CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — With a president like no other, in an atmosphere of political discord like no other, in an environment of social media like no other, it should be no surprise that the nation is confronting a presidential election like no other.
Every contest for the White House, to be sure, is different; there have been 58 presidential elections and no two of them have been remotely similar. Even so, the political struggle now unfolding in the rolling hills of this state and in the soaring mountains of New Hampshire matches this age of disruption and disputation. It will be both mean and a departure from the mean.
In transition are the nature and character of the political parties, the way politics is practiced, the nature of public engagement, and the topics on which American politics turn. The country’s political establishment is catching up with the changes, mutating and metamorphosing to reflect the swift and profound alterations in the ways Americans relate to their leaders, to each other — and to political parties that seem more out of sync with the public than at any time since the tumultuous Vietnam and Watergate years.
Gone are the old ways of conducting politics; outside of organization-heavy states like this one, where the wintry Monday night Iowa precinct caucuses require disciplined field mobilizations, the new generation of presidential candidates will not spend hours courting county party chairs.
This time there is a Democratic field of about two dozen candidates, fueled with passionate contempt for President Donald Trump, most of them supporting a Green New Deal that has done more to unite the Republican Party than anything since Ronald Reagan’s inauguration. These Democrats have much in common, which is their principal disadvantage here in Iowa and in the other early states, and what they have most in common is no idea how to differentiate themselves from each other.
They are also money-hungry. The political world reacted in awe when Gov. Michael S. Dukakis of Massachusetts raised $10 million in 1987. “You can raise that in a week now,” Tad Devine, a top adviser to the 2016 campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, told me only a few days before Sanders, with whom he no longer is associated, did just that. In the days after her campaign announcement, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, considered inside the Trump camp as the most formidable challenger to the president, raised $2 million, ordinarily an impressive figure. Money is the first primary, and Sanders may already have won it.
This election will be long, with contenders campaigning with more urgency for far longer than ever before. “If you’re not a well-known senator,” said Pat Rynard, a former Democratic campaign staffer who runs the comprehensive IowaStartingLine.com, “the one thing you have on your side is time.”
But the long campaign may not provide the exposure that members of the huge field of Democrats hope to earn. “There are so many candidates and this goes on so long that we simply can’t cover them,” said Martha Pinder, co-managing editor for the twice-weekly Grinnell Herald-Register.
Then there is the risk of campaign fatigue. There are early signs of it already. In a one-week period late last month, Klobuchar, former Rep. John Delaney of Maryland, former Housing and Urban Development secretary Julian Castro, Rep. Eric Swalwell of California, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, former Gov. John Hickenlooper of Colorado, Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana, and Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado all campaigned in Iowa. Over the Presidents Day weekend, seven Democratic presidential candidates were in New Hampshire.
Right now the candidates are in the process of introducing themselves to the voters here, in the Granite State, and in South Carolina and Nevada — four locations with entirely different special interests and regional concerns. Right now it is enough to deplore the comportment and views of Trump. But soon more will be required — specific policy positions, at best not the very same ones rolled out by the last candidate in town.
They will have to pick apart which elements of the Green New Deal they feel are appealing but unrealistic. They will have to articulate how their approaches to China will differ from those of Trump. They will have to answer why, in the wake of the Trump tax cuts, they want to raise rates again. They will have to explain why they think big-power rivalries with a surging China and a resurgent Russia are graver threats than terrorism, or whether they feel the reverse is true. In Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Idaho, Washington State and Alaska (plus Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana), they will have to provide some contours to what a 21st-century trade and diplomatic relationship with Canada should look like.
They will have to identify at least one Obamacare element that doesn’t work and how they would fix it. Or they will have to defend “Medicare-for-all” against a fusillade of attacks by the American Medical Association, hospital trade associations, and insurance and pharmaceutical companies with campaign donations and independent expenditures on offer.
Mostly they will have to campaign until their energies and treasuries run out. This is no half marathon.
“The Americans have a very long process, and when it is over it starts all over again,” says Marc Garneau, a member of the Canadian parliament from Quebec. “I’ve always thought I couldn’t take that.” That’s from a man who was rocketed into orbit three times and spent 677 hours in space.