Opinion | Iowa’s Unholy Mess


Is Iowa a metaphor? A harbinger?

Either way it’s a mess — and not the way any Democrat wanted the party’s voting to begin in an election year with stratospheric stakes.

To excite the most Americans possible and have its best chance of toppling President Trump, the Democratic Party needs a sorting of candidates that’s coherent, a system that inspires faith, a process that makes participants feel respected and heard.

What Iowa provided on Monday night was a baffling spectacle resistant to any quick, definitive verdict. Hours after the actual, physical caucusing at hundreds of locations across the state had finished, there were no official results, just reports that a newly intricate manner of counting was laborious, that a newly developed app for it wasn’t working as planned, that a backup phone line was jammed and that the campaigns had been asked to join in on a pair of emergency conference calls with state Democratic officials.

Maybe there’s a moral here in dreaming too big and reaching too high. Maybe there’s just a terrifying repeat of the party’s awful luck in 2016.

The candidates were stunned. Their aides were livid. And Democrats nationwide, so hungry for the first signs of resolution in a primary with so many competitive candidates, waited and waited and surely, in most cases, gave up and went to bed. Not me. I was too agitated — and too curious to see how soon Trump or his enablers would exploit this turn of events.

The inevitable answer: right away. Brad Parscale, the president’s campaign manager, sent a tweet out before midnight Eastern time.

“Democrat party meltdown,” he wrote. “They can’t even run a caucus and they want to run the government. No thank you.”

Lovely — and not the last of it. Trump himself was sure to join the gloating and taunting, which, after golf, are his favorite sports. He, Parscale and the rest of their wretched gang will fold what happened in Iowa into their persistent narrative: Democrats are hapless, and the traditions and institutions that Americans are asked to trust don’t deserve that deference.

Iowa is a prompt for cynicism. Cynicism is Trump’s lifeblood.

As predictable as Parscale’s tweet were formal complaints about the credibility of the vote count from Democrats worried about their showing in the caucuses. One came from Joe Biden’s campaign, which argued that “considerable flaws” should be examined and addressed before any results were publicized.

And so the victor in Iowa may be denied his or her full measure of credit and exultation, the losers may be spared some of the usual damage and one or more of the candidates and his or her supporters may question the fairness and legitimacy of how the entire Democratic primary plays out. It’s 2016 all over again. Wasn’t the party supposed to learn from its mistakes?

There’s no excuse for this, not given how long the Iowa Democratic Party had to prepare, not given the privilege of the state’s first-in-the-nation status, not given how deeply invested tens of millions of distraught Americans are in the effort to get rid of an unfit, amoral president. That effort can’t start like this.

Candidates tried to work around the crazy ambiguity, delivering remarks to their supporters that neither declared victory nor conceded defeat, because no one was yet victorious and no one yet defeated — not officially.

“Somehow, some way, I’m going to get on a plane tonight to New Hampshire,” Amy Klobuchar told the crowd at her election-night party, and that “somehow, some way” was a nod to the open question of when there’d be any formal word of results. It was surreal.

“We’re going to walk out of here with our share of delegates,” Biden told the crowd at his election-night party. It was a safe statement, because it was an utterly vacuous one.

Bernie Sanders matched it: “I have a strong feeling that at some point, the results will be announced.”

As the hours ticked by, the Iowa Democratic Party released a statement saying that the delay was attributable to their diligence in resolving inconsistencies and that there was “not a hack or an intrusion” that should stoke doubts about the eventual vote tally. But doubts had already been stoked.

Pete Buttigieg spoke later than other candidates and seemed to have information that convinced him that he’d finished at or near the top.

“An improbable hope became an undeniable reality,” he said, referring to the long odds against a 38-year-old, openly gay man rising this high in the Democratic primary. He gave a shout-out to “the love of my life,” his husband, Chasten.

It was a historic moment. But would it be remembered as a premature, overconfident one? Thanks, Iowa, for the clarity on that. Way to get the ball rolling.

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