It was w/ heavy heart that I learned of Tom Harkin's impending retirement. As someone who actively participated in his ill-fated 1992 presidential campaign, I am sorry to learn that we will be losing this indefatigable populist voice from a body that desperately needs such voices.
I put my heart and soul into Harkin's presidential bid b/c I knew that competing visions of the party's future were at stake at that time. The DLC had started to assert itself in the late 80's, and WJC was its chosen standard-bearer in 1992. I still recall the straw poll at the 12/91 FL Dem Convention, at which I whipped votes for Harkin.
That poll was the first preliminary skirmish of that campaign, and it was a test of organizational muscle. While Bob Kerrey, Paul Tsongas, and others participated, the leading contestants then were WJC and Harkin. The Clinton forces, in particular, pulled out all the stops--including busing in college students from Ark. The state party apparatus, furthermore, gave at least plurality support to WJC.
While memories of the details of that w/e have blurred over the years, I still recall the respective rhetorical approaches that WJC and Harkin used in addressing the convention. I recall Clinton essentially taking a laundry list approach--something for the teachers here and for environmentalists there until he said something to appeal to each party constituency. Harkin gave a ringing defense of core party principles, w/ an emphasis on disabled rights, as he had played a major role in obtaining passage of the Americans w/ Disabilities Act the previous year.
In the end, Clinton defeated Harkin in the poll by a solid margin. A few days later, the momentum generated by that victory helped WJC raise into seven figures at a DC fundraiser (in an era when that was real $ in presidential politics). We all know what happened when people actually started casting votes that counted in the caucuses and primaries.
Obviously, the importance of one straw poll 21 years ago should not be overstated. I've always felt, however, that the party was at a fork in the road in the 1992 campaign, and I'll always regret the choice the party made at that time. Given the party's gains in 1990, given the perceived severity of the early 90's recession* and given GHWB's fundamental inability to inspire enthusiasm, it was apparent during that primary campaign that the party's fall prospects were good. I was hoping that the party would dust off its core New Deal prinicples and adapt them to the needs of the 90's instead of pursuing a mushy "3d Way Centrism" in which the other side would always have the initiative.
I hoped for a lot of things when I was younger. Events have, sadly, taught me otherwise. I'll always appreciate Tom Harkin for fighting the good fight all of these years, and I'll never forget his stirring oration at the Paul Wellstone Memorial Service in 2002. I always felt a little better during the 12 years when they were both senators, and I will feel bad when both of them are gone.
*The U3 figures that grieviously wounded GHWB then were not as bad as those that proved to be far less damaging last year.