×
Home Politics Politics Features

The Iowa Circus

An overstuffed field of candidates is repeating the Republicans’ 2016 primary-season errors

iowa dems

Illustration by Victor Juhasz for Rolling Stone

Listen to an audio version of this story below: 

Traveling hundreds of miles across Iowa, passing cornfields and covered bridges, visiting quaint small town after quaint small town, listening to the stump speeches of Democrat after would-be Donald Trump-combating Democrat, only one thought comes to mind:

They’re gonna blow this again.

Imagine how it looks to Republicans. If that’s too difficult or unpalatable, just look at the swarm of 24 Democratic candidates in high school terms.

The front-runner — the front-runner! — is septuagenarian gaffe machine Joe Biden, who started running for president in the Eighties and never finished higher than “candidacy withdrawn,” with a career delegate total matching John Blutarsky’s grade-point average, i.e., zero point zero. The summer’s “momentum” challenger is California Sen. Kamala Harris, who spent all year sinking in polls but surged when she hit Biden with “I don’t think you’re a racist . . . but . . .” on national TV.

A third contender is Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a famed red-state punchline who already has 10,000 Pocahontas tweets aimed at her head should she make it to the general. Her “I have a plan for that” argument for smarter government makes her a modern analog to Mike Dukakis — another Massachusetts charisma machine whose ill-fated presidential run earned him a portrait alongside the Hindenburg in a Naked Gun movie.

A fourth challenger, Bernie Sanders, is a self-proclaimed socialist born before the Pearl Harbor attack who’s somehow more hated by the national media than Trump. A fifth, Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana, has never earned more than 8,515 votes in any election. The claim to fame of a sixth, Beto O’Rourke, is that he lost a Senate bid to the world’s most-hated Republican. It goes on.

The top Democrats’ best arguments for office are that they are not each other. Harris is rising in part because she’s not Biden; Warren, because she isn’t Bernie. Bernie’s best argument is the disfavor of the hated Democratic establishment. The Democratic establishment chose Biden because he was the Plan B last time and the party apparently hasn’t come up with anything better since. Nothing says “We’re out of ideas” quite like pulling a pushing-eighty ex-vice president off the bench to lead the most important race in the party’s history.

The same kind of circular-cannibalism act in the Republican field four years ago created an opportunity for one Donald J. Trump, whose carnival-barker personality smashed the bickering competition like peanuts under a ball-peen hammer. Trump’s appeal was negative but elemental. He pulled votes from sick America like a lion ripping organs from an antelope. He told voters: They’re politicians, I’m not. They’re paid lackeys offering slogans, while I’m the boss and I’m telling you what I’ll do.

You need something stronger than another political rap to beat this, but if Iowa is any judge, just a rap is what many Democrats are bringing. With a few exceptions, all the candidates here are giving a version of the same stump speech, which by itself is a problem — voters tend to notice this sort of thing.

Then there’s the content, which, to paraphrase Lincoln, is thinner than a soup made from the shadow of a pigeon that starved to death. The Democrats’ basic pitch reads like a list of five poll topics: kids are in cages; let’s close the gun-show loophole; this administration’s policies are an existential threat; something something Mitch McConnell; and Trump is (insert joke here).

There are truths there, but in baseball terms, it’s weak cheese Trump will swat into the seats. Our walking civil war of a president reached office on a promise to burn it all down, which, incidentally, he’s doing. A core psychological appeal to destruction needs a profound response. Slogans won’t work. Poll-and-pander won’t work. True inspiration is the only way out.

The Democrats had years to come up with an answer to Trump that is fundamental, powerful, and new, solving the problem the elder George Bush once called “the vision thing.” What’s mostly been shown instead is more of the same. Literally more, as in three times the usual suspects. The sequel even Hollywood would never make is now showing in Iowa.

Clown Car II: The Democrats. God help us.

