DES MOINES — With 1,131 days until the 2020 presidential election, Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) showed up in a parking lot in Iowa.
He was early, but to the people waiting, he seemed late.
“Get in here!” a squat, balding man shouted to him from a restaurant doorway. “There’s beer in here.”
Inside, Ryan, who has the build of a linebacker and enthusiasm of a Labrador, gabbed and backslapped with beefy Midwesterners who could one day help pave a road to the White House. Earl Agan, president of the Central Iowa Building and Construction Trades Council, had invited Ryan here because he said he saw the congressman from Youngstown as a champion for working people — someone who appreciates the “dignity of work” and the need to move Democrats beyond being a “coastal party.” Agan, a Wilford Brimley look-alike wearing a safari hat and sandals, did not speak for everyone in the bar — not everyone agreed, for example, that “Hillary Clinton is the Antichrist” — but most of his fellow tradesmen seemed to buy his assessment of the career politician now in their midst:
“Tim Ryan is our only hope.”
If it's anything like the last one, the next election will be a mix of resentment, pandering and half-truths; an ordeal that will take an existential toll on Americans from coast to coast. And everyone's already itching to get started.
President Trump couldn't get past Inauguration Day without filing paperwork for reelection, and he's been throwing himself raucous campaign-style rallies ever since. Democrats have started flocking to folksy and flinty locales in Iowa and New Hampshire, and snacking on canapes in the Hamptons. Editors are commissioning shortlists, political websites are holding mock drafts, and regular Joes have started talking like political scouts: Kamala's got impressive fundraising numbers. . . . Warren can burn up the base path. . . . Franken can hit. . . . Bullock can play center.
We used to bemoan the “endless campaign” — but now we’re hooked on it. Perhaps Democrats more than anyone.
“People want to get on with it,” Ryan said in his Capitol Hill office last month. “It’s like when you play a pickup basketball game and you lose. Right away you’re going to say, ‘One more game.’”
And Ryan, 44, who is mostly known (if he's known at all) for his enthusiasm for Buddhist meditation and his failed run against Nancy Pelosi for House leadership, seems like he can be a player. Sure, he got smoked by Pelosi, but maybe winning wasn't the point.
He might not even be running. Ryan has teased various bids for higher office in the past only to back out at the last minute. But the anti-Trump clamoring on the left has, at the very least, given Democratic prospects the chance to get some buzz, and Ryan certainly doesn’t mind the attention. During his race against Pelosi late last year, Ryan had so many requests for interviews that his staff hired a satellite truck to follow him around — even waiting for him outside of a chiropractor appointment — so he would never have to turn down a television appearance.
“It’s given me a bigger platform,” he said about his challenge to Pelosi. “I think it’s why I’m getting invited to all these places and continue to be on TV.”
Ryan won't say whether he'll attempt a long-shot run for president (he has been in Congress for 15 years, crazier things have happened), and maintains that the eternal campaign is "a terrible way to run a democracy."
“It sucks,” he said. “It’s turned into its own cottage industry.”
Two weeks later, he was off to Iowa.
The first Polk County Steak Fry had all the trappings of a political event from yesteryear: gubernatorial candidates parading through the gates accompanied by marching bands, speakers taking the stage in front of an enormous billowing American flag, and, of course, photo-ops with politicians flipping meat on a grill.
When Tom Harkin, the state's former senator, used to host a similar event, serious candidates for president would show up for what could be considered an unofficial campaign launch ("I'm baaaaack." — Hillary Clinton, September 2014).
This, by comparison, felt like a farm team exhibition, and Ryan wasn’t the only Democratic prospect invited. He’d come with fellow congressional rising stars, second-term Rep. Seth Moulton (Mass.) and third-term Rep. Cheri Bustos (Ill.), whose district slipped to Trump while handily reelecting her. They came to Iowa, like hundreds of politicians before them, to talk about the future of their party and to feign shock when asked if they wanted to be president.
“I don’t close the door to anything,” Bustos said when asked about whether she might ever run for president. “But I’m focusing on 2018 right now.”
“There’s a leadership vacuum in the party,” Moulton said. “People are looking for a new generation to step up.”
Might that new generation of leadership include a young, handsome, newlywed from Massachusetts who served four tours in Iraq? On countless occasions now, Seth Moulton has declared, "I'm not running for president," which only raises the question: Is Seth Moulton running for president?
It turns out that trying to deny you're gunning for the White House is a lot like trying to deny you're insane. You're not crazy? Well, that's exactly what a crazy person would say! If you come to Iowa this early, clearly you're thirsty for the job. And if you appear to be avoiding it, like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) or former vice president Joe Biden, then you're obviously just slow-walking the process.
“It does seem to be on a lot of people’s minds,” said Channing Dutton, a climate activist holding a Donald Trump piñata as he wandered through the steak fry. “I got this message at my office asking if I would meet with Senator Jeff Merkley the other day, and I had to Google him. I thought he might be a state senator.” (The gentleman from Oregon is indeed a member of the grown-up Senate.)
And while the three keynote speakers said they’d come to talk about winning smaller and more imminent elections — 2018, scientists have concluded, is sooner than 2020 — it was easy to imagine this as an opportunity to workshop a speech for something bigger.
“Believe it or not, I can see Iowa from my house,” Bustos said to the crowd.
“We’ve got to get back to our party roots,” Moulton said. “We’ve got to get back in touch with those voters that we’ve lost.”
“Lunch pail,” Ryan said in a speech that also included the words, “machine,” “castor processing,” “steel,” “dirt on his hands” and “grandpa.”
Whether or not Ryan is ever a real presidential contender, he’s certainly acting like one. He recently told a New Hampshire radio interviewer that “maybe the country needs someone from a place like Youngstown, Ohio.” He’s made two recent trips to Iowa, met with activists, and had breakfast with at least one of Clinton’s former Des Moines-based political advisers. And he showed up a full day early for the steak fry to tour a farm, among other things.
“I was really impressed with him, but I’m not ready to start endorsing,” said Matt Russell, the owner of Coyote Run Farm. “He didn’t ask for one. But we know why people come out to Iowa.”
Not everyone runs for president to win. Some do it to bring attention to important causes, or to spike book sales, or just satiate an unquenchable yearning for attention. It’s easy to imagine, for example, someone running for president just because he wanted to prove the haters wrong, and then stumbling into a victory.
Ryan, for his part, says he’s been traveling the country because he’s getting invited, and because he wants to encourage the party to reach out to the working men and women who turned their backs on Clinton (whom Ryan endorsed early and enthusiastically). Where exactly the party goes from here — lean left and rally the base, try to move to the center and win back Trump voters, or figure out a way to have it all — is still up for debate. But as long as the field is open, Ryan intends to plant a seed.
“If you have an opportunity to do something, you should take it,” he said.
So will he run for president?
“I don’t know,” he said. “We’ll see.”
Hmmmm. That sounds exactly like something a crazy person would say.