination -- especially in the updated and extended form that Harkin employed it -- this is a retirement that will be felt by every American who recognizes that formation of a more perfect union requires the forging of a truly national, urban and rural progressive politics.
Harkin has for almost 40 years, first as a member of the House and then as a senator, represented a swing state with a Republican governor, a Republican senator and a competitive streak in presidential politics. Yet, he has won, again and again, and by ever-expanding margins. Elected to the Senate in the same year that Ronald Reagan won his second term by a landslide both nationally and in Iowa, Harkin has repeatedly bucked Republican tides and prevailed when more moderate Democrats have been defeated. His electoral success confirms the progressive premise that voters are more likely to back a determined Democrat than a compromising centrist.
But there has always been more to Harkin than populist rhetoric and ideological clarity. He came to Congress to get things done: to end secret wars in Latin America, to keep family farmers on the land, to make workplaces safer and to enact the ground-breaking civil rights protections contained in the Americans With Disabilities Act. Many of his greatest legislative victories came when Republicans sat in the White House, most were enacted with Republican co-sponsorship.
Harkin has always understood something that only a few other progressives -- Wellstone, Russ Feingold, Bernie Sanders -- have ever really "got": that it is not necessary to sacrifice principles when organizing coalitions of conscience across lines of party and ideology.
For Harkin, the key word has been "conscience."
Harkin has consistently clung to an old faith in what politics could and should be. He speaks of morality, of right and wrong. And his colleagues know he is serious; so serious that they often put aside cynicism and cooperate to accomplish that which -- and the ADA is a classic example of this -- few thought possible.
Harkin could compromise. He was proud if those compromises advanced the common good. If they went awry, he was usually the first to talk about it. When Harkin cast a wrong vote -- and he did sometimes -- it tore at him. But he has rarely suffered in silence. He voted for the 2002 resolution that became President Bush's excuse for a war of whim in Iraq, but by 2003 he was declaring: "I made a mistake, and I wouldn't do it again." He bluntly said that Bush "misled Congress and got his war... a pre-emptive war that has ended in disaster."
By 2004, Harkin was an enthusiastic, and because of his Iowa prominence, essential backer of Howard Dean's anti-war campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Harkin would eventually become one of the loudest congressional critics of the war, and of the Bush administration's abuses of power, joining with Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold in a lonely effort to censure the president. When Bush nominated the noxious John Negroponte to serve as U.S. ambassador to Iraq, the Iowan broke not just with the administration but with fellow Democrats to vote against a man who had been linked to human rights abuses in Honduras two decades earlier. Harkin battled, essentially alone, to hold Negroponte to account.
The senator came full circle in the 2004 debate over Negroponte's nomination.
Harkin's first big fight on Capitol Hill, as a young congressman from a competitive district representing rural Iowa, was to demand that the entire thrust of U.S. foreign policy be altered.
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