 

THE QUADRENNIAL assault upon Iowa of presidential candidates and national press is now as entrenched a piece of Americana as Independence Day fireworks or booing Roger Goodell. The state’s status as the first nominating contest is a byproduct of the last schismatic fiasco in the Democratic Party, the 1968 nomination of doomed placeholder-candidate Hubert Humphrey. Reforms after that convention forced states to space out their political calendars, and Iowa — thanks in part to a paucity of Des Moines hotel rooms during its planned convention week in 1972 — was forced to move everything up in its schedule. The state soon passed a law requiring its caucuses to stay first in line, and Iowa has been in the catbird seat for deciding nominees ever since.

Over the years, so many presidential candidates have shown up with their hats in their hands that Iowans now talk to them the way New Yorkers talk to cabbies. (Biden’s already had a “Where’s your walker?” heckler.) It’s hilarious to watch. That it may not be the best place to pick the candidate of a party whose voters live mostly in cities is beside the point.

Friday evening, early summer, a park in northwest Des Moines. Washington state governor and “climate change candidate” Jay Inslee is standing near a nest of covered picnic benches, stumping to a group small enough to be a Webelo meeting.

A cute brown puppy chews a table leg, while a suspendered old gent sits with his wife on lawn chairs they’ve brought with them. He whispers, “Where’s he from again?” Like tornado chasers or recreational trial watchers, some Iowans attend political speeches as an offbeat hobby. Presidential politics is another thing to do on a Friday night, instead of maybe a ballgame.

If you leave the donor-repelling environmentalist politics out of it, Inslee is the kind of candidate the press would have loved 20 years ago. He’s tall and silver-haired, and looks vaguely like a Fifties film star, a cross maybe of Van Johnson and Richard Widmark. There’s a trace of left-coast surfer dude in his voice that’s endearing; he orates in question form, as in, “We need to reinvigorate the union movement? So the people who gave us the weekend? Can give us a raise? After 25 years . . . ?” (Applause.)

Up close he emits an odor of baseline decency, not a common political quality. He’s doing fine with his climate-crisis message, even if he’s overdoing the simple country-guy persona candidates often trot out in farm states.

“I like to be in an agricultural state because this is kind of where I came from,” he says. He mentions he’s the only candidate to have baled hay. “I take that back,” he says quickly. “[Montana governor] Steve Bullock might have. But I do it a lot faster than Steve. . . .”

The crowd is chuckling when an elderly man in a pale-blue T-shirt stands up. “Yeah, I’ve got a question on climate,” he snaps. He has bent posture, egret-white hair, and dime-size liver spots covering sun-baked forearms. He faces Inslee in an accusatory posture.

“You’ve espoused some generalities I agree with,” he says, and proceeds to lay a three-stage question on the governor. “Name the five or six biofuels — if that’s what you call them — that will solve the energy crisis. Number two, tell me how far along they are in development. Number three, tell me what percentage of the energy market they occupy today.”

There are smiles from onlookers. Iowans like and deserve their rep as a tough crowd. Inslee handles it well, though, giving overviews of the prospects for wind, solar, and biofuels.

“I watched the debates, every minute of them,” the older man explains after the event. “Nobody gave any specifics. They never do, not even in the [general] election. Because of that, the average person doesn’t know. I don’t think anyone’s against renewable energy, wind and solar. But we don’t have specifics.”

He seems to like Inslee, though, who’s polling under one percent nationally but has a powerful argument for continuing: the inability of any of the leading Democrats to seize the party’s imagination.

“Only 24 people know who they’re voting for next year, and they’re all running,” Inslee says.

Inslee is the kind of candidate who does well enough in the intimate format of Iowa, but the first national debates didn’t do him any favors. His signature issue, the climate crisis, wasn’t mentioned for more than 80 minutes, and when he was asked about it, the question was, “Does your plan save Miami?” (As if “We’re planning on sacrificing Miami” were a possible response.)

Moreover, he committed what campaign reporters call an “unforced error.” He said he was the only candidate onstage “who has passed a law protecting a woman’s right of reproductive health and health insurance.”

This led to Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar interrupting with a peal of soon-to-be-viral laughter. “I just want to say there’s three women up here that have fought pretty hard for a woman’s right to choose,” she said, referring to herself, Warren, and Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard.

One can’t fault Klobuchar for seizing the opening, but much of what has passed for the Democratic Party debate to date has involved what campaign commentators call “moments,” like this.

