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Harkin annual steak fry serves as liberal morale booster, chance to chide GOP 2012ers

INDIANOLA — U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin’s 34th annual steak fry Sunday afternoon was equal parts a lifting of liberal morale and a lampooning of the GOP presidential contenders now traversing Iowa.

Held under a tent at the rain-soaked balloon fields in Indianola, the signature event for the Democratic senator drew about 300 people.

The audience, largely party activists and organized labor loyalists, heard an old-school, firebrand speech advocating progressive policies and taking on corporate America from U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont Independent who still speaks with the unmistakable accent of his native New York City.

Additionally, Clinton insider Paul Begala, an architect of President Bill Clinton’s presidential campaigns and White House policies and a cable-TV show regular, keynoted the event in a speech jammed with Texas-sized wit.

Paul Begala

“I read the Holy Bible and I watch Fox News so I know what both sides are thinking,” Begala said.

His thoughts on the Republican presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library in Simi Valley, Calif., two weeks ago: “I had a sense that for some of them it was their first time in a library,” Begala said.

Begala also served up about cracks on fellow Texan Rick Perry, the governor of the Lone Star State and a leading Republican candidate for the White House.

“He’s running as a Republican — I thought he was running as a joke,” Begala said.

Begala noted that Perry earned a “C” in animal breeding at Texas A&M.

“I have goats that got a ‘A’ in that,” Begala said.

He added, “Be nice to him (Perry). Talk real slow.”

Begala compared presidential candidate Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts to the models that pose for photos that are included in picture frames or wallets when these items are purchased in stores.

“When we get home we take that out and put a real person in,” Begala said.

Back in Texas, Begala said he had a conversation with a highly successful liberal Democrat and wealthy conservative who ran in the same circles. The liberal looked across the street in his well-to-do neighborhood and spotted a gardener. He said he wanted the gardener’s son to have the same opportunities he did to emerge from working-class origins to the upper class. The conservative Texan had a different take: “That gardener’s son will be my son’s gardener,” the conservative said, according to Begala.

“They (conservatives) believe the only way they can advance themselves is to tear the rest of you down,” Begala said.

Begala said he measures the goodness of people by one of the first questions a human asked in the Bible, when, in the Book of Genesis, Cain, who had just killed his brother Abel, put this query to God: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

“How you answer that question will frankly determine whether you are a good person,” Begala said.

Bernie Sanders

Sanders’ policy-oriented speech served as a strong defense of long-standing pillars of the Democratic Party.

“Social Security, in my view, is the most successful federal program in the history of the United States,” Sanders said.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that Social Security will pay benefits to about 56 million in 2011.

Sanders has offered legislation to increase the $106,800 cap on income subject to Social Security taxes, an idea President Barack Obama embraced in the 2008 campaign. This proposal drew some of the most sustained applause at the Harkin steak fry.

“We have to stand tall and say ‘no cuts to Social Security,’” Sanders said.

Sanders said he would fight any Republican attempts to increase the eligibility age for Medicare.

“We are not going to let them raise the eligibility age to 67,” Sanders said.

Sanders said corporate greed is at the heart of American economic troubles.

“The wealthiest people in this country have developed a new religion,” Sanders said. “… Their religion is greed and they want more and more.”

Harkin said Americans should find the environments at Republican presidential debates disturbing. He said he was particularly appalled with the glee with which some Republicans have responded to the idea of people being executed under Perry’s watch in Texas.

“I don’t care whether you’re for the death penalty or not,” Harkin said. “You shouldn’t exult it.”

Harkin acknowledged that Democrats face challenges in the 2012 elections. But Republicans themselves appear to be coming to the rescue, the senator said.

Tom Harkin

“We owe a big thank-you to all Republican candidates visiting Iowa,” Harkin said.

His take on U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), the winner of the Iowa GOP Straw Poll last month in Ames:

“Iowa Republicans are going to Michele Bachmann because they find Sarah Palin too cerebral.”

Harkin referenced Perry’s response to a question about what differentiates him from President George W. Bush. Perry replied that Bush went to Yale University while Perry’s alma mater is Texas A&M.

“In other words, Bush is the smart one,” Harkin joked.

Harkin said the U.S. faces a deficit of courage and creativity that fueled the last century under presidents like Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and John Kennedy.

Where are the big ideas and bold challenges? Harkin asked.

“The problem is that we’re still driving on Eisenhower’s highways and sending our kids to FDR’s schools,” Harkin said.

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