AGAINST THE GRAIN

Will Iowa Steer Democrats to the Center?

All the energy within the party is on the cultural left. In 2020, Iowa could put the brakes on that momentum.

Former Sen. Tom Harkin (right) marches in the inaugural Disability Pride Parade in New York on July 12, 2015.
AP Photo/Seth Wenig
Josh Kraushaar
Add to Briefcase
Josh Kraushaar
Oct. 10, 2017, 8 p.m.

As promising as the political environment currently looks for Democrats, the future is filled with potential pitfalls. They are lurching leftward on numerous issues, from health care (with leading voices now backing a single-payer system) to immigration (where activists are insisting on more protections for illegal immigrants). Their activists’ growing affinity for identity politics—the notion that skin color, gender, and income level are the defining forces of American life—is repelling swing voters who otherwise might be looking for an alternative to President Trump. On cultural issues, such as the NFL anthem protests, the party base is finding itself increasingly out of touch with heartland values.

But political timing and geography could end up giving Democrats a lifeline in the next presidential election: the importance of culturally conservative Iowa to the Democratic nomination process. For all the excitement being generated by politicians like Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris, there’s a good chance that the state in the heart of America’s heartland could put a crimp in the best-laid plans of the Left.

Just look at the congressional Democrats who headlined Iowa’s famed Polk County Steak Fry last month. All three are relatively moderate: Rep. Tim Ryan, who challenged Nancy Pelosi for minority leader; Rep. Seth Moulton, a former Marine captain and Iraq War veteran; and Rep. Cheri Bustos, one of the few House Democrats to represent a district that Trump carried. The inclusion of leading pragmatists, at the event once hosted by former Sen. Tom Harkin, a strenuous progressive, was a far cry from the red-meat rhetoric attendees are used to hearing from aspiring presidential candidates.

Their message to the partisan Democratic audience veered from the pandering recited by so many of the party’s prominent progressives. To applause, Bustos proclaimed that voters “don’t want resistance, they want results,” chastising her party for being obsessively focused on Trump. Ryan slammed Democrats for becoming a “coastal party” that has lost touch with blue-collar workers. Moulton talked about focusing on the Trump voters that Democrats have struggled to win back. Just before the steak fry, the congressman went on MSNBC and tweaked protesting NFL players: “It doesn’t make me feel good to see people disrespecting the flag.”

To be sure, Iowa Democratic caucus-goers are predominantly liberal. Barack Obama’s upset in the 2008 caucuses propelled him to the presidency. But with culture overtaking the economy as the galvanizing force among the liberal base, many of the state’s Democrats aren’t biting. Iowa swung more dramatically towards Trump than any other state Obama carried twice, with 10 percent of self-identified Democrats casting ballots for the Republican. These voters largely support liberal causes, but they also want to hear their candidates talking about pocketbook issues.

“National buzz doesn’t automatically translate to Iowa success. Iowans like to pick their candidates. They don’t like to be told who the nominee should be,” said Carrie Giddins, who headed the state party’s communication efforts before the 2008 caucuses. “I’d be concerned as a Democrat that people are so turned off by national politics that they have to be brought back into the fold.”

Another important factor is how the Democrats’ growing focus on race and gender play in Iowa, where their own rank-and-file members are older and predominantly white. Iowa was one of the last states to elect a woman to Congress (in 2014), and she’s a Republican (Sen. Joni Ernst). It gave a historic victory to Obama in 2008, but he carefully steered clear of the divisive culture-war rhetoric so typical of current times. (At the 2007 Iowa Jefferson-Jackson dinner, Obama said the reason he was running was “to protect the American worker, to fight for the American worker.”)

That homogeneous environment will make it challenging for prospective progressive candidates such as Sens. Kamala Harris of California, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, and Cory Booker of New Jersey to succeed in Iowa. Even Bernie Sanders won’t be guaranteed the same success next time around (if he runs) with more-moderate alternatives expected to be represented.

What’s ironic is that the partisan rules of the game that helped propel Donald Trump to the GOP nomination could end up saving the Democrats from the same extreme fate. The plethora of mainstream Republican candidates allowed Trump to win many primaries with narrow pluralities; a crowded field of Democratic progressives would give an edge to the few centrists expected to run. Superdelegates, who play a significant role in Democratic nominations, tend to keep the party moored to the middle.

Most importantly, the outsize roles of the small states in the presidential nominating process should offer an opening for moderate alternatives. For Republicans, socially conservative candidates such as Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum, and Mike Huckabee won recent Iowa caucuses, and pulled the party rightward. But for Democrats, the first-in-the nation Iowa caucuses should be a much-needed moderating force as the party drifts in a McGovern-like direction.

What We're Following See More »
SEEN AS A DETERRENT
White House Announces Offensive Cyber Operations Against Enemies
1 hours ago
THE DETAILS

"The Trump administration on Thursday announced that the U.S. will now officially act to deter and respond to cyberattacks with offensive actions against foreign adversaries. The U.S.'s new cyber strategy, signed by President Trump, marks the federal government officially taking a more aggressive approach to cyber threats presented from across the globe."

Source:
STATE DEPARTMENT: "ULTIMATE TARGET IS RUSSIA"
Trump Sanctions China Over Russia Arms Deals
3 hours ago
THE LATEST

The Trump Administration will sanction China over the purchase of Russian-made fighter jets and anti-aircraft weapons systems. "The sanctions are being imposed pursuant to the 2017 sanctions law punishing Russian interference in the 2016 elections, which threatens to sanction any third party that conducts a 'significant transaction' with the Russian defense industry." State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert cited "the delivery to China of Su-35 combat aircraft in 2017 and S-400 surface-to-air missile system-related equipment in 2018" as the transactions that led to the sanctions.

Source:
AT RITE AID DISTRIBUTION WAREHOUSE
Multiple Shooting Deaths in Harford County, Md.
6 hours ago
THE DETAILS
FACES TOUGH CONFIRMATION FIGHT
Trump Taps Issa To Lead Trade Agency
7 hours ago
THE LATEST

President Trump named retiring Rep. Darrell Issa "to head the U.S. Trade and Development Agency, setting up what could be a contentious confirmation battle in the Senate." As former House Oversight Committee chairman, Issa accused top IRS officials "of targeting conservative groups for political purposes, led the charge to hold former Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt, and accused President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton of trying to covering up the Benghazi, Libya, terrorist attacks in 2012." If confirmed, Issa would lead the Trump Administration's multi-front effort to renegotiate more favorable trade deals.

Source:
BUT CANCELLATION WILL NOT COME SOON
Grassley Says Hearing May Be Pushed Past Monday
1 days ago
THE LATEST

"Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley said Wednesday a planned Monday hearing on sexual assault allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh would likely not go on without accuser Christine Blasey Ford," but said any decision to cancel would be made at the last minute.

Source:
×
×

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.

Login