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 Senator 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 forty 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 groundbreaking 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.