There was Klobuchar dunking on Inslee, Harris thrashing Biden over his past stance on school busing, former Housing Secretary Julián Castro walloping O’Rourke for not doing his “homework” on section 1325 of the immigration code, and O’Rourke providing an anti-moment of his own in an agonizing marathon effort at speaking Spanish in his introductory debate segment.

The gambit inspired hundreds of vicious Twitter memes. Someone forgot to tell O’Rourke and fellow en-Español adventurist Cory Booker that the debates were already translated into Spanish on NBC’s broadcast partner, Telemundo. Stephen Colbert called it an “Español-off” and joked that the remarks “really got through, really penetrated.” Trevor Noah of The Daily Show and Jimmy Fallon of The Tonight Show also hammered the effort, leading to an approving recap of late-night comedy by Breitbart, never a good sign for Democrats.

There are real, heavy ideas underlying the Democratic primary — more on those in a bit — but few of them are coming through in these melees. Mostly the Democrats are taking tweet-size bites out of one another’s hind parts in Heathers-style putdowns, or engaging in virtue-signaling contests, like they’re running for president of Woke Twitter.

The presence of human scratching post Biden atop the field has contributed to the not-undeserved impression that the party does not know what the hell it is doing. Biden has not only been battered by nearly all of his Democratic rivals, he’s also been drawn into flame wars with Trump, reanimating the 2016 pattern of TV networks giving Captain Orange masses of free airtime to flail rivals for sport and ratings.

In a mid-June appearance in Iowa, Biden tipped off reporters that he’d be making remarks about Trump. Dressed in dark-wash dad jeans and blue shirt, he became the 10,000th Democrat this year to call the president an “existential threat.”

Trump wasted little time laying into Biden. “Joe’s a loser,” he quipped, adding Biden was a “dummy” who was “even slower than he used to be.” Saying he’d rather run against Biden than anybody, Trump said, “I think he’s the weakest mentally. . . . I like running against people that are weak mentally.” He then ripped Biden for keeping a light schedule, saying, “Once every two weeks . . . he mentions my name 74 times in one speech. . . . That reminds me of crooked Hillary. She did the same thing.”

Next thing you knew, we were right back in 2016, with reporters dutifully conveying Trump’s insults and even kinda-sorta suggesting they were true. “There’s been a lot of questions about your schedule, and that it’s been a little lighter than some of the other candidates,” a reporter asked Biden in Ottumwa, Iowa.

MSNBC gave Trump more than a minute of airtime for “Joe’s a loser,” while The Washington Post and The New York Times put the exchange on the front page. This is how things went in 2016. Trump would taunt an opponent, the opponent would face-plant the effort at return fire, ratings would go up, and the cycle would repeat.

The logic of the Biden candidacy is a facsimile of our last memory of normalcy, like if Barack Obama were on vacation, or sick, maybe. Biden’s labors to remind us he was the understudy of the last president are painful. His launch speech contained 35 uses of the word “folks.” This included a rare double-folks (“Folks, I know some of the really smart folks say Democrats don’t want to hear about unity. . . .”). He constantly references the “Obama/Biden administration” and chides audiences that “we don’t say often enough as a party or a nation” that Obama was awesome.

Biden on the trail will spit out the campaign equivalent of clip art, e.g., “America, folks, is an idea, an idea that’s stronger than any army, bigger than any ocean,” or, “America has always been at its best when America has acted as one America.” By the end of the campaign, Biden will be plunked behind podiums to mutter, “America America America America America . . .” And we’ll vote for him.

The problem is that he’s got almost a year of Democratic primary left, and has to keep saying actual things until he wins. He seems engaged almost daily in cleaning up verbal messes. When Harris oar-smacked him with her “that little girl was me” busing story (T-shirt now on sale for $29.99 at store.kamalaharris.org!), Biden’s response was the debate equivalent of “Check, please,” saying, “My time is up.”

His awesome vulnerabilities on the woke front have him saying things that sound like Trump quotes, like his response to Booker on working with segregationist senators: “There’s not a racist bone in my body.”

