Who Can Beat Trump?
Cedar Rapids, Iowa
The famous caucuses are Feb. 3. Christmas is coming, the calendar tightening, and candidates zooming through the broad expanse in tinted-window SUVs.
A surprise is there’s little surprise. Reporters say interest in impeachment is minimal, and it’s true: in three days not a single question from the floor, not a stray comment from a voter in a forum. The candidates seem bored with the subject and don’t bother to fake passion if you ask. Impeachment is a reality show going on in Washington, and everyone knows the outcome, so it’s not even interesting. On my way to Waterloo I realized: We’re about to have the third impeachment of a president in American history, and the day it happens it’s not going to be Topic A in America. It will barely be mentioned at the dinner table. It is a coastal elite story, not a mainland story.
The Democratic race is as fluid as it looks. No one, even bright party professionals speaking off the record, knows what to expect. Biden was inevitable, then maybe Elizabeth, maybe Pete’s inevitable, but Bernie may be inevitable, and don’t write off Joe.
But “Beat Trump” is back. When 2019 began Democrats were thinking that was priority No. 1. Then other things became more important — Medicare for All, climate change, policy. But it feels like Democrats here are circling back to their original desire. “Who can beat Trump?” is again the most important question. They don’t know the answer. They’re trying to figure it out.
You can hear this in what the candidates say.
At a Teamsters forum in Cedar Rapids Saturday, Sen. Bernie Sanders was burly in his aggression. “This is a president who is a fraud,” “a pathological liar,” “a homophobe,” “a bigot.” Mr. Sanders said his campaign is about “telling the billionaire class that their greed is unacceptable.” He got a standing ovation.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar the day before, in Grinnell, spoke to about 150 people at the Iowa Farmer’s Union: “We’re not gonna let this Gilded Age roll right over us.” Donald Trump made promises he didn’t keep. After his tax cut passed, “he went to Mar-a-Lago and told his rich friends, ‘I just made you all a lot richer.’ And I can tell you none of them were farmer’s union members.”
“He thinks the Midwest is flyover country.”
Leaders are making decisions for seven generations, she said: “He can’t keep his decision seven minutes from now.”
Pete Buttigieg, at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, told a crowd of more than 1,000 — lots of students but others too, many of them prosperous and middle-aged: Don’t just watch “the Trump show — help me pick up the remote and change the channel.”
Before he spoke, a handsome, gray-haired psychotherapist from Iowa City told me why she supports him: “I think he has empathy. His orientation, what he’s been through. Yet also the military and a Rhodes scholar.” She liked his liberal Christianity: “He hasn’t let anyone else co-opt his spiritual life.”
Mr. Buttigieg used to say his name was pronounced “Buddha judge.” When he went national he changed it to what his crowds now chant: “boot edge edge.” I suspect he did this because America wears boots and likes edginess, but no one wants to be judged by the Buddha. I mention this because Mr. Buttigieg has the air of someone who thinks through even the smallest questions of presentation.
In person he seems like the smart young communications director for a Democratic presidential candidate, not the candidate himself. Yet he gets a particular respect because people think whatever happens this year, he’s going to be president some day. The local congressman who introduced him said as much: “No matter who comes out of this … Pete Buttigieg is the future of the party.”
He is personable in an old-fashioned sense; he reminds me of Michael Kinsley’s description of Al Gore when he was 38: “an old person’s idea of a young person.”
Mr. Buttigieg is often painted as a moderate. After he spoke I asked about something I’m interested in, how people develop their political views, where they get them. Do most inherit them, swallow them whole? His father was a Marxist-oriented academic at Notre Dame; he himself, I said, is a man of the left. Had he ever kicked away from family assumptions? Did he ever feel drawn to conservatism, to Burke or Kirk? He had not, though “I will say this: I came to respect the ways in which, right around the time of Russell Kirk, conservatives came to be very much in touch with the relationship between their ideas and their politics and politicians. I think it was born out of a period when the left had universities already, and the right needed to construct a structure of think tanks and so forth.”
When he was an intern on Capitol Hill, every young Republican staffer had a copy of Hayek on his desk. “On our side, the academic left, particularly in the humanities, had gotten into really abstruse things around postmodernism and poststructuralism. There was, ironically, contrary to our self-image, I think less of a clear relationship between ideas and politicians on the left. We had our policy intellectuals, but there was less of a connection between our politicians and our political theorists.”
He came to respect “the organizing efforts of conservatives.” I asked if this was around the time Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, “Of a sudden the Republican Party is the party of ideas.” He smiled and shrugged: “Just a hair before my time.”
Ms. Klobuchar’s polls have been going up, from 1% in the Emerson College poll in October to 10% now. Her audiences are bigger. It has broken through that she’s a moderate, a senator, a Midwesterner: “I’m from Minnesota and I can see Iowa from my porch!” She has wit. She knows she has to prove that she’s tough, that she can go toe to toe with Donald Trump.
She’s had strong debates. In the last one, social media went crazy because her hair shook. Not her face or voice, her hair. She later joked on Twitter: “I’ll plaster my runaway bangs down for the next NBC debate.”
What happened? She told me the debate hall had been reconfigured, overly air-conditioned, and unknown to her, a nearby air vent was blasting at the top of her head. She didn’t know there was a problem until the break, when a tech came by and said he was sorry.
“Now I guess hair spray,” she laughed as she told the story.
How difficult will it be to beat Mr. Trump? While I was in Iowa the new jobs numbers came out. America has functional full employment. It is a marvelous thing. We’re not in any new wars. With peace and prosperity, how can the incumbent lose?
The counterargument is that his approval is stuck in the low 40s with peace and prosperity, which tells you everything — he is vulnerable, more than half the country rejects him in what are for him ideal circumstances. This in turn brings back the familiar 2016 theme of shy Trump voters, people who don’t tell pollsters they’re going to vote for him, or even tell themselves.
Maybe the real story is that it’s all fluid.
Republished by permission from peggynoonan.com.