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Caucus night: A Des Moines diary of a satisfied non-voter

[additional-authors]
February 2, 2016

Here are 7 comments on the state of the race as I see it through my very narrow lenses. If you want a detailed county by county analysis of the Iowa vote – I am not your man.  

Scream

On the way out of a Bernie Sanders event in Des Moines on Sunday evening, I noticed a photo on the wall. Sanders was annoyingly late to arrive, but his enthusiasts did not seem to mind, so I knew all of them will be going to caucus. He was forceful, but not too forceful, in his speech. So I knew he had no intention of ruining it too soon. And then, stepping out of the event, I looked at that photo on the wall. What a strange, symbolic photo to be hanged at a rally site, 24 hours before Caucus Day.

Actually, it was just a nice poster, inviting the public to an exhibition of First in the Nation photos at Grand View university. The exhibition presents 40 years of photographs from the Iowa caucuses. The particular photo that was picked for the poster, and was hanging on the wall, was awaiting the departing Sanders crowd.

It was a photo of Howard Dean, holding a microphone, sleeves up, fists up, and shouting. The 2004 Dean was an Iowa sensation, ascending fast, declining faster. The famous scream that killed his presidential hopes seems quite innocent compared to 2016's vulgarities and populism. In 2004, screaming would eliminate a candidate. In 2016, screaming is becoming fashionable.

Or so it seemed before the caucus.

Outcome

You do not really need me to understand what happened yesterday. Hordes of pundits will provide you with everything that you can figure out by yourself. On the way to New Hampshire – where I will spend the next week, until the next vote is cast – the story seems pretty clear:

The Republican primary can still recover and become a traditional conservative (Cruz) vs. moderate (Rubio) race, with Trump gradually fading. A lot depends on New Hampshire.

Sanders is putting up a real fight. Can he win? I’m still doubtful, but he is surely making the Clinton candidacy looks like a less-than-great idea.

Rubio, for now, has a better case than all others that he should be the establishment Republican candidate.

Bloomberg’s theoretical candidacy seems a little more distant today.

Narrative

What is this election cycle all about?

For a number of days now, I’ve been paying close attention to the things the candidates have been saying about different issues, and I am still not able to come up with a clear narrative for this election. Surely, Clinton wants things that are different from the things Ted Cruz wants. But both are presenting bits and pieces of things they are for or against – not a clear agenda, a clear philosophy of governance, but a prescription of policies.

It is not just these two, of course. Trump barely manages to be coherent. Christie, Bush, O’Malley – all these hardly have a chance to present a case to which anyone wants to listen. Carson is lost in detail and speaks in generalities. Santorum seems like a candidate who got confused and joined the wrong race.

The race, at this point in time, is one focused on anger and frustration. Trump is angry with everything and everyone (Fox News included). Cruz was angry with Rubio (today he is not angry, today he is happy). Bush is also angry with Rubio (and if there’s no miracle in New Hampshire, he is probably gone). Sanders is angry with Wall Street; his voters are angry with Clinton. Clinton is angry back at Sanders. Can you blame her?

Debate

Two candidates are head and shoulders above all others in presenting a nuanced, well articulated, political case: Rubio and Sanders. They did not come on top yesterday, but they did come out victorious; and that is a good thing, because, unlike most other candidates, these two bother to have a real agenda. They have a philosophy. They can express an idea other than I-have-the-most-experience or I-am-the-angriest or I-am-the-most-conservative.

Rubio vs. Sanders could be an interesting race, in some way a rematch of 2008: on one side the liberal leftist, whose main interest is changing America from within; on the other side a hawkish Senator whose main interests are foreign policy and restoring American prestige and leadership abroad. Sanders is to the left of Obama, and a lesser communicator (but more authentic in his beliefs). Rubio would not like to be compared to John McCain, a losing candidate, and is a much better communicator (but he does not have McCain’s aura of heroism in battle).

Yes, back in 2008 people still complained that the elections are not serious enough, that the discussion of the topics is too shallow (Sarah Palin was on the ticket, you might recall), that it is mainly a horse race. But compared to 2016, the 2008 campaign seems like an affair that involved much more serious candidates. That can still change. That is to say: following Iowa, a Rubio vs. Sanders race still seems like a possibility.

Jews

I had short encounters with several Jews as the candidates were storming through Iowa. There were those working for Sanders – relatively young, idealistic and reminiscent of the early Jewish supporters of Obama. There were those working for Clinton – they seemed to think that working for Clinton is a Jewish commandment (thou shalt not let her down a second time). There were those working for Rubio – Orthodox Jews wearing Rubio yarmulkes.

The first interesting test of the Jewish vote will come on February 20, when Nevada votes. If you want the details, take a look at our new Jewish Vote feature for this primary season.

Values

I saw a campaign commercial touting the Judeo-Christian values of one of the candidates. In this cycle, several Republican candidates are talking about Judeo-Christian values – while Jewish Democrats keep arguing that only their candidates are true practitioners of Jewish values. If Cruz represents Jewish values, and Sanders represents Jewish values – one realizes that “Jewish values” is nothing but another way of saying “right values” or “good values” or, as was the case with Obama time and again, “my values.”

At a time in which Israel finds it hard to retain its bipartisan status – it is nice to see that Jewish values are quickly gaining bipartisan status (I argued a long-long time ago that the term “pro-Israel” has lost most of its meaning; it is as easy for me to acknowledge that the political term “Jewish values” also has little meaning).

World

I already wrote a number of articles about this presidential race and the state of the world. As an Israeli, I cannot avoid the outlook of the highly interested foreigner. And I cannot deny that this race makes observers like me all around the world somewhat nervous.

It is not the policies of the candidates that make the world nervous. Obviously, some policies seem more plausible than others, and in some cases the US will pick candidates with which the world agrees and some with which the world – or parts of it – disagrees. What makes the world justifiably nervous is the unsettling mood of the American voters. The feeling that for many voters this cycle is about sending a message of discontent to some unnamed, faceless, establishment more than it is about finding a capable candidate that can articulate an agenda and fix problems.

Voters seem angry. And at times they seem angry enough to do what angry people tend to do: break something. The rest of the world – or at least those parts of the world in which people look up to America in anticipation of leadership – will gain nothing from such breakage.

Did Iowa make anything better? A week in Iowa did not. An evening of voting in Iowa did. It seemed like an evening in which many voters – and this statement relates mostly to the Republican Party – decided that it is time to get serious.

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