To Iowa and Beyond

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The Iowa caucus is worth celebrating, if only for the reminder that we have once again managed to survive the year-plus of primary-season buildup. It is, of course, ridiculous that one state should always get this much attention; it is more ridiculous still that it is Iowa, where an interest in corn vastly disproportionate to the electorate as a whole ensures that presidential candidates’ ethanol pandering will never die.

Positioned a week or more ahead of the other early primaries in New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina, and a full month ahead of the Super Tuesday slate, Iowa is a chance for candidates to lay down a marker. Whether they’re in the position of needing to win or not, those who underperform there often tip the weaknesses that will later end their campaigns. Campaigns who outperform expectations, meanwhile, often gain a boost that can propel them into the White House. Look no further back than 2016 for an instructive example: in a Republican field much more crowded even than the Democrats’ 2020 slate, Ted Cruz won the state for the GOP, but by a thin margin over an unexpectedly strong Donald Trump, while a third-place finish for Marco Rubio essentially began the winding-down of his prospects. Hillary Clinton meanwhile came in with overwhelming advantages but nearly lost the state to Bernie Sanders’ insurgent campaign; Sanders could not finish the job that year, but Clinton had already revealed the soft Midwestern underbelly that Trump would eviscerate in the general.

It is, of course, ridiculous that one state should get this much attention every election cycle; it is more ridiculous still that it is Iowa that gets it.

This year, of course, Trump comes in with all the advantages of an incumbent, with several states cancelling primaries outright rather than give Bill Weld or any others even the slim chance of stealing a delegate here or there. But the Democratic field seemed finely poised until the past week or so, when the polling shifted suddenly (or, perhaps, accelerated along the direction it was already headed). Let’s go through each of the candidates in turn and see where things stand for them, what hope they have, if any, and how libertarians should feel about the prospects.

For those who hate suspense, I’ll spoil it here: I believe libertarians have a lot to gain from Bernie Sanders gaining the nomination, and relatively little to lose, given how hemmed in he would be by a GOP Senate and the Supreme Court in its present composition. This is not an endorsement of Sanders’ candidacy or any particular policy of his, apart from driving the Democratic establishment bananas, which I think we can all agree is a noble pursuit. On with the candidates:

Joe Biden

Biden was supposed to be the Hillary Clinton of this race: the inside-baseball candidate with all the establishment bona fides, the moderate who can “work across the aisle” to “get things done,” the person above all who would “normalize” America, restoring all the unspoken rules and conventions that Trump broke and that only DC political junkies actually care about. But his campaign has been erratic at best: he can be engaging with voters one moment and then exaggeratedly confrontational the next. His foot is constantly in his mouth, especially when he’s asked to address any aspect of his lamentable political past. A slate of Trump-Biden debates would be something, no doubt — at the very least, an embarrassment of riches for Stephen Cox’s Word Watch columns — but the conviction has grown among Dem voters that whatever that “something” may be, it would not be salutary for the Biden side. Some of his support has gone to Warren, some to Buttigieg; he may yet lose some to Bloomberg. It’s beginning to look like Joe Biden may have botched yet another presidential primary.

Biden's foot is constantly in his mouth, especially when he’s asked to address any aspect of his lamentable political past.

Biden is still the default option for many voters, at least those who still seem to think of him as a sort of dopey uncle they remember from less fraught times. If he wins Iowa outright, especially if there’s daylight between him and Sanders, then a lot of the party’s worries about him will be hushed up and he will go on to get beaten fairly soundly in the general by Trump. But anything other than a strong second would be tough to overcome, especially ahead of New Hampshire and Nevada primaries he currently is on track to lose. Finishing third or even fourth is not out of the question.

Bernie Sanders

If (and that’s a proverbially big If) Bernie Sanders goes on to win the nomination, his primary campaign will have to go down as one of the most effective ever run. At least, despite a party system determined to keep him out, and despite personal issues such as his advance age and his suffering an actual heart attack, he is surging now at exactly the right time. It would take an almost overwhelming run through Super Tuesday to secure him the nomination, and there is still the potential for a coup at the convention, but for now Sanders is by polling and general consensus at least the co-frontrunner.

If he takes Iowa, and then as expected New Hampshire and Nevada, a respectable second in South Carolina would make him hard to stop, especially with California likely to go for him. Anything besides a win in Iowa, though, would significantly slow down that momentum and allow doubt to creep back in about whether he could actually bring out enough voters to win the general.

