Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper called Donald Trump the worst president in U.S. history, deriding a leader who removes children from their mothers and puts them in cages; Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders called him the most dangerous: “a liar, racist, sexist, homophobe, xenophobe and religious bigot who thinks he’s above the law.”
California Sen. Kamala Harris, a former prosecutor, said she could prosecute the case against the president. Montana Gov. Steve Bullock said Trump’s behavior includes “lies, Twitter tirades and temper tantrums,” and must not be normalized.
Those depictions may have been red meat to the ears of 1,500 Iowa Democratic activists in Cedar Rapids, Iowa Sunday. The Des Moines Register’s Iowa Poll found that most Democrats who plan to caucus said they’d take any Democrat who could beat Trump. They have plenty of options among the 23 candidates, 19 of whom showed up, excluding the front-runner, former Vice President Joe Biden.
The Democrats polling in second, third and fourth place in Sunday’s Iowa Poll for president also called for bold, sweeping structural changes. Sanders, in second place, said Democrats can only win by exciting working people about an economy that works for them. He challenged Democrats who believe in a middle-ground strategy “that antagonizes no one, that stands up to nobody and that changes nothing,” saying that approach could cost them the election.
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, in third place, called for a wealth tax on the top one-tenth of 1% of Americans, which she said could pay off student loan debts and cover child care and preschool. South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg called for statehood for D.C. and Puerto Rico, and bold measures on climate change, living wages and abortion rights.
But a stop heading out of town Sunday was a return to reality on what the Democrats are up against in Iowa: Voters who are squarely, defensively and angrily in the president’s corner, no matter what he says or does.
The Wild Hogs Saloon &Eatery in Walford, 21 miles southwest of Cedar Rapids, is a sprawling, lively restaurant, and bar that beckoned at dinnertime with its colorful signs and busy parking lot. Inside, just mentioning the Democrats’ event drew pushback. One man in the group of three people I approached to interview at the bar asked if I’d be putting “fake news” in the paper.
“I would be embarrassed to be a Democrat with what they’re doing,” said a white woman who gave her age as over 70, but refused to give her name. “They’re harassing the president.”
The retired factory worker who said she left the Democratic Party years ago, was referring to calls for Trump’s impeachment, contending that Democrats just can’t accept a Republican in office, and that Republicans never did that to Democrats Barack Obama or Bill Clinton (who was actually impeached in the House for lying about Monica Lewinsky).
Asked why they support Trump, one of the two men with her, 72-year-old Randy, said people used to be able to leave their cars unlocked but can’t anymore, and “Trump is trying to do something about it.” How? “He’s trying to stop illegal immigration.” He offered no evidence immigrants were to blame for local crime.
A retired engineer, Randy also has a problem with welfare recipients, “We all worked. We didn’t go out and get a check,” he said. “Democrats are just giving away money left and right.”
These are probably the sorts of Republicans Hickenlooper had in mind when he warned against Democrats giving Republicans the opportunity to attack them as socialists by promoting too much government. But there’s little chance that the Trump supporters susceptible to such characterizations would vote Democratic anyway. Even a moderate candidate or one who, like Cory Booker, appeals for a return to shared values such as love of country, would have a tough time getting them on board. The Republican Party has drifted so far to the right that to win them over, a Democrat would probably have to sacrifice reproductive rights, plans to tackle climate change or gun violence or immigration.
The really sad reality here is how, by supporting Trump, working people voted against their own economic interests. They’d do better under Democratic policies on raising the minimum wage, strengthening trade unions and global trade. But the president effectively appealed to racial and religious bigotry, anti-gay sentiment and plain sexism, aided by Fox News, AM talk radio and conspiracy theory right-wing websites.
Democrats can’t and shouldn’t try to win by worrying what Republicans might think or say. Any victory that requires sacrificing universal health care, adequately funded education, immigration reform, reproductive rights, sentencing reform and a ban on corporate funding of elections would be a hollow one indeed.
What they should do was what former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas proposed Sunday. He called for bringing in tens of millions of new voters by allowing same-day voter registration and ending voter purges. Candidates and Democratic parties will need to do the long-term grassroots work of registering new voters by showing how their policies could most benefit them. Their outreach must include people of color, new citizens, union members, seniors, young people and low-wage workers.
Unless they stand up for truly democratic principles, any electoral victory would be a hollow one.
Rekha Basu is a columnist for the Des Moines Register.