The early 20th-century American entertainer and social commentator Will Rogers once observed: “I’m not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat.” Rarely has that aphorism seemed as appropriate as in the wake of this week’s botched Iowa Democratic caucuses.
I stayed up half the night waiting for the Iowa election results, only to find (along with my fellow frustrated political obsessives) that none would be forthcoming, largely on account of a faulty app. With the results still trickling in days after they should have been tabulated, it appears that Pete Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders are in a virtual dead heat for the lead, with Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden and Amy Klobuchar rounding out the second tier.
But no one at this point can say what exactly who won or by what margin. A number of media outlets found inconsistencies and errors in the reported results from Iowa, raising the possibility that the actual outcome may never be definitively verified. In any case, Buttigieg and Sanders have been deprived of the momentum they presumably would have received in an unclouded election, while Biden escaped much of the scrutiny his woeful results otherwise would have incurred. Adding insult to injury, Donald Trump and his minions crowed that the Iowa debacle shows that the Democratic establishment is both incompetent and biased against Sanders’ insurgency. Some of Sanders’ supporters enthusiastically endorsed this conspiratorial interpretation.
The State of the Union address, the day after the Iowa caucuses, provided an effective showcase for the president to, in effect, preview his re-election campaign. As in his past addresses, he showed flashes of bipartisanship, congratulating members of both parties in Congress for their work on criminal justice reform and imploring them to cooperate on broadly popular issues like public health research funding, infrastructure, paid family leave and reducing prescription drug prices. But Trump conspicuously declined to shake House speaker Nancy Pelosi’s hand when he arrived at the podium, and much of his speech flayed his opponents for their alleged softness toward socialism, criminal aliens, “failing government schools” and other conservative shibboleths. Trump also was notably ungracious toward Democratic former president Barack Obama. While he didn’t mention Obama by name, Trump accused him (and to some extent former president George W Bush) of having presided over economic decay, foreign policy weakness and the “downsizing of Americans’ destiny”.
The reception of Trump’s address illustrated the almost complete polarization that prevails in America today. Republicans considered the address a thoroughly appropriate – perfect, one might say – extended boast about the economic success under his watch. Democrats considered it a divisive, meanspirited barrage of lies and slander. (Media sources, for what it’s worth, detected dozens of exaggerations, misleading statements and outright untruths in the address.) By the same token, your partisan affiliation likely will determine whether you thought Pelosi’s tearing Trump’s speech text apart was an outrageous and disrespectful breach of decorum or a dissent against demagoguery.
Trump’s strutting demeanor at the State of the Union address no doubt stemmed in part from his confidence that he would be acquitted in his impeachment trial in the Senate the next day, as indeed proved to be the case. The vote, along almost entirely partisan lines, demonstrated Trump’s overwhelming command over the party he leads. And, as conservative pundits had predicted, the entire impeachment episode has only increased Trump’s popularity. According to the most recent Gallup poll, Trump’s overall approval rating now stands at 49% – his highest ever and 10 percentage points above his rating in October before the House impeachment proceedings began. His approval rating among Republicans has reached an astonishing 94%, up six percentage points from last month, and his approval rating among independents is also at or near record levels.
While election dynamics can change enormously between now and the elections, particularly if more incriminating evidence about the Ukrainian caper leaks out, betting markets currently put the odds of Trump’s re-election at well above even. I have no polling expertise, but Democrats clearly out to be troubled by the depth of the division between their moderate and progressive wings, as well as the likelihood of Sanders and his supporters failing to back any other nominee. Worse yet, total turnout in the Iowa caucuses appears to have been at the tepid levels of 2016, as opposed to the record levels of 2008 when Barack Obama’s candidacy galvanized a huge influx of first-time voters. These results would seem to give the lie to predictions that Democrats are highly motivated to turn out to defeat Trump, or that Sanders’ campaign would bring in huge numbers of young people.
On a personal note, I will forever remember this week, not because of any political developments but because my father died on Tuesday at age 81 after a long illness. Dad wasn’t particularly interested in politics, but he was a brilliant and meticulous engineer who would have been wholly unsurprised by the Iowa caucuses’ app debacle. He had seen all too many examples of systems whose complexity overwhelmed their users, as well as too many hotshot designers mesmerized by new technology and ignorant of how it would be used in actual practice — in this case, by older, not very tech-savvy caucus chairs who couldn’t figure out how download or install the app.
My dad passed the day before the Utah senator Mitt Romney cast the only Republican vote to convict Trump for abuse of power, making him the only senator in American history to vote to remove a president from his own party. This sad coincidence made me wonder to what extent Romney’s vote was influenced by the example of his late father, George Romney. The elder Romney, who was the moderate Republican governor of Michigan, was one of the most formidable figures in American political life in the 1960s. I consider him one of history’s great might-have-beens. If he had defeated Richard Nixon for the Republican presidential nomination in 1968, amid the turmoil of the civil rights era and the Vietnam war, in all likelihood the GOP would have been the anti-war party and there would have been no “southern strategy” appealing to anti-integration white southerners.
Mitt Romney told Washington Post reporter Michael Leahy in 2011 that “my dad was a champion of civil rights when some in the Republican party questioned the civil rights movement” – and, he might have added, when the Romneys’ Mormon church still prohibited African Americans from admission to the priesthood. George Romney’s courageous adherence to principle was a large part of why his son called him “my greatest influence” and “the person I have admired most in political life”.
Before he cast his vote for Trump’s conviction, Mitt Romney acknowledged that he would face vehement denunciation from many Republicans, and unsurprisingly a tidal wave of abuse and ostracism has come his way from Trump’s supporters. Donald Trump Jr has called to expel Romney from the party he led as the Republican presidential nominee in 2012. Romney’s speech announcing his vote moved some senators to tears, so rare is it to see a Washington politician acting on principle against all calculations of politics and self-interest. Romney said that his fidelity to God and the constitution – which his father believed was a divinely inspired document – apparently left him no other choice. But the wish to live up to our parents’ example can also inspire us to be the best version of ourselves. May Americans of all political persuasions (and none) keep this in mind as we head into this agonizingly divisive election season.