Biden’s early front-runner flubs are reminiscent of Jeb Bush’s $150 million failure to handle Trump tweets. There are many such parallels. Biden is Jeb. O’Rourke, running in what the Times calls the “younger face” lane, is Marco Rubio. Unseen Steve Bullock is unseen Jim Gilmore. Bill de Blasio is the same “Why is he running?” New Yorker George Pataki was. And this election’s version of John Kasich, the embittered realist barking, “What are we doing here?” from the literal edge of the debate stage, is former Maryland Rep. John Delaney.

 

NOON ON a weekend, Room 103 of the Statehouse, Des Moines. John Delaney is addressing Iowa’s Asian and Latino Coalition. Stocky and bald, the co-founder of a health care lender is the umpteenth Democrat to address the influential group, which is full of local small-business owners. I will later hear this is one of the smallest turnouts of this group any Democrat candidate has yet attracted, a list that includes self-help author Marianne Williamson.

Delaney seems to sense this and looks peeved, not with the Asian-Latino coalition but with the Almighty. In a normal campaign year, he’d be the “crossover” candidate, praised for being a straight talker — he’s already gotten accolades from both George Will and David Brooks, usually a sign of media love to come. Yet the love hasn’t arrived. Delaney, whether on TV or in person, throws off the same “I can’t believe I’m losing to this field” vibe Kasich often exuded.

Like Kasich, Delaney just wants the American people to get along, and if it’s not too much trouble, elect him president. But nobody is complying.

2020 Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks during a rally, at the Iowa state fairgrounds in Des Moines, IowaElection 2020 Bernie Sanders, Des Moines, USA - 09 Mar 2019

Not just Sanders but his ideas are on the primary ballot this election season, as many candidates are embracing policy proposals he popularized in 2016, like Medicare for All. Photo credit: Matthew Putney/AP/Shutterstock

Flipping through Delaney’s book, The Right Answer, it’s clear he is genuinely saddened by the state of American politics. The epigram in the opening pages is from Kennedy, and begins, “Let us not despair. . . .” About what is Delaney despairing? Mainly, it seems, that Bernie Sanders is pulling 15 percent on a promise to give everyone Medicare.

“Why do we have to go further than Germany and France and Sweden and the Netherlands, and throw out the entire U.S. health care system?” he pleads. “That doesn’t make sense to me. We should attack the problems, and fix those. And not mess with what’s working.”

He goes on to propose that from birth to age 65, all Americans be covered by “a federal health care policy, for free, as a right of citizenship.” This plan, he says, would allow America to avoid a fully government-run health care program. “Look, maybe in 20 years, people will like their government health care so much, they’ll drop their private insurance and we’ll get to the same place in the end,” he says. “But we have to live in the real world.”

At the end of his speech, a therapy dog in the crowd barks. Delaney flashes a look like he can’t catch a break. He did fine here, and may have won a convert or two from health care skeptics, but the “Why not me?” tone of his campaign captures something. It’s a familiar narrative: Republican state governments and a CEO-friendly administration are hacking away at policies dear to working people, while Democrats can’t seem to settle on an electoral formula to stop them.

They’re paralyzed by Delaney’s question: Do we really have to make radical changes? The centrists want the progressives to step aside for the sake of “unity,” while the progressives believe they’re the new mainstream and are the better bet in a world where traditional notions of electability are upside-down. While this argument rages, traditionally Democratic constituencies are taking losses all over the place.

Mark Rocha, a Communications Workers of America official, liked that Delaney grew up in a union household, but he seemed more focused on the idea that whoever the nominee was, that person needed to stop the bleeding quick.

Noting that Iowa’s Republican leadership has passed laws attacking the right of public-sector unions to organize, he says private-sector unions are dying too. His CWA once had 1,200 members statewide. Now it has 525, and the new members can’t pay much in dues.

“If they even come in the door, if I even get ’em to sign, they’re the lower-paid workers, they make $15 an hour,” he says. “We’re getting beat up.”

 

IN THE 2020 race, a succession of Democrats have already taken star turns as darlings-for-a-news-cycle, only to splat in polls right after. The pattern is incredible.

