After Iowa, The Democratic Party's Prospects For Unity Have Never Been Bleaker

What a mess.

The results of the Iowa caucuses are, incredibly, still in limbo, awaiting the result of a recanvassing ordered by the Democratic National Committee after three humiliating days of disarray. But this much is clear: Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Pete Buttigieg did very well, while the previous national front-runner Joe Biden almost certainly finished no better than a catastrophic fourth place. With Buttigieg’s national numbers still weak, Sanders has replaced Biden as the man to beat, with the hedge-funder wing of the party split between Buttigieg, Biden and recently Republican billionaire Michael Bloomberg.

Only a few short months ago, Sanders appeared dead in the water. His campaign was struggling to eclipse 15% nationwide and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) had surged to roughly even with Biden, prompting the Democratic Party establishment to target her, and not Sanders, as the biggest progressive threat in the race. Buttigieg and Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) ganged up on Warren in debates to paint her as an unrealistic extremist, while Never Trumpers and even House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) pooh-poohed her health care plan.

For the establishment, this can only be described as a disastrous tactical mistake. While they were raining down attacks on Warren, Sanders was retooling his operation and hiring new staff. His campaign sharpened its focus, and Sanders himself became noticeably more relaxed on camera. His popularity began a steady upward ascent, peeling off voters not only from Warren, but Biden too. Things can change quickly in American politics, but at the moment it sure seems like Sanders will command the most delegates by the time the convention rolls around.

It’s easy to see why candidates put so much stock in Iowa. In 2016, Sanders was considered a novelty candidate even within his own campaign until he came within spitting distance of defeating Clinton in Iowa. In 2004 and 2008, candidates who had trailed badly for much of the race ― John Kerry and Barack Obama ― won surprise victories, rocketed into the lead and won over the party faithful.

But after the debacle in Iowa, the prospects for party unification have never seemed more remote.

Democratic presidential hopefuls Mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg (left) and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont (right) speak during the third Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season on Sept. 12, 2019.
Democratic presidential hopefuls Mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg (left) and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont (right) speak during the third Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season on Sept. 12, 2019.
ROBYN BECK via Getty Images

In many ways, this is a perplexing development, because contra conventional wisdom, Sanders actually has many of the trappings of a unity candidate ― he’s well known, he’s well liked by the rank-and-file, and his unwavering message has become a staple of party rhetoric even in the boardroom wing of the party. Most important of all, he actually has a message. Of everyone else in the race, only Warren has offered an actual reason for running. The two make similar cases: The U.S. economy and the U.S. political system are stacked against working people. It’s a good message, because it’s true.

Everyone else in the field, meanwhile, is offering an increasingly unpersuasive version of “I alone can beat Trump!” These candidates have little to say, because they aren’t targeting voters, they’re auditioning for donors. The real message isn’t “I can win,” it’s “I’ll make sure you’re still in charge.”

The ideological divide between the old guard and the next generation was real and deepening before Iowa. But most Democrats aren’t ideologues. They like other Democrats and they get uncomfortable when Democrats fight with one another.

With the caucus mess, however, the Iowa Democratic Party and the Democratic National Committee risk alienating Sanders supporters from everyone else in the field. You don’t have to believe in some elaborate conspiracy theory to think Sanders is getting a raw deal.

If Sanders does in fact pull out a win in Iowa, the big story won’t be his victory, but the shocking incompetence of the Iowa Democratic Party. The various candidates vying for billionaire support are busy engaging in their own outrages, with Buttigieg declaring victory before votes had even been counted, and Biden’s press team going around telling everyone that the whole thing was a sham. Then, just as Sanders appeared to be pulling ahead in the official metrics on Thursday afternoon, DNC Chair Tom Perez stepped in to demand a recount.

Recanvassing the results is the only responsible thing to do after such a disastrous event ― there really are a ton of errors in the data, and the results are very close. But by waiting to step in until the very moment when Sanders was taking the lead, Perez offered fuel for a thousand conspiracy theories.

And let’s face it. Sanders backers aren’t wrong that party leaders and party money want to see (almost) anyone but him win the nomination. Michael Bloomberg is spending an unprecedented amount of his own fortune for the express purpose of stopping Sanders and Warren.

After Hillary Clinton’s shocking defeat in 2016, Democratic leaders in Washington recognized it was time to change the party’s internal power dynamics. Over the course of Obama’s presidency, they’d lost nearly a thousand seats in state legislatures, a dozen governorships, both chambers of Congress and then the White House. The party was quite literally in its weakest position since the Civil War.

So then-Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) and Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Warren and Sanders collectively backed someone new to run the DNC. Instead of another Clinton or Obama alum, they got behind then-Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), a favorite of the American left and one of Sanders’ few endorsers in Washington. The reasoning was pretty simple ― the old guard had failed pretty badly, and they would need to embrace younger, more progressive wing of the party to maintain a coalition with any hope of remaining competitive with Republicans.

Ellison, famously, lost. Obama stepped in and endorsed Perez, and the voting members of the DNC followed his lead.

This has been the dynamic in Washington ever since, from candidate recruitment in 2018 to committee assignments, leadership races and Pelosi’s summerlong feud with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Squad: Big Money Democrats exercise power, and progressives are supposed to keep quiet and go along in the name of party unity.

In 2020, party unity increasingly looks like it will require a progressive nominee. The establishment would rather maintain control.

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