Frank Bruni: The unholy mess in Iowa

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 Donald 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.

Iowa provided none of that Monday night. Instead it staged a baffling spectacle resistant to any timely, definitive verdict. More than 12 hours after the actual, physical caucusing at hundreds of locations across the state had finished, there were still no official results, just resentments, recriminations and reports that a newly intricate manner of counting had proven laborious, a newly developed app for it hadn’t worked as planned, a backup phone line had jammed, and the campaigns had been asked to join a pair of emergency conference calls with state Democratic officials.

Maybe there’s a moral here about 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 late into the night Monday, and surely, in most cases, gave up and went to bed. Not me. I was too aghast, agitated and curious to see how soon Trump and 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 Monday 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 quickly amplified the gloating and taunting, which, after golf, are his favorite sports. On Tuesday morning he tweeted: “The Democrat Caucus is an unmitigated disaster. Nothing works, just like they ran the Country.” Donald Trump Jr. used his own Twitter account to spread a conspiracy theory about a fraudulent outcome and sniped that “there’s no question anymore that the greatest threat to US Elections is in fact Democrat incompetence.”

The Trumps, 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 President 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 accepted.

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.

The debacle was a specific betrayal of Iowa’s voters. I spent most of the past week in Iowa, where I was wowed and moved by how much thought Iowans were putting into which candidate they’d caucus for. They made clear that they saw Trump as an existential threat. So they weren’t merely deciding on a favorite candidate. They were anointing a savior and anxiously unsure about who represented the surest and best hope.

I’d never seen voters so twisted into knots. I’d never seen pundits so perplexed by the tea leaves in front of them and so hesitant to play fortuneteller. I’d never been so stymied for insight, so barren of instinct. This wasn’t a political contest; it was a kidney stone.

And by late Tuesday morning, it still hadn’t passed.

The candidates, too, were betrayed, cruelly and destructively so. They 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 surreal limbo in which the candidates languished.

“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 and necessarily 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. They’ll probably never go fully away. And in an era when “rigged” and “hoax” are the actual mantras of the American president, they’re devastating. They’re unaffordable.

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 shoutout to “the love of my life,” his husband, Chasten.

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

Frank Bruni

Frank Bruni is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.