Elizabeth Warren

Warren seemed at one point to have everything going for her, to be the rational compromise candidate between Biden and Sanders. But somewhere — possibly when she started waffling on issues that mattered to more progressive voters, possibly when she failed to pull any voters off even a weakening Biden — her campaign lost its way. Certainly she was hampered by the sheer number of candidates; had she been the only female candidate in a less crowded field, she could have stood out more. But that wouldn’t have helped with the impression that she is ultimately, as I’ve heard her described, “Hillary Clinton, but weak.” A last-ditch effort to paint the Sanders campaign as irredeemably misogynist — after he had encouraged her to run in 2016, and only put himself forward when she declined to — fell as flat as Clinton’s attempt to do the same thing to Obama in 2008; Warren’s campaign seems destined now for a similar fate.

Warren was hampered by the sheer number of candidates; had she been the only female candidate in a less crowded field, she could have stood out more.

Iowa could accomplish that job outright, if Warren doesn’t finish at least third. But with her likely to lose her own state of Massachusetts on Super Tuesday, it seems more likely that Warren will stay in the race only so long as it takes to secure something in exchange for her endorsement; if she waits too long then she’ll end up with nothing at all.

Pete Buttigieg

In an odd election cycle, Mayor Pete’s campaign has been possibly the oddest. Although he’s tried to depict himself as tried-and-true Midwestern stock, his main base of support (certainly his entire donor class) is incredibly wealthy liberals in Manhattan and the DC suburbs. His past prior to mayorhood is shadowy at best, all consulting firms and tentative connections to the intelligence community. He’s never won so much as a statewide race, not even for the nonpartisan post of state treasurer; any national appeal he can claim is on the basis of general inoffensiveness rather than any personal charisma or other positive characteristic. The only way really to understand his polling numbers, I think, is as a backstop for Biden: he’s the one who would carry on as if 2016 never happened.

At times, Buttigieg has topped the polls in Iowa, but a second or third place finish in a tightly packed field wouldn’t be too bad for him. It’s tough to see where he picks up support beyond that, though — his utter lack of support among black voters will see him wiped out in the South, and it’s hard to imagine him pulling much in the West, the Northeast, or the Rust Belt either.

Amy Klobuchar

In another year, might have had a real chance. This time around, a non-entity, despite the desperate efforts of the media to make Klobuchar happen. The New York Times’ cack-handed dual endorsement of the two remaining female candidates — to the extent that anybody cares about what they think, by no means a certain thing — had the effect of weakening both, by pointing out that whatever appeal they still maintained rested largely on their anatomy rather than their appeal with a sizable enough chunk of voters to matter.

Losing next-door Iowa, and losing it badly, would be a clear sign that Klobuchar doesn’t have a base.

Klobuchar’s stronghold, if she had one, would be the Midwest. Losing next-door Iowa, and losing it badly, would be a clear sign that she doesn’t.

Andrew Yang

Sanders’ only real competition for college-age voters, and also the beneficiary of some scattered celebrity endorsements, but unlikely to cross the 15% threshold required to get any delegates, especially not under Iowa’s weird caucus rules. What will be interesting is how his backers break on the second ballot — in some jurisdictions even a handful could be enough to give Sanders a runaway victory, or to rescue Warren, or to enforce a three or four-way tie.

Whatever Yang hoped to accomplish through his run, he must have accomplished. The early states are a sort of victory lap for him before he drops out; he’s gained enough of a national profile that it would be a surprise not to see him involved in some way at the Democratic National Convention and beyond.

Tom Steyer

Another odd one, in that his campaign has been run entirely as a vanity affair, like a billionaire’s version of going to a fantasy spring-training baseball camp and mingling with the real athletes. He has spent an enormous amount of money to get blanket coverage in early primary states but it’s hard to imagine what constituency he could plausibly claim to represent. Has enough money to prolong this indefinitely; the only strategy that can be derived here is the hope to win via attrition, to be the one standing on the side to take on a frontrunner weakened by fending off the rest of the field. Alas for Steyer, he has been eclipsed in this role by an even wealthier interloper.

Michael Bloomberg

A campaign predicated on an entirely untested gamble: what if someone ignored the early states entirely and focused instead on buying every moment of everyone’s attention in all the Super Tuesday states? It’s almost impossible to imagine a candidate less well suited to appeal to the voters the Democrats will need to win in November: Bloomberg is the very image of the out-of-touch, unsympathetic coastal elite who knows better than you how your life should be lived, and is all too eager to put the force of law behind those prescriptions. And yet based on money alone, Bloomberg could steal the nomination — not through outright delegate count, but through chicanery at the convention.