Harris is on her second run up the hill (her first was a “dazzling” debut in January). O’Rourke earned the death-knell “Kennedyesque” title, and raised a record $6.1 million in the first 24 hours of his campaign, but cratered in polls even before his 8,800-word Vanity Fair springboard profile officially hit newsstands. “How About Pete?” asked New York magazine, atop a backlit cover photo that made the 37-year-old look like a Midwest Jesus; a South Bend police scandal later, Buttigieg was polling at zero percent with black voters. Then came Biden, who soared to 41 percent after launching to become what CNN called the “clear front-runner.” He’s lost a third of his support since then and is struggling to keep the lead.

Reporters show up at events with anxious smiles on their faces, like parents looking for a child at a department store. Maybe this one? How about her, or him? This is an extension of a phenomenon that began in the second half of the last GOP primary, when the press tried lavishing compliments on the “real” candidates they hoped would stop Trump. The internet remains littered with the wreckage of these efforts, in headlines like “Signs of ‘Marco-mentum’ for Rubio in New Hampshire.”

Then as now, in their zeal to find someone, anyone, to beat Trump, the press is once again too focused on the candidates themselves, ignoring warning signs that are almost always sitting right there in front of them, in the crowds.

Winterset, Iowa, a Monday afternoon in July. “Amy” “Amy” “Amy” read the alternating green and blue signs on cafe walls, as a packed house awaits Klobuchar. Gently spinning ceiling fans mark the passing time in this classic Iowa campaign stop. The Northside Cafe was founded in 1876, in the heart of Madison County — yes, that Madison County, the one with the bridges — and its comfort food, saloon walls covered in handmade quilts, and entranceway portraits of hometown hero John Wayne are familiar scenery for campaign journalists.

The rear of the cafe buzzes. Reporters love Klobuchar. She cracks jokes, gives good quotes, and reminds everyone of a relative. Maybe her? “She’s great,” someone whispers from the nest of tripods. “And funny too!” Some are repeating their favorite Klobuchar lines, like her bit about Trump being “all foam and no beer.” This is the Minnesota version of “all hat and no cattle,” a standby that holds the record for being told the most times by the most politicians without earning a genuine laugh.

Klobuchar plunges into her speech. It’s border crisis, climate crisis, and jokes about Trump. “All foam and no beer” takes a turn as a metaphor for Trump’s tax plan: “All the beer went to the wealthiest people.”

A 55-year-old cancer survivor named Sue Baethke stands up and asks Klobuchar what she thinks about H-1B visas. Such visas are for “specialty” positions, and are supposed to be used only if companies can’t find a qualified local hire. In practice it’s an insidious loophole that corporations use to replace high-paying American jobs with cheap foreign labor — a kind of government-enabled offshore temp program.

“Under current law,” Baethke asks, “can American companies lay off American high-tech workers and replace them with H-1B visa workers, and pay them less than U.S. wages?”

“Well, they shouldn’t be able to do that,” says Klobuchar, losing eye contact momentarily to take a swig of coffee. She mentions that she’s working on legislation with Sen. Dick Durbin, and says, “You have to have these qualifications in place if you’re going to continue to have H-1B visas,” which, she says, “we’ll probably continue to have.”

Thinking the matter settled, Klobuchar starts to look to the other side of the room. But Baethke’s husband, Morgan, a lean, bright-eyed man with a farmer tan and close-cropped hair, interrupts. He asks the senator if she’s going to do anything to “retroactively” address the problem, i.e., help people who’ve already lost jobs due to this program.

Klobuchar shakes her head. “Yeah, I’ll have to look at that. I just know that we’ve been trying very diligently to put in some checks and balances on that program.” She reiterates that Democrats have already introduced protections to make sure companies don’t give jobs to foreign temp workers unless there’s a qualification issue.

Moreover, she says, Democrats have proposed raising fees for H-1B visas to use the proceeds to retrain those who’ve lost their jobs to more-skilled workers overseas. Even better, there’s an opportunity to strengthen the law through comprehensive immigration reform, which all Democrats are for, she says.

