In 2016, Iowa voters delivered a victory to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who single-handedly shut down the government trying to defund Obamacare. New Hampshire voters then made Donald Trump’s candidacy plausible, rather than a fringe expression of racial animus. On the Democratic side, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a self-described democratic socialist who advocates radical changes to the American economy, fought former secretary of state Hillary Clinton to a tie in Iowa and won New Hampshire. Now Sanders has repeated his feat from four years ago, battling to a virtual tie in Iowa with former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg (D) and winning New Hampshire, albeit far more narrowly than last time.
It’s true that voter support for more traditional Democratic candidates in the race outstripped the support that Sanders attracted in both Iowa and New Hampshire. Even if you add the votes that Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) got to Sanders’s total, the left-progressive side of the party got only roughly 35 percent of the vote.
But by handing Sanders two strong performances, Iowa and New Hampshire have lent momentum to him at precisely the moment when conscientious vetters should have put a stop to the Sanders fantasy.
Think it’s too harsh to characterize Sanders as an extremist? Granted, he is more like Cruz than Trump. Ideologically motivated, Sanders sells fiction, and not in the way all candidates sometimes overpromise. He pledges to drastically reshape the federal government, doubling its size, and uses cocktail-napkin math to claim to pay for it. Sanders’s program would cost some $60 trillion to $97 trillion over 10 years — expert estimates vary but none of them bring this plan into the realm of the practical. His wealth tax, one of his major tools to finance this expansion, would raise far less than he estimates — between $1 trillion and $1.5 trillion less over 10 years, according to a University of Pennsylvania analysis.
It would be one thing if it were just going to be really expensive to address the country’s problems. In fact, Sanders does not have to spend nearly as much or impose nearly as many federal mandates to achieve the goals he — and virtually all Democrats — desire, such as generous universal health care, affordable college and an aggressive climate program. But he and his backers make it seem as though if you do not support his specific plans to achieve these goals, which call for maximum government control and social benefits that are lavish compared with those of peer nations such as Canada, then you do not care to achieve them at all.
“What’s the worst thing that could happen if Bernie were president?” filmmaker and Sanders surrogate Michael Moore said at rally in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, shortly before the state’s caucuses. “You get sick, and you don’t lose your home,” he replied in answer to his own question, implying that other candidates were less committed to ending medical bankruptcy.
Sanders’s dedication to his program appeals to those seeking absolutes in politics. Sanders supporters all over Iowa and New Hampshire said they like that he has not changed in decades. “He is incapable of telling anything but the truth,” said Mohammed Ziny, a New Hampshire Sanders field organizer, on Sunday.
But what looks like consistency from one angle comes across as a dangerous rigidity from another. Instead of listening to critics and adjusting his plans to better reflect expert analysis, or talking more forthrightly about their costs, Sanders has doubled down. And while Sanders’s legislative program would never pass Congress, he would bring all of his ideological inflexibility and incuriosity to the hundreds of decisions he would have to make daily in the White House, and to staffing his administration.
There are still many states, territories — and the oft-ignored District of Columbia — left to vote in this year’s nominating cycle. But Iowa and New Hampshire got to go first. They got to set the tone for the race. If Americans end up with an unsavory general-election choice between Sanders and Trump, they could begin by placing the blame with the supposedly sage voters of Iowa and New Hampshire.