It’s almost impossible to imagine a candidate less well suited than Michael Bloomberg to appeal to the voters the Democrats will need to win in November.

Bloomberg cannot win Iowa. But he will be waiting for whoever does. And that brings us to the overall arc of this campaign.

What Happens Next

While Biden was the clear frontrunner, all the other candidates could score points off him without worrying about losing too much ground. The Biden folks (and I include here almost the entire Democrat leadership) meanwhile tried to stay above the fray, acting as if he were the only viable candidate and trusting that Buttigieg would fade with time and Sanders and Warren would keep each other in check. What they didn’t expect was that Sanders would surge like this, and it is because they don’t understand how hated they are, or what people could possibly see in a candidate like Sanders (or, for that matter, Trump).

For as often as they’re compared, Bernie and The Donald don’t have much in common — a few bad economic policies, New York upbringings, age of course. But one thing they both can do is convince large numbers of people that they are talking to them instead of past them to other party leaders. And that, along with a few other factors, is why libertarians should welcome (however cautiously) a Sanders nomination.

For all their bleating about how Donald Trump represents some sort of unique danger to the American public and the world, the Democrats were all too glad to hand him control of the largest killing force the planet has ever seen.

Although libertarians generally distrust Democrats, it makes strategic sense to support them in the interest of dividing up power — as R.W. Bradford showed back in Liberty’s November 2004 issue (p. 19), government growth is checked most with a Democrat in the White House and the Republicans controlling at least one side of Congress. When the Republicans control everything, they tend to spend wildly, and have done so again this time. Only when they are frustrating a Democratic president do they suddenly remember principles like fiscal restraint, balanced budgets, so on. It would take a dramatic shift for the GOP to take the House (though see below) but they appear unlikely to have three Senate seats flip on them — four, if you count their likely recapture of Alabama. Any Democrat will have to go through them to get a budget passed, to get judges confirmed, to do much of anything. And thus not much of anything will get done.

So why Sanders then, and not one of the others? Because he is the only one who might actually cut away at our most bipartisanly bloated and expensive sector: our military and its utterly unnecessary foreign wars. For all the bleating of Pelosi et al. about how Donald Trump represents some sort of unique danger to the American public and the world, the Democrats were all too glad to sign off on military expenditures too vast to even properly imagine. If you truly believe he’s a dictator in the making, why would you hand him everything he needs to accomplish his takeover? And that money is just what’s on the books; the military has repeatedly failed audits for writing off billions upon billions of dollars they cannot account for, in the pursuit of goals that they knew were impossible to accomplish, all while lying to the American public to claim that victory was perpetually just around the corner.

If you need another reason, then Sanders is also the one most likely to legalize pot and to clear past convictions, a huge and humane first step toward ending the decades-long War on Drugs and beginning to check our out-of-control police and prison systems. But, back to the more strategic angle, here’s why the Sanders nomination is a win-win:

If Sanders wins the nomination and loses the presidency, then even the softened form of Euro-socialism he touts will be a non-factor for another generation.

If he wins the nomination and the presidency, then there is balance back between the parties, but a better balance than under any of the immediate predecessors. And between his age and the looming recession, he’d likely be a one-term president, so even if you’re a lesser-evil GOP stalwart, you can start practicing the coordination required to hold your nose while pulling the lever for Nikki Haley or whoever else gets the 2020 nod.

If he wins the nomination and loses the presidency, then even the softened form of Euro-socialism he touts will be a non-factor for another generation, and the Democrats might lurch toward a Yang-type figure for 2020. (Ocasio-Cortez will likely run eventually, but isn’t eligible till 2024, and it’s impossible to predict that far down the line).

If Sanders wins a plurality of delegates, but not an outright majority, then it’s possible that the nomination will be taken away from him and given to Bloomberg or whoever else comes in second place. Thanks to a rule change after the 2016 debacle, the DNC “superdelegates” don’t come into play until a potential second round of voting. But they all hate Bernie, so if they are called into action, they could carry out a coup that would irrevocably split the Democratic Party. This could very well lead to a Red Wave election, a disaster in the short term given that Trump no longer has any checks on his power, but a benefit in the long term in that something else — perhaps even a libertarian-friendly something else — will have to emerge from the ashes.

Again, I’m aware that this will seem counterintuitive or contrarian to many of our readers. And I’m open to considering other points of view for how we return to some sort of balance of power. But as is, we’re careening towards something unworkable and downright dangerous, and — glad as I’d be to be proven wrong — I don’t think anyone presently in the leadership of either party would be able or willing to change that course.



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