The Loser in Iowa Was the Establishment

The Iowa caucus results portend a new era for both Republicans and Democrats.

Now that we have actual voter expressions in this presidential campaign cycle, it is possible, even at this early stage, to draw some conclusions.

First, the Republican Party is about to experience a major overhaul that will reshape and redefine it, for good or ill. Second, the Democratic Party is now a party of democratic socialism of the European variety.

None of this is particularly surprising. The early campaign—driven by cable channel debates, incessant polling, money men and commentator analyses—seemed to demonstrate that the country is moving through a pivotal point of history. The old order is crumbling; a period of transition has begun.

But now the Iowa caucus results, when extrapolated to suggest how they will help shape the unfolding campaigns of both parties, give added weight to the perception of major change ahead.

On the Democratic side, the centrist political sensibility represented by the Democratic Leadership Council is dead. The DLC, founded in the mid-1980s in response to the landslide presidential defeat of Walter Mondale in 1984, emerged as a powerful force within the party and eventually helped shape the political outlook that guided Bill Clinton into the White House and informed his governing philosophy during eight years of generally successful leadership.

It is clear, based on Barack Obama’s presidential approach, that he never harbored much sympathy for that centrist outlook. His presidency has been anything but centrist in thrust and attitude. But he never overtly sought to join battle with the lingering elements of DLC thinking within the party. Though he embraced populism attitudes and employed class-warfare rhetoric from time to time, he avoided expressions of political anger and fiery attacks. His was a more cerebral brand of democratic socialism.

But now we have the emergence within the party of Vermont’s Senator Bernie Sanders, an angry old man of charmingly intense convictions about the evils of wealth accumulation and corporate America. When he announced his candidacy nine months ago, few thought he would have any greater chance of emerging as a serious player than, say, former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley. After all, the clear frontrunner with a seemingly unobstructed path to the nomination was Hillary Clinton, former First Lady, ex-senator from New York, secretary of state under Obama—and with the vast Clinton political/financial machine behind her.

O’Malley, as expected, fizzled utterly in Iowa and promptly suspended his campaign, whereas the feisty Sanders fought Clinton essentially to a draw, cadging as many delegates in the caucuses as she did. And he did it without a super PAC to pump vast corporate dollars into his effort or the kinds of big moneymen that have hovered around the Clintons for decades. Sanders’s financial contributions, as he proudly notes, have averaged just $27

Whatever happens to the Vermont senator as the nomination battle unfolds, he represents a significant political reality of our time—namely, that many Americans feel the country is on the wrong track, is run by people who are undermining the American dream and is beset by elites pursuing, first and foremost, their own narrow interests. When such feelings emerge, many voters find themselves beguiled by new ideas and approaches, even radical ideas and approaches. That’s the meaning of the Sanders emergence. As he said to his Iowa supporters and the American people via national television, his performance sends

“a profound message to the political establishment, the economic establishment and the media establishment—that, given the crises of our country, it’s just too late for establishment politics and establishment economics.”

In her own remarks to her supporters (in which she seemed to be declaring victory before any such victory was registered in final tallies), Clinton said she welcomes the “substantive conversation” that has emerged between her and the man unexpectedly standing beside her on equal terms, at least for now. But it isn’t much of a conversation when considered in the tradition of America’s grand raucous debates of times past. That’s because Clinton has done everything possible throughout the early campaign to make sure that Sanders doesn’t outflank her on the left. For all intents and purposes, she’s a democratic socialist as well. And her husband, standing up on the platform, evinces no discernible nostalgia for the brand of centrist politics that defined his own presidential identity.

And there isn’t a whisper of a dissent throughout the party over its current direction. The party seems to have defined itself, with a great deal of help from Bernie Sanders.