AMES, Iowa—It doesn’t take much time with voters in Iowa to recognize that the 2016 presidential race is being fought in the chasm between the towering challenges facing the country and the crimped responses that our polarized and paralyzed political system can now produce.
Republican and Democratic audiences here diverge wildly in their preferred solutions for the country’s biggest problems—and even over what issues qualify for that list. But they are united by a common conviction that Washington is now incapable of moving very far in any direction. As next week’s Iowa caucuses formally begin the 2016 voting, each party is dividing over how to break that impasse—with evolutionary change that works within today’s limits or with the promise of a revolution that somehow washes those limits away?
On both sides, the energy is with candidates (Bernie Sanders for the Democrats, and Donald Trump and Ted Cruz for the Republicans) offering the dream of a clean sweep and a blank sheet on which to rewrite the nation’s priorities. Yet because the candidates offering such fundamental change are largely misdiagnosing the reasons for today’s impasse, it’s unlikely they could break it even if they capture the presidency. Given the nation’s underlying partisan divisions, the only way to advance bigger ideas may be through compromises across party lines that neither side is discussing much yet.
In both parties, this election is almost physically vibrating with the accumulated frustration of political life under a divided government. By Election Day, one party will have simultaneously controlled the White House, Senate, and House of Representatives for just 12 of the 48 years since 1968. By contrast, one party held unified control of all three branches for fully 58 of the 72 years before then.