I’m a former Republican who’ll vote for any Democrat. But Iowa has me worried.
by Tom Nichols
Watching the Iowa caucus this year was a new experience for me. Before the ascendancy of Donald Trump, I was an establishment conservative, one of those liberal New England Republicans whose tribe is now only of blessed memory. The Iowa Republicans seemed a strange bunch who fell for candidates like Pat Robertson and Rick Santorum. The Iowa Democrats seemed irrelevant; I wasn’t going to vote for the person they elevated. I just ignored the whole thing.
That changed when I quit the GOP, became a charter member of the Never Trump movement, and committed to supporting the Democratic nominee in 2020. I have lashed myself to the party I once opposed, because Trump is a threat to the American system and its Constitution beyond any policy disagreement I could have with any current Democrat. (Not even Bernie Sanders can drive me away; I was one of his constituents for years, and I think he’d be a terrible president, but I will take him over Trump without a second thought.)
Now I’m fascinated by the Democratic primary process—and Iowa has me worried.
My anxiety stems from two realizations about the Great Iowa Debacle. First, the result shows a Democratic Party whose base still seems to lack the commitment to beat Trump. Second, and just as important, the complete meltdown of the process was a humiliation for a party whose argument is that Trump is too stupid, corrupt, and incompetent to be president.
Iowa’s Democrats seem to think that the best candidate to go up against Trump—that is, to flip votes in five or six states—is either Sanders or Pete Buttigieg. Those names make me feel the chill wind of a coming second Trump term, not just individually, but together.
Step back, say, to 2004, when the top two choices were John Kerry and John Edwards: Two U.S. senators, one left and one center-left. Not my cup of tea, but I could see the outlines of the rest of the race, and I had some sense of the eventual outcome.
Not this time. Iowa Democrats came up with a small-city mayor who cannot win statewide office in his own state and whose career has been blistered by people in his own party as emblematic of the neoliberal consultant class. Their other choice was a septuagenarian pseudo-socialist who has spent 30 years in Congress, has no significant achievements to show for his career, and just recovered from a heart attack.
This does not look like a Democratic Party that knows what it wants, and it certainly doesn’t look like a party that is on fire to go out there, shoulder to shoulder with the biggest coalition it can find, and kick Trump out of the White House.
Meanwhile, the process—and I am now the last to repeat what millions have already said—was an embarrassment. We have run out of metaphors (dumpster fire, circus, rodeo, other words unprintable in this magazine) for a Rube Goldberg scheme using an app poorly designed by younger people that was not understood by older people. If the Democrats are making the argument that they can be better guardians of the American electoral process after Trump’s chicanery, this was not the way to start.
I am known on social media for telling people not to panic. In fact, I have infuriated people who insist that panic is the only normal response to Trump, an argument I reject as both unfounded and poor strategy. Trump is the worst thing to happen to the American presidency, but he can be beaten. But if the Democrats are going to shoot random flares into the political skies, then this effort is doomed. Sanders and Buttigieg are good choices if your point is to make a public statement about your progressive politics, or perhaps to showcase your personal willingness to be open-minded about ideology, youth, old age, religion, or sexuality. But the point, unexciting though it is, should be to help Democrats find a candidate who can win over swing voters in Wisconsin and Michigan.
When I was a Republican, I used to count on the Democrats being, in the words of the GOP consultant Rick Wilson, “holistically bad at politics.” The Democratic wave in 2018 suggested that the party, when faced with a menace on the scale of Trump, could regroup, and I was pleasantly surprised at how moderate candidates led the way to recapture the House.
After the mess in Iowa, I am again hoping to be proved wrong. The national Democrats need to forget about Iowa, refocus, and become more serious about the only issue that matters—beating Trump. The president is sitting on a pile of cash and a machine fueled by absolute party discipline. If the Democrats are going to beat him, they cannot afford another night like Monday.
Tom Nichols is the author of The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters.