The Memo: In Iowa, how much change do Democrats want?
DES MOINES, Iowa — Democrats face a bigger question in their Monday caucuses here than which candidate to support: How much change does America want?
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The field is cleaved between those who seek sweeping reform to the nation, led by Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersThe Hill’s 12:30 Report: Milley apologizes for church photo-op Harris grapples with defund the police movement amid veep talk Biden courts younger voters — who have been a weakness MORE (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenWarren, Democrats urge Trump to back down from veto threat over changing Confederate-named bases OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Joint Chiefs chairman says he regrets participating in Trump photo-op | GOP senators back Joint Chiefs chairman who voiced regret over Trump photo-op | Senate panel approves 0B defense policy bill Trump on collision course with Congress over bases with Confederate names MORE (D-Mass.), and those who favor a much more incremental approach, including former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenHillicon Valley: Biden calls on Facebook to change political speech rules | Dems demand hearings after Georgia election chaos | Microsoft stops selling facial recognition tech to police Trump finalizing executive order calling on police to use ‘force with compassion’ The Hill’s Campaign Report: Biden campaign goes on offensive against Facebook MORE, former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegScaled-back Pride Month poses challenges for fundraising, outreach Biden hopes to pick VP by Aug. 1 It’s as if a Trump operative infiltrated the Democratic primary process MORE and Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharHillicon Valley: Biden calls on Facebook to change political speech rules | Dems demand hearings after Georgia election chaos | Microsoft stops selling facial recognition tech to police Democrats demand Republican leaders examine election challenges after Georgia voting chaos Harris grapples with defund the police movement amid veep talk MORE (D-Minn.).
The divide is getting starker by the day in the final sprint to the caucuses, where several candidates have a realistic chance of prevailing.
The contrast could be seen clearly in two events on Friday, as Biden campaigned in the rural eastern Iowa town of Fort Madison and three congresswomen — Reps. Ayanna PressleyAyanna PressleyHow language is bringing down Donald Trump Over 1,400 pro athletes, coaches call on Congress to back bill ending qualified immunity Biden’s right, we need policing reform now – the House should quickly take up his call to action MORE (D-Mass.), Katie Porter (D-Calif.) and Deb HaalandDebra HaalandOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Interior faces legal scrutiny for keeping controversial acting leaders in office | White House faces suit on order lifting endangered species protections | Lawmakers seek investigation of Park Police after clearing of protesters Lawmakers seek investigation of Park Police after clearing of White House protesters Minority caucuses call for quick action on police reform MORE (D-N.M.) — rallied Warren supporters in Des Moines.
Biden and his backers sought to soothe rather than incite.
“We are going to heal this nation,” Biden promised.
His central argument is that electing him would mark a return to business as usual after President TrumpDonald John TrumpSenate advances public lands bill in late-night vote Warren, Democrats urge Trump to back down from veto threat over changing Confederate-named bases Esper orders ‘After Action Review’ of National Guard’s role in protests MORE.
For Team Warren, as with Sanders’s supporters, business as usual is the problem — and a more fundamental shift is required.
“We have a president who is a tyrant,” said Haaland, setting the fiery tone for much of what followed.
Former Iowa Gov. Tom VilsackThomas James VilsackUSDA: Farm-to-school programs help schools serve healthier meals OVERNIGHT MONEY: House poised to pass debt-ceiling bill MORE (D), campaigning with Biden, told The Hill after the Fort Madison event that people who view the former vice president as too mild in his outlook and rhetoric are missing the point.
“People say, ‘Well, he needs more energy.’ No, actually he needs to provide a contrast to President Trump,” said Vilsack. “President Trump has plenty of energy, but people are saying, ‘Too much. Too much.’ We want someone who is a statesman, who is calming.”
Hours later, in Des Moines, Pressley took the mic to wild cheers and praised “change-makers and disruptors … activists and agitators.”
The difference was apparent, too, in the tenor and makeup of each crowd.
In Biden’s case, the audience was largely old, the numbers modest — a generous estimate would be around 150 people — and the atmosphere sedate.
For Warren, the crowd was noticeably younger, bigger — and louder.
Passion and intensity are crucial in caucuses — as then-Sen. Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaHarris grapples with defund the police movement amid veep talk Five ways America would take a hard left under Joe Biden Valerie Jarrett: ‘Democracy depends upon having law enforcement’ MORE (D-Ill.) proved 12 years ago when he won convincingly over more centrist figures including Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWhite House accuses Biden of pushing ‘conspiracy theories’ with Trump election claim Biden courts younger voters — who have been a weakness Trayvon Martin’s mother Sybrina Fulton qualifies to run for county commissioner in Florida MORE and Biden himself.
But older people are among the most reliable caucusgoers, and previous candidates who relied heavily on young support — such as former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (D) in 2004 — have come up short in the end.
There is also measurable polling evidence to suggest that Democrats prize the ousting of Trump above all else in selecting a nominee.
For example, a Gallup Poll late last year indicated that 60 percent of Democratic voters would prefer a nominee with the best chance of defeating the president, while 38 percent would prefer a nominee who agrees with them on most of the issues they care about.
Vilsack said Friday that Biden is “the most electable because he speaks to the broadest spectrum of voters.”
But progressive activists have long argued that the choice between idealism and electability is a false one, insisting that Democrats win when they offer inspiration rather than compromise.
On