The original questioner, Sue Baethke, tries to point out that H-1B visa holders aren’t immigrants, but Klobuchar ignores her. “It was really a big deal that we had comprehensive immigration reform,” Klobuchar says. “It would solve so much of our problems right now at the border, if we’re able to give a path to citizenship to people that are following the law.”

She turns to the audience. “That’s where this president has completely failed us economically, that we don’t have comprehensive reform.” Klobuchar by now has completely changed the subject, but no one in the room seems to notice. She moves on.

The event ends. In the Des Moines Register the next day, Klobuchar will get excellent reviews, in a story titled “All Foam and No Beer: Back in Iowa After the Debates, Klobuchar Doubles Down on Trump.” It cites audience members at multiple Klobuchar events saying she’s “steady,” “believable,” “thoughtful,” “intelligent,” and “down-to-earth.” It even quotes an attendee from the Winterset event as saying Klobuchar is like a “female Joe Biden without the baggage.”

After the Winterset event, the Baethke couple, both old-school liberals, open up. Sue’s first husband was a farmer who died in the Eighties. Widowed at the dawn of the NAFTA era, Sue did what members of both parties were telling all Americans to do at the time: She retrained for the post-industrial economy, getting an IT degree at a local college. She got a tech job with a financial-services company whose pitch was “We’ve never laid anyone off, not even in the Great Depression.”

When Sue met Morgan, the two made a deal. Sue would be the breadwinner and health-insurance-holder. Morgan, with just a high school education, would work a farm. This worked out fine until Sue got cancer and lost her job to an H-1B visa worker in India making 1/20th of her salary. “My company said, ‘She’s old, she’s sick, and she’s expensive,’ ” she says. This forced Morgan off the farm and into the only job available to a lot of people in the area. He works at Walmart for $11.50 an hour.

Sue and Morgan say they have been asking presidential candidates the same question about H-1B visas for five election cycles. They’ve been getting the same answers over and over, with promises for better enforcement and smart-sounding speeches about right-minded legislation that will fix things.

This pattern — of politicians who think they’ve given a good enough answer being met with still more questions from disgruntled audiences — isn’t uncommon. The dynamic that popped into view in Winterset is one that might hold back Elizabeth Warren.

Papers like The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Boston Globe ran stories suggesting Warren’s campaign might be fatally “wounded” before it even began in January, because of her too-liberal politics and her infamous claim to Native American heritage. But she persisted and suddenly looks like one of the favorites. Numerous stories about the Iowa race point out that she has the largest paid organization in the state, with 50 staffers here.

Her policy prescriptions are detailed and bold, including a two percent overall “ultramillionaires tax” that measures by net worth instead of income (theoretically closing a giant loophole), along with the cancellation of student debt and the breakup of Silicon Valley monopolies.

In late spring, the same media outlets that pummeled her in winter began swooning over a Warren “surge,” in a lovefest that frankly was just as phony as the previous reports of momentum for Harris, O’Rourke, Mayor Pete, and Biden. But at least the pundit predictions of her campaign dying before birth were wrong.

The problem for Warren is “I’ve got a plan for that!” is a dubious strategy in an era in which the campaign promise itself is a declining currency. On paper, she’s done just about everything right. But if she advances, voters will soon be introduced to the fact that plans and promises similar to the ones Warren is making have been made many times before. It’s not a referendum on her but on how much belief is left out there.

Her “economic patriotism” plan, which envisions the government using levers like the Fed and the Treasury to protect jobs, has earned praise from left and right (Tucker Carlson gave it an “attaboy” on Fox). But the catchphrase was used not only by Obama, but also by two other Massachusetts Dems Warren resembles: 1992 presidential contender Paul Tsongas, and Dukakis. The Duke’s 1988 message of “new economic patriotism” included proposals for universal health coverage, a higher minimum wage, scholarships for students committed to teaching careers, etc.

Politicians often sound great. They may sound like they understand issues up and down. They may even have passed laws that ostensibly address problems. But for a lot of Americans, speeches never catch up with reality. Legislation designed to prevent pollution, contractor corruption, sexual assault, predatory lending, and countless other abuses may earn approving headlines — but create few results on the ground. This gap between reality and political proclamation is what opened the door for Trump in 2016.

