Party Gridlock Haunts the Races in Iowa

Voters don’t agree on the country’s biggest issues—and the candidates don’t share a vision about how to fix them.

Ted Cruz and Donald Trump cohost a rally against Obama's nuclear deal with Iran. (Carolyn Kaster / AP)

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.

Dur­ing his first two years, Pres­id­ent Obama achieved big le­gis­lat­ive breakthroughs with uni­fied con­trol (and the biggest, if fleet­ing, Demo­crat­ic Senate ma­jor­ity since Jimmy Carter). But after Re­pub­lic­ans re­gained the House (in 2010) and the Sen­ate (in 2014) it’s been trench war­fare in which Obama has in­creas­ingly turned to uni­lat­er­al ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tion (on is­sues like cli­mate and immig­ra­tion) to fur­ther his goals. That’s left lib­er­als frus­trated that Obama couldn’t achieve more—and con­ser­vat­ives steamed that the Re­pub­lic­an Con­gress couldn’t undo more of what he did achieve.

The 2016 can­did­ates are di­ver­ging over how they would break this stale­mate. Demo­crat­ic Senator Bernie Sanders has built his cam­paign on prom­ising to mobil­ize a trans­form­at­ive move­ment against the “bil­lion­aire class.” When he appeared at Iowa State Uni­versity here Monday, his first words were, “So, you guys ready to make a polit­ic­al re­volu­tion?” In Sanders’s vis­ion, a massive grassroots up­ris­ing will shat­ter the con­strict­ing lim­its of today’s polit­ic­al de­bate and thrust for­ward long-time lib­er­al goals such as single-pay­er health care and free pub­lic-col­lege tu­ition.

For Sanders’s grow­ing army, it’s an ex­hil­ar­at­ing pro­spect. But even some who cheer his goals ques­tion how he will over­come op­pos­i­tion from Re­pub­lic­ans irrevoc­ably opposed to them. “My only question is does he have the ability to carry some of these rad­ic­al ideas through?” said Mark Bergstrom, an en­gin­eer from Min­neapol­is, who drove down to hear Sanders.

Hil­lary Clin­ton in­creas­ingly is present­ing her­self as the prag­mat­ic doer to Sanders’s po­et­ic dream­er. Her core case is that she can push more pro­gress­ive gains through the cur­rent clogged sys­tem—even if her goals aren’t as sweep­ing as Sanders’s. Bergstrom is like many Demo­crats who find Sanders’s ar­gu­ment more in­spir­ing and Clin­ton’s more real­ist­ic. Still un­de­cided, he says that along with his wife he’s weigh­ing, “Do we vote for smal­ler changes in a dir­ec­tion we be­lieve in [with Clin­ton], or make a big­ger gamble [with Sanders]?”

How oth­er Demo­crats an­swer that ques­tion will de­term­ine wheth­er Sanders can truly threaten the frontrun­ner.

Among Re­pub­lic­ans, the can­did­ates largely prom­ising to work with­in the sys­tem (Jeb Bush, John Kasich, Chris Christie, and, up to a point, Marco Ru­bio) are all strug­gling. Those prom­ising to raze the sys­tem lead the field: Cruz, and above all, Trump.

While Sanders prom­ises bot­tom-up change powered by a grass­roots move­ment, Trump of­fers the op­pos­ite: top-down change cata­lyzed by his force­ful per­son­al­ity and deal-mak­ing acu­men. Trump seems genu­inely con­vinced he could ne­go­ti­ate with con­gres­sion­al Demo­crats if elec­ted. “That’s the way the coun­try is sup­posed to work,” he in­sisted in Mar­shall­town this week.

But Trump’s key goals, such as build­ing a bor­der wall or massively de­port­ing undoc­u­mented im­mig­rants, of­fer little basis for bi­par­tis­an agree­ment. And apart from tout­ing his own skill at “the art of the deal,” he of­fers no plaus­ible path through the many leg­al and polit­ic­al bar­ri­ers any such ef­forts would face, such as the need for big fund­ing in­creases from Con­gress.

In fact, from Sanders to Trump, all of 2016’s re­volu­tion­ar­ies in­ac­cur­ately blame today’s im­passe on weak lead­ers or strong spe­cial in­terests. In­stead, it per­sists mostly be­cause the coun­try is now di­vided al­most evenly between two polit­ic­al co­ali­tions with an­ti­thet­ic­al vis­ions of Amer­ica’s fu­ture. Neither is go­ing away after the next elec­tion. To achieve big change in 2017, the party that wins the White House still will al­most cer­tainly need to forge reas­on­able com­prom­ises with the los­ing side—even if that’s not a mes­sage that’s warm­ing many par­tis­an hearts in the blustery Iowa chill be­fore next week’s fiercely con­tested vote.

This post appears courtesy of National Journal.