Last night, Iowa delivered a strong argument for why it’s the hood ornament of election season, and did so in fine fashion. The people of Iowa ran through walls to cast their votes in record numbers, often on paper ballots and not on Diebold machines, and it was a hell of a thing to see.
There are enough story lines from last night to fill a Robert Caro biography series, but you can bet an Iowa cornfield the “news” media’s favorite hot take will be the abrupt humbling of Donald Trump. I confess to being profoundly unsurprised by his defeat at the hands of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. The word out of Iowa is that Trump representatives failed to show up at a number of caucus sites, which is the equivalent of trying to drive down the street without a steering wheel. Trump is not in it to win it. This is just another reality TV show for him. Self-promotion, after all, is his stock in trade.
Trump’s campaign, to me, has always seemed like a grease fire in a deli kitchen: A flash, a sizzle and then nothing but smoke. Last night proved that out. He enjoys a solid lead in New Hampshire right now, but that may well change after a week of media speculation about his viability as a candidate. A lot of folks have been waiting for him to blow it by way of his proto-fascist gibberish. As it turns out, he may have slashed his own campaign tires simply by failing to do his Iowa homework. You send your people to the caucuses to speak for you, Donny. That’s how it works.
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Whatever schadenfreude may be extracted from Trump’s second-place status is tempered by the fact that Ted Cruz won. This is not a good thing. Donald Trump may be the world’s most accomplished bullshit artist, but Cruz actually believes most of what he says, and most of what he says is terrifying beyond the bounds of reason. He also has a carny’s eye for the opening, and he shot the gap in Iowa by casting himself as the halo over Christ’s own head, a move that won him a majority of the evangelical vote. Ted Cruz is dangerous because he is a wildly cynical true believer who considers himself a man of destiny. He will say anything to deliver himself to the power he believes he deserves.
Marco Rubio, for his part, managed to make finishing in third place sound like winning the Iditarod. He is the chosen “establishment” candidate after the collapse of Jeb Bush’s campaign, which isn’t worth much in these deranged days of the dissolution of the Republican status quo. They used to say Dennis Kucinich looked “boyish” on the campaign trail. During his own “victory” speech last night, Rubio looked like a prep school freshman delivering a class presentation. There is no there, there.
The finish on the Republican side was merely wild. On the Democratic side, it was positively astonishing. Hillary Clinton, who only a few scant months ago enjoyed a 50-point lead in Iowa, found herself in a statistical dead heat with Bernie Sanders. As of this writing, they still haven’t called the thing, but that didn’t stop Clinton last night from not only declaring victory prematurely, but from delivering a strange “victory” speech in which she could not say “We won.” Here were shades of Jack Welsh in 2000, raging through the news studio at NBC demanding they call the race for George W. Bush before the numbers were in. It was a spooky desperation move, and if you think the Clinton campaign isn’t nervous, you weren’t watching.
Sanders, for his part, delivered a speech that definitely strutted a bit, given how far his campaign had come. This was a win for him even if he winds up losing by 0.4 percent. In his remarks, he hit upon the themes he has been pounding on from the beginning:
We can no longer continue to have a corrupt campaign finance system … We do not represent the interests of the billionaire class, Wall Street or corporate America … We are going to create an economy that works for working families, not just the billionaire class … And when millions of our people are working for starvation wages, we are going to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. And, yes, we are going to have pay equity for women …
… and the line that raised the roof:
I will tell you how we will pay for it: we are going to impose a tax on Wall Street speculation. The greed, the recklessness and the illegal behavior of Wall Street drove this economy to its knees. The American people bailed out Wall Street, now it’s Wall Street’s time to help the middle class.
The New Hampshire primary, which Sanders is currently leading by an average of 18 points according to the polls, is a week from today. Trump also has a large lead here, but the Iowa results may chisel into that. All the candidates were on planes to Manchester last night. My back yard is about to get very crowded. If Iowa was any indication, it’s going to be a hot time in the old town on Tuesday.