“I work at Walmart, along with 1.5 million other people,” Morgan Baethke says. “Those employees are used to the idea that if the Walton family says X will happen, X happens. If a businessman says X will happen, X will happen.” He pauses. “But if a senator says it, who knows?”

DES MOINES, IOWA - JUNE 08: Democratic presidential candidate and self-help author Marianne Williamson greets people while campaigning at the Capital City Pride Fest on June 08, 2019 in Des Moines, Iowa. Most of the more than 20 candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for president are campaigning at various locations in Iowa this weekend. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

2020 contender and self-help author Williamson in Des Moines in June. “The political establishment has the veneer of a deep conversation,” she says. “They think their dialogue is sophisticated. But it’s very unsophisticated. Photo credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa, a Sunday morning, just after services at the Unity Center, an alternative church that preaches a “practical approach to Christianity.” It’s a place you might expect to buy healing salts or take hypnotism lessons. The crowd is younger and more female than at most campaign stops.

Marianne Williamson, the self-help author made famous by Oprah Winfrey, is speaking to about 50 people. “When we get bad news, when we learn that something really terrible is going on, so many superficial concerns drop away. And we become very intelligent,” she says, glaring and pausing for emphasis.

Williamson is a small, almost ethereal figure with silver-streaked hair and intense eyes that 19th-century authors would have described as being “like coals.” Her superficial eccentricities and occasional incautious statements (she once said “there’s a skepticism which is actually healthy” on the issue of vaccines) have caused reporters to chortle at her run.

But her speech is not a lifeless collection of policy positions. It’s an interesting, tightly written diagnosis of the American problem. Precisely because socioeconomic stresses have pushed them into heightened awareness, she says, the American public sees what she calls “a transition from democracy to aristocracy,” and the corporate sector’s “insatiable appetite” for money that dominates American life.

Williamson is not a traditional orator, with a voice that fills the room. You can barely hear her without a microphone. But she grabs crowds. Nobody is checking sports scores or Twitter. They’re in.

Williamson goes on to say that most Americans are aware that their government is now little more than a handmaiden to sociopathic forces. She describes a two-party system that, at its worst, operates in perfect harmony with the darkest impulses of corporate capitalism, and at best — presumably she refers more to Democrats here — sounds like institutionalized beggary.

“ ‘Pretty please, can I maybe have a hundred-thousand-dollar grant here?’ ” she says. “ ‘Pretty please, can we maybe have a million dollars in the budget for all this?’ ”

Heads are nodding all over the place.

“They say, ‘I can get you a cookie.’ ”

This elicits a few yeahs from the crowd.

Christ, I think. This woman is going to win the nomination.

Trump, she says, can’t be beaten by conventional thinking. “[He is] not just a politician,” she says. “This man is a phenomenon. . . . The only way we are going to defeat a phenomenon at the polls in 2020 is by creating a phenomenon.”

She stumbles a bit in Q&A, especially when a woman asks what she would do about the credit-score system. Williamson frowns, seeming genuinely perplexed. She clearly doesn’t know what having bad credit is like, and promises to look into it, in the tone of voice of a person who promises gamely to try a jellied-eel appetizer.

Still, she gets a rousing ovation at the end of her speech. After, she takes a few minutes to talk.

“The political establishment has the veneer of a deep conversation,” she says. “They think their political dialogue is so sophisticated. But it’s not sophisticated. It’s very unsophisticated.”

That lack of sophistication, she says, is what made Trump possible. Young people, in particular, have no more patience for the phoniness. “I see it especially in people who were born this century,” she says. “They’re tired of the nonsense.”

Williamson belongs to a category of candidate you might call the Ignored. They’re candidates blown off by national political wizards who don’t believe, or don’t want to believe, they can win. How anyone can think this way after 2016 is mind-boggling.

The list includes Williamson, entrepreneur and Universal Basic Income proponent Andrew Yang, Hawaii congresswoman and regime-change opponent Tulsi Gabbard, and, most conspicuously, Bernie Sanders.

It’s unseemly, the degree to which the press is rooting for Sanders to get his socialist tuchis out of the race. This is an actual headline from Politico after the first set of debates: “Harris, Warren Tie for Third in New Poll, But Biden Still Leads.”

The Washington Post/ABC poll showed Biden dropping to 25 percent nationally, with Harris and Warren jousting for third at nine percent. Where’s Waldo? The missing data point is that Sanders doubled both Harris and Warren in said poll at 18 percent. He also has the highest number of unique donors, and is the leading fundraiser overall in the race.

That doesn’t mean Sanders is going to win. He’s the only candidate with a more or less insoluble base of voters, but unlike Warren, who seems really to want this, Bernie has sometimes seemed dispirited. Still, the undeniable truth is that the Democratic race is about Sanders. Most of the candidates either support Medicare for All or try to sound like they do. They also tend to support a $15 minimum wage and call for wealth taxes, a Green New Deal, antitrust actions, and some rejection of corporate donors. Even Joe Biden, he of the lengthy career deep-throating credit-card-industry bucks, has parroted Sanders’ anti-corporate themes, noting that the Constitution reads “ ‘We the People,’ not ‘We the Donors.’ ”

There is an irony in the fact that Sanders has become the bête noire of Clintonian politics, given that Sanders represents the culmination of Bill’s 1992 electoral formula: “Change versus more of the same.”

Decades later, this is no longer just a marketing formulation. About 20 of the candidates exist somewhere on the spectrum of traditional Democratic politics, with Klobuchar, Mayor Pete, and Biden on one side, and Warren on the more progressive end. Sanders is the revolutionary. His election would mean a complete overhaul of the Democratic Party, forcing everyone who ever worked for a Clinton to look toward the private sector. That’s what a vote for “change” would mean in 2020.

 

AMES, IOWA, a house party. Reporters love this tradition, standing in the home of a real-life actual ordinary person.

House parties for me bat about .250. A major danger is ending up sardined in a room with insufficient air conditioning and no during-speech egress. This is the case at the gathering for Robert “Beto” O’Rourke.

After his dicey debate performance, O’Rourke was called to the carpet by his biggest donors, including Louis Susman, the former investment banker and Obama bundler. Susman reportedly ordered
O’Rourke to unfuck himself before the next debates.

It’s bad enough when the money people are bossing around the candidates. It’s worse when one of those backers actually tells the story to the media; Susman went so far as to be quoted saying of
O’Rourke, “The needed improvements are purely stylistic.”

After O’Rourke became a social media meme for his gringo Spanish, and got walloped in the debate on his pet issue, immigration, the campaign’s solution was to send him to Ciudad Juárez, across the Rio Grande, for an emergency session of Looking as Concerned as Julián Castro. Now the poor guy is back in Iowa reporting on his adventures and delivering a speech entirely about the crisis. He describes the border scene in horrific, Boschian detail, down to the “little kiddos” who are “pooping in their pants” and on the floor where they will sleep and eat.

Most are listening intently, but there’s some wincing in the heat. There’s no way to avoid wondering how this would play in a general-election setting. One can already hear what Trump would say about his emergency Juárez trip: If it was Susman’s idea, why isn’t Susman running?

Four years ago, the rank inadequacy of the Lindsey Grahams and Scott Walkers and Jeb Bushes who tumbled into the pastures of Iowa made great sport for snickering campaign journalists, myself included. We dubbed the field of governors, senators, and congressgoons who couldn’t beat a game-show host the “Clown Car,” and laughed at what many of us thought was the long-overdue collapse of the Republican Party. The joke turned out to be on us.

The GOP error was epic in scale. The Republicans sent twice the usual number of suspects into the buzz saw of a Throw the Bums Out movement they never understood, creating the comic pretext for the Clown Car: twice the canned quips, twice the empty promises, double the rage, frustration, and eye rolls.

Nobody will want to hear this, but Democrats are repeating the error. The sense of déjà vu is palpable. It might and should still work out, according to the polls. But a double catastrophe seems a lot less impossible than it did even a year ago. Lose to Donald Trump once, shame on the voters. Lose to him twice? It’s glue-factory time for the Democratic Party, and another black eye for America, which is fast turning its electoral system into a slapstick reality show.

 

Newswire

Powered by