Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz on the campaign trail. (Photos, from left: Mary Altaffer, Charlie Neibergall, Jae C. Hong/AP)
So apparently Iowans are fed up and frothy and about to dismantle American politics as we’ve known it, upending the tired status quo of at least one party and possibly both.
What exactly does this mean? It means they might caucus overwhelmingly for a Republican candidate — Ted Cruz or Donald Trump — who vows to cut yet more taxes, scale back government and get tough with our enemies. Or they might choose a socialist — Bernie Sanders — who would raise taxes, restore regulations and expand entitlements.
Good lord! We haven’t seen this kind of radical experimentation since Major League Baseball decided to institute “throwback day” and make every team dust off its uniforms from the 1970s.
(Just by the way, White Sox: They were bad then, and they’re worse now. How about next year you scour the closet for something that doesn’t make you look like a bunch of Oreos with legs.)
The truth is that when it comes to challenging orthodoxies, the insurgents on both sides are way more retro than they are radical. And that may be why, no matter what transpires in Iowa Monday, they’re destined to come up short.
Oh, I know, now I’m going to hear the wails from all quarters. Sanders is going to start a political revolution! (We know this because he says so.) Cruz is the modern George Washington, riding in on horseback to remake the country! (We know this because Glenn Beck says so. Seriously, he does.)
And I’m sure that to a lot of their supporters in Iowa and elsewhere, all of this sounds very disruptive, as they say at TED Talks. None of the college kids who pack Sanders’ rallies can be expected to remember George McGovern or Walter Mondale, or even Al Gore. A lot of the tea party leaders I’ve met seem to think American politics started with Alexander Hamilton and then skipped, more or less, to Jim DeMint.
As a society, generally speaking, we now consider all modern history that isn’t trending on Twitter to be ancient and disposable.
But trust me on this much: Proposing to raise income taxes past 50 percent on the wealthy and to reimpose the Glass-Steagall banking law isn’t taking Democratic politics in some radical new direction. It’s pretty much embracing the status quo for the vast majority of the 20th century.
I find it stupefying every time I hear Sanders make his case for universal health care like almost every Democrat before him, as if President Obama’s most ambitious and divisive achievement — the largest new social program in almost 50 years — had never happened. It’s like he’s actually lifted his platform from Jesse Jackson or Jerry Brown (circa 1992) and isn’t going to let himself be distracted by anything that’s happened since.
About the only truly new idea Sanders is floating is his “debt-free college” plan, which is really more of a slogan than a plan, and which hardly threatens to upend the political system in any event.
Cruz, meanwhile, sounds to me not like some visionary neo-patriot, but rather like a late-night commercial for “Solid Gold Hits of the ’80s.” Federal austerity fused with religious fundamentalism was once called “Reaganism.” Add a little xenophobia, and you’re pretty much reading from the same script as Pat Robertson and Pat Buchanan.
In fact, Republicans spent about 20 years near the end of the last century doing exactly what Cruz claims will revolutionize Washington — slashing spending and taxes and reining in some social programs. The results weren’t so spectacular.
You can make the same point about Trump, with his vow to re-create an America that wins again — which, near as I can tell, basically means going back to a time when the only thing standing between him and all the real estate in Manhattan were a couple of Japanese holding companies.
Even Marco Rubio, who started his campaign talking persuasively about rethinking our dated notions of manufacturing and service industries and college education, has lately devolved into nostalgia, running mournful ads about this newfangled America he can no longer recognize. (I know someone who might appreciate a vintage White Sox uniform.)
We’ve heard often — and I’ve probably said as much myself — that what’s at stake in these caucuses and primaries is the relevance of party establishments. But it seems to me we’re also testing the relevance of one of Bill Clinton’s central insights into politics.
Presidential elections, Clinton famously said, are always about the future and not about the past.
You can’t find an election in the past 50 years that doesn’t lend credence to this theory. Reagan’s pitch was all about “morning in America,” the promise on the horizon. Clinton championed the new economy and offered a “third way” out of the previous generation’s political stalemate, then built his “bridge to the 21st century.”
George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” promised a new approach to social and economic progress — and a break from his own party’s legacy of resistance. Obama’s campaign, rooted in his own identity, was about turning the page on decades of division and intransigence.
You have to wonder what President Clinton, by his own standard, makes of his wife’s campaign, which has to this point — as it did in 2008 — relied almost entirely on an argument about her résumé and stature, rather than offering any thoughtful framework for how government might keep up with transformative forces in the society. For this reason, among others, Hillary Clinton seems to me an eminently beatable frontrunner, both in the primaries and in a general election.
But she’s mostly vulnerable to a challenger who can relegate her to the past while articulating a more hopeful, more modern vision of the next American chapter, as Obama did. And this is where Clinton finds good fortune (and really, she’s probably due for some): Neither Sanders nor the Republicans poised to win Iowa, for all their antiestablishment street cred, seem even slightly inclined to abandon the last century’s well-worn orthodoxies.
Of course, the other possibility, and I’m not dismissing it, is that this is the year when Bill Clinton’s axiom on elections no longer holds true. Perhaps unrest in the country is so profound, the primary electorates so ideologically pure, that nostalgia turns out to be an actual strategy.
Maybe we’ve reached a point — after a string of presidencies premised on visions of a future, economic and social, that never fully materialized — where we’d rather retrench than rethink. Maybe this is throwback year, and it’s easier to go backward than look ahead.
If so, then Iowa will launch Sanders or Cruz or Trump, or maybe all of them, into a primary season that won’t end until the conventions, and maybe not the way party leaders would hope.
If that happens, though, don’t confuse it with the end of the status quo. It will be anything but that.