the national circus

Iowa Is Just the Latest Chapter in a Rolling Democratic Calamity

Manage your expectations. Photo: Salwan Georges/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today, the fallout from the Iowa caucus delay, Trump’s post-impeachment presidency, and the rule change that allows Michael Bloomberg into the next Democratic debate.

One of the big hopes of the Iowa caucus was for it to bring clarity to a divided campaign season. Instead, it brought what one former Iowa party chairman has called “a systemwide disaster,” with results still delayed as of this morning. How does this affect the Democratic primary going forward?

The Iowa debacle was not just a gift to Donald Trump but to Vladimir Putin, whose army of Vichy Republicans and social-media bots can now blame Russia’s 2020 election interference on the Democrats as well as Ukraine. And for those who are thinking, oh, this is a one-off disaster that is contained in Iowa that will soon be forgotten, I say, think again. Iowa is but the latest chapter in a rolling Democratic calamity.

Before we get to the broader problem, let’s not absolve the state that sent Joni Ernst to Washington after she ran campaign ads showcasing her agrarian expertise at castrating hogs. And while I as much as anyone enjoy the unintended camp of those massive butter sculptures at the state fair, let’s not forget that the state’s main contribution to civic discourse is its quadrennial hawking of the benefits of ethanol and whose most prized political institution, the Des Moines Register poll, also botched its count this year. Iowa’s signature cultural representation is The Music Man, in which a fast-talking con man bamboozles an entire town without breaking a sweat.

But at least The Music Man has a happy ending. What makes yesterday’s disaster even more depressing is that it is entirely consistent with a national Democratic primary process that, as I have been arguing for months, has been botched from the start. While we may never have trusted numbers for yesterday’s caucuses — or know which of the promised “three sets of numbers” (if any) we should care about — we do have the hard ratings numbers for the televised debates. Voters started tuning out in droves after having had their fill of overpopulated and undernourished formats too often hijacked by the also-rans. Then there is the unreformed primary calendar itself. It remains a mystery that a party which prides itself on offering an alternative to the old white GOP still kicks off its race for the presidency in a state whose electorate is nearly all white. None of the three states next to come — New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina — is demographically representative of America either. Yet for all the Democrats’ rightful rage about minority vote suppression and the anti-democratic tilt toward rural red states in the Senate and Electoral College, they failed to bring meaningful change to their own blatantly anti-democratic electoral process.

The last time the Democrats ran against a criminally corrupt president, the yet-to-be-impeached Richard Nixon, was in 1972. What people most recall about that Democratic Waterloo is how divided the Democrats were and how easily their standard-bearer, George McGovern, could be caricatured as a lefty flake. But what is at least as resonant now is just how plain incompetent the party was in that election year. McGovern’s biggest chance to win over the nation, his convention acceptance speech, was seen by almost no one because Democratic bungling assured that it didn’t air until nearly 3 a.m. His vice-presidential nominee, Thomas Eagleton, was replaced less than three weeks later, after it was belatedly discovered he had been treated for mental illness. It was all downhill from there. The Republican ticket won 49 out of 50 states, four and a half months after the Watergate break-in.

It was in the early going of the 20th century that the homespun American sage Will Rogers famously said, “I don’t belong to any organized political party, I’m a Democrat.” Does anyone remember when that line was still funny?

Republicans have voted to block witnesses from testifying in the Senate impeachment trial, leading to an all-but-certain acquittal for Trump this week. Will the impeachment end up changing anything about the Trump presidency?

For sure. As everyone has said, the ease with which Trump and Mitch McConnell were able to execute a sham trial and acquittal in the Senate will now supercharge Trump’s authoritarian crime spree. As Adam Schiff has repeatedly stated, more past transgressions will keep coming out, but we may not be able to keep track of them as the new outrages mount. They will all be enabled by a collaborationist cadre that includes not just outright thugs like William Barr and Mike Pompeo but supposed “wise men” like Lamar Alexander, the senator who found Trump’s Ukraine shakedown “inappropriate” but not worthy of a trial with evidence and witnesses, let alone illegal.

My guess is that most Americans had not heard of this soon-to-retire Tennessee senator until last week, so let’s take a moment to remember his failed presidential run of 1996. His gimmick was to wear a plaid flannel shirt on the campaign trail to advertise his down-home folksiness — a fraudulent pose that was unmasked when he could not answer a question about the price of milk. When campaigning for the Republican Iowa caucuses 24 Februaries ago, he joined virtually every other GOP presidential contender (the sole exception was Richard Lugar) in endorsing a C-Span–televised, gay-bashing, religious-right rally in Des Moines that vowed to “send this evil lifestyle back to Satan where it came from!” Then and now, Alexander epitomizes the kind of spineless cipher who has passed for a “moderate” Republican over the quarter-century that led the party into the cult of Donald Trump.

The Democratic National Committee unexpectedly changed the qualification requirements for its next debate, making it more likely that Michael Bloomberg will join the other candidates onstage for the first time. Last December, the DNC declined to make changes that would have helped Cory Booker and Julián Castro — is it a mistake to make these changes now?

I think we can assume as a rule of thumb that every DNC decision is a mistake. They wouldn’t be in this mess had they not started with debate rules, impenetrable to most voters, that benefited a deep-pocketed clown like Tom Steyer while penalizing Booker and Castro. At this point, the Democrats need all the resources they can muster, and a new cast member like Bloomberg, an enigma or curiosity to many voters beyond the New York area, might coax voters into taking another look at the surviving field and actually tune in. Perhaps the DNC might further drum up attention by branding the subsequent debates as “The Last Debates.” There’s no law requiring Trump to show up to face his Democratic adversary onstage in the fall — not that a law would matter to him anyway. More emboldened than ever post-impeachment, he might well blow off the debates entirely and offer counterprogramming of his own on Fox state television.

Frank Rich: Iowa and the Rolling Democratic Calamity