MANCHESTER, N.H. -- It is the historic mission of the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary to give us the establishment candidate in each party, and then the insurgent candidate. The two pairs then battle it out in South Carolina to give us the probable nominees for November.
Year 2008 looks no different, with this exception. The insurgents, Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee, swept the first contests and now have the momentum. And both establishments are reeling. Twenty-four hours before New Hampshire, the GOP establishment has not even settled upon a champion.
If Mitt Romney wins the Granite State, he will be the alternative to Huckabee. But if he does not -- and he has fallen behind -- he must beat John McCain in Michigan on Jan. 15, stay in the race whatever it costs, hope to keep the anti-Huckabee vote split and hope that McCain runs out of fuel first.
Yet even as the candidates rally the party faithful, the issues they are raising and the early returns are telling us that the center of gravity in American politics has shifted seismically in four years.
On immigration, the center is now behind tough enforcement of the law and stronger border security.
The Republicans have all moved to the Tom Tancredo position. Hillary Clinton saw her campaign almost derailed by her temporary support of Gov. Eliot Spitzer's plan to issue driver's licenses to illegal aliens. McCain's pro-amnesty stand almost ended his candidacy.
On Iraq, the center of gravity seems to be: Let us end the U.S. involvement and bring the boys home.
Not only did all of the Democratic candidates promise an early, or immediate, withdrawal of U.S. troops, Ron Paul won more than twice as many votes in Iowa as Rudy Giuliani. Paul has used his campaign to surface the antiwar sentiment inside the Republican coalition. Add his votes to the antiwar Democratic votes in Iowa, and Americans are saying: time to come home. The Bomb Iran Caucus has fallen silent.
On trade, the Democratic Party has turned anti-NAFTA, one of Bill Clinton's signal achievements, while Mike Huckabee, runaway GOP winner in Iowa, seizes every opportunity to identify with the middle-class victims of the radical change wrought by globalization. Economic populism is on the rise, and globalism is under fire in both parties.
Columnists left and right, from Paul Krugman to Tony Blankley, are calling for a reappraisal of the economic consequences of throwing open America's markets to the world, while Chinese and Japanese manipulate their currencies for mercantilist advantage and Europeans impose value-added taxes on U.S. imports and rebate those same taxes on their exports to the United States.
Press and political warnings of the danger of "protectionism" testify to the establishment fear that economic nationalism is back. As the economy slowly sinks, Americans are going to demand more than a mythical "level playing field." They are going to want to stop losing and start winning.
The Democratic fight seems to be more about personality than philosophy. Barack and Hillary are both for national health insurance, both for bringing the troops home, both for battling global warming, and both for abortion and gay rights. In the GOP, however, the consensus seems to be breaking down and the conservative coalition breaking up.
Rudy is pro-choice and pro-gay rights. Fred Thompson and Ron Paul seem to be states' rights men on both. Huckabee is solidly pro-traditional family and pro-life, positions to which Mitt has lately been converted. But the old Reaganite consensus is gone.
On taxes, a signature issue for the GOP, Huckabee raised them in Arkansas and McCain opposed cutting them at the federal level.
With Barack pulling Hillary to the left and the clamor for change pulling Republicans away from Bush's brand of conservatism -- i.e., Big Government, foreign policy bellicosity, globalism and open borders -- the fall could bring a dramatic clash of philosophies and policies on the largest questions facing the nation.
Is it time to bring the U.S. troops home from Iraq, no matter the consequences? Under what conditions should the United States go to war again? Is Afghanistan winnable, and if so at what cost? Do we confront Iran or talk to Iran -- and Russia?
Can a nation facing a Social Security-Medicare crisis and falling revenues from a failing economy afford not only a Democratic national health insurance program but the Republicans' enlarged Army?
If the free-trade era is over, what replaces it? Reciprocal trade agreements? How do we stop a foreign run on the dollar and rising prices for oil, food and commodities if the Fed has to keep lowering interest rates and pumping out money to prevent us from sinking into recession?
Will we allow the sovereign wealth funds of Asia and Arabia, the new investment monsters, to buy up what they want of our country?
That the American people have had enough of Bush-Cheney is undeniable. They have also had more than enough of Pelosi-Reid.
One wonders if this wailing for change and praise for anyone who will promise it is much more than the cry of spoiled children who want what the family can no longer afford, and who cannot face the truth that, as Merle Haggard sang, the good times may be over for good.