Voting is finally about to begin in the Republican and Democratic presidential primary contests. That's exciting. But it may not last.
Are the races close to being over just before they've begun? If so, it's especially so for Donald Trump, who is taking advantage of unique quirks in the media culture to turn his reality TV persona and aggressive know-nothingism into a serious political head of steam.
Every four years for the past few generations, Iowa and New Hampshire -- two wildly unrepresentative and rather quirky states -- have played the critical winnowing process in determining who really is a leading candidate for President of the United States. More recently, back in 2008, the Democrats led the Republicans into adding two other states much more racially diverse, Nevada and South Carolina, to what becomes the early tier of primary and caucus contests, now all in the month of February.
But Iowa and New Hampshire, still white as the cast on an Elizabethan stage, remain first and second, continuing to exercise their vastly disproportionate pull on candidate effort and media focus. If anything, their importance has increased.
Iowa in particular, due to its first-in-the-nation status, is an essential gateway.
In 1984, I was with Gary Hart when we climbed from fifth to second in four weeks, recasting the equation of the race so dramatically that Hart won New Hampshire eight days later. That set up wins in most of the subsequent states, a near miss on the Democratic presidential nomination itself, and strong frontrunner status for 1988, which was derailed only by a timely sex scandal spoon fed to the media just as hearings began on the Iran/Contra scandal.
Current President Barack Obama had an even better result in Iowa in 2008, shading John Edwards for the win there and forcing front-running Hillary Clinton into third. Only an extraordinary performance by both Hillary and Bill Clinton staved off another defeat in New Hampshire that would likely have ended the race. Yet Obam's Iowa win proved determinative in the end, giving him the dramatic early boost in the nearly all-white state he needed as he won a long duel with Hillary for the presidential nomination.
This year, Iowa looks just as determinative, perhaps even more so.
On the Republican side, Donald Trump seems poised for the Iowa win after a fierce fight with ultra-right Texas Senator Ted Cruz. His gamble in skipping the last pre-Iowa debate -- staged on Fox News, which ironically created the party circumstances Trump is taking advantage of -- paid off, with rival Cruz bearing the brunt of on-air attacks. If Trump takes Iowa, he looks poised, as I've written before, to run the table of New Hampshire and beyond. He is ahead everywhere.
For the Democrats, Iowa may well also tell the tale. Hillary Clinton has a slender but real lead going into the final weekend over socialist Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. If she holds on to win, the Democratic presidential nomination is almost certainly hers, absent a disaster. (Many will they spin up the latest iteration of her e-mail controversy, in which some missives show up suddenly as "top secret," but they were classified after the the fact of their sending, and in any event post-9/11 Washington is awash in a sort of classification fetishism in which some flacks have higher-sounding top secret clearances than actual operatives back in the day.)
Sanders would probably still take New Hampshire in convincing fashion, but Nevada and South Carolina should remain secure for Hillary. Sander's New Hampshire win can be at least partially explained away by the transplanted New Englander's relative home field advantage there.
Sanders will still make a big showing even with an Iowa defeat. He's done much better than expected, even for those of us who felt last summer that socialism had already become an increasingly powerful theme. With technology increasingly defeating scarcity even as it makes more and more people "economically useless," the future choice is likely to become either more socialism or more feudalism.
Today, with the ongoing hollowing of the US economy for most, even in time of relative recovery from the near depression conditions Obama inherited from the Bush/Cheney administration, one needn't be a studied Marxist to conclude, as Sanders argues, that the system is rigged when the gains go to the very rich and elections are marked by essentially unlimited big money spending. Hillary's latter-day invocation of FDR wasn't a bad idea, especially if she'd kept it up, but it still paled next to what Sanders is saying (and what Roosevelt himself would likely be saying now).
Frankly, in trying to deal with the Sanders phenomenon, Hillary and company exhibited a faulty sense of how best to attack. For the longest time, once she realized she had a significant challenge, Hillary tried two things, neither of which were that effective.
First, she hit him on gun control. Which didn't work because his deviation from lib orthodoxy is rather slight (he got a D from the National Rifle Association) and the issue is far more powerful at Manhattan and Westside LA dinner parties than it is among many folks who have more pressing concerns. (Which I'm sure Bill Clinton gets, so I was surprised Hillary was doing it.)
Then she tried to convince actual and potential Sanders voters that his economic ideas, including health care, are too idealistic. Which is another way of saying that they are wrong to think as they do, and Hillary knows best.
Gosh, why wouldn't that work? Heh. That Sanders is obviously who the Republicans want to run against is not an argument that works well in the hothouse atmosphere of Iowa and New Hampshire.
Better, of course, to scare off potential support by raising doubt about the authentic maverick's authenticity. Especially on war and peace, an area of longstanding deep concern among Iowa and New Hampshire Democrats. To point out, for example, that Sanders is not where admirers might suppose on the problematic long war and on troublesome military spending.
For example, Sanders is a flat-out champion of the controversial F-35 fighter, the most expensive non-nuclear weapons system in history, plagued by big cost-overruns and sometimes embarrassing performance.
In other words, as in martial arts, the idea is to take your opponent's aggressive stance and supposed strength and make it a vulnerability.
That's certainly the conceptual approach Hillary will have to take with Trump, if things play out as they are. While using his aggressive know-nothingism to make him radioactive for swing voters is necessary, it is not sufficient. She will have to unmask his supposed truth-teller stance as the latest con from an inveterately egomaniacal con man.
But all that lies ahead in an ever more probable future scenario. Unfortunately, it seems we will have plenty of time to delve into the dangers of Trumpism as we have seen it so far and into the billionaire bully boy's undoubted coming move to morph into something seemingly beyond a simplistic tribune of anger.
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