The Loser in Iowa Was the Establishment

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.

On the Republican side, the most surprising development, if one believes the pre-caucus polls, was that billionaire developer Donald Trump didn’t win, contrary to nearly all Iowa surveys, including the normally highly accurate Des Moines Register poll. The winner was Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who scored 27.7 percent of the vote and picked up eight delegates, compared to 24.3 percent and seven delegates for Trump. Perhaps most significant was the late surge of Florida Senator Marco Rubio who garnered 23.1 percent of caucus votes and six delegates—thus giving Trump a threatening run for second place.

But consider this: Trump waged an anti-establishment campaign that puts to shame just about any other anti-establishment campaign one could think of in terms of outlandish rhetoric, flights of bad taste and unseemly braggadocio. He attacked the Washington elites as a bunch of idiots and put forth programs—deporting all illegal immigrants, barring non-citizen Muslims from entering the United States pending the governmental review of the Islamic State, or ISIS—that most political analysts considered suicidal, until it became clear, through polls, that significant numbers of Americans sympathized with those proposals.

But he lost—to a man whose antiestablishment bona fides are every bit as solid as Trump’s, only without the crude aspects of the Trump candidacy and with a more consistent conservative ethos.

So if we add up the vote totals of these top two anti-establishment candidates, they come to 52 percent. But then add in the fourth-place finisher, Ben Carson, the former surgeon and strong critic of the status quo, whose 9.3 percent performance brings the anti-establishment total to 61.3 percent.

This is not how things normally unfold in the Republican Party, which has a strong tradition of giving its presidential nominations to tried-and-true establishment figures—the two Bushes, Bob Dole, John McCain, Mitt Romney.

It would be unwise to inject too much meaning into this first voting event of a long political season, in a state that is hardly representative of the party at large. But we have enough experience in the dynamics of nomination politics to draw some conclusions. Rubio is going to get some serious momentum going into New Hampshire and likely will emerge as the conventional conservative with the most propulsion. It’s difficult to see any of the other non-maverick politicians overtaking him, with the possible exception of John Kasich, whose poll numbers suggest a possible late boost in New Hampshire. When we put together Jeb Bush’s poll numbers with his Iowa performance (2.8 percent), he appears finished.

Ben Carson’s 9.3 percent performance most likely represents an Iowa phenomenon, and he appears about to fade. Trump, whose poll numbers suggest a strong frontrunner status in New Hampshire, will have to protect that lead from a momentum-riding Rubio and the Iowa victor, Cruz. Here’s where Trump’s lack of a solid ground operation could prove problematical.

Most likely, there will be some surprises along the way, with one or another of the current also-rans scoring victories here and there. But the three with the most enviable positions currently are Cruz, Trump and Rubio.

Whatever happens, though, it’s clear that the Republican rank-and-file is looking for a new kind of leadership willing to take on significant elements of the status quo, upend the party elites and reshape the party for what many Republicans see as a looming new era.

Robert W. Merry is a contributing editor at the National Interest and an author of books on American history and foreign policy.

Image: Flickr/Gage Skidmore.