I’ve only been in Iowa for a day now, but it’s easy to see that Democrats in this first-to-vote state are just as uncertain as their counterparts in other places about which of their candidates has the best shot at putting an end to the name-calling, chest-thumping, scandal-plagued Trump presidency.
Will it be someone smart and young, like former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg?
A brilliant capitalist reformer, like Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren?
Someone older, with deep experience, like former Vice President Joe Biden?
Or the even older man of the people, socialist Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders?
On Thursday, as presidential hopefuls Sanders, Warren and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar sat on their hands in Washington listening to arguments in Trump’s impeachment trial — made a sham by the refusal of cowed Republican senators to call former national security advisor John Bolton to testify — the defendant himself was celebrating his imminent acquittal at a rally in Des Moines.
Democrats, he told his roaring crowd in this soybean-and-corn state, “don’t care about the farmers.”
He, by contrast, has saved them. “You should love Trump, with what I’ve done,” Trump crowed.
“So we’re gonna win the great state of Iowa. And it’s going to be a historic landslide. And if we don’t win, your farms are going to hell, I can tell you right now.”
In fact, the landscape for farmers here is already pretty hellish. They have been hit hard by Trump’s trade war with China. The federal government has so far provided $28 billion in aid to American farmers, which, call me crazy, feels like socialism.
And how are farms faring? Well, as Reuters has reported, farm bankruptcies are the highest they’ve been in eight years.
As we see from his appeal to Iowa farmers, Trump has only one campaign style: gaslighting.
Sure, all politicians stretch and bend the facts to fit their narrative, but no one currently on the campaign trail does it with the gangsterish brio of Trump, whose nasal Queens-inflected voice always puts me in mind of a Scorsese hit man: “Get rid of her! Get her out tomorrow. I don’t care. Get her out tomorrow. Take her out. OK? Do it.”
His opponents, meanwhile, are hamstrung by a more or less consistent commitment to telling the truth.
On Thursday evening in Ankeny, a suburb north of Des Moines, about 12 miles from Trump’s big rally, a ballroom at the Courtyard Marriott was packed with supporters of Buttigieg, who is running close behind Biden and Sanders here.
“I heard the president across town tonight said an extraordinary thing,” Buttigieg said. “He said something that’s true.”
While Trump preened and lied and delivered the kind of bombast that makes his supporters swoon, Buttigieg talked about the importance of fighting climate change, enacting universal health insurance (but with “choice”), ensuring college affordability (but no freebies for the wealthy), fair wages and gun control, and ending racial inequality.
Buttigieg’s biggest applause line of the night was a quote from the New Testament. Drawing a distinction between true Christian values and the faux religiosity on display by a White House that has proposed cutting food stamps for thousands of poor people and has put migrant children in cages: “I was hungry and you fed me. I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”
Taking advantage of the absence of his senator opponents, Buttigieg, along with other non-senators, has been crisscrossing the state doing the thing that Iowa voters have come to expect from their candidates: shaking the hands of each and every one of them as many times as possible.
“I’ve seen him in person about seven times,” said Barb Miller, 61, a retired client manager who caucused for Sanders in 2016. She’s been put off by the aggressiveness of some of Sanders’ supporters, the “Bernie Bros” who trash his Democratic opponents and have turned off a lot of women voters who might otherwise have supported him. “We already have a combative person in the White House,” Miller said. “We don’t need another one.”
Also, she said, she is becoming more politically moderate as she ages. “I have a 401(k) I want to protect.”
She first set eyes on Buttigieg during a CNN town hall last year.
“I felt a calm come over me that I had not felt since the 2016 election,” she said. “Every day up till then had been a face-palm moment. I just love Pete’s pragmatic approach to bold change.”
Something else that she said about Buttigieg briefly put me in mind of former President Obama, back when he was an Illinois senator campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination in Iowa in 2007.
“Pete has a line I love,” said Miller, “that you can’t love your country if you hate half the people in it. It gives us permission to open our hearts.”
Obama finally found a footing with his slogan “Hope and change.” He pulled off an upset victory over Hillary Clinton here in 2008, then went on to win the Democratic nomination, and the White House, where he served the American people for eight scandal-free years.
Naturally, the relentlessly positive Obama message was mercilessly mocked, especially by failed Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, who famously asked in 2010, “How’s that hopey changey thing workin’ out?” (Answer: Pretty well for most of us.)
And, despite the rage and sadness felt by many Democrats these last few years of the Trump administration — or, given what’s happening in the Senate, should I say the Trump reign? — nearly 80% of Iowa Democrats who plan to caucus on Monday, when asked to pick a word that most describes them, chose “optimist.”
I wish I could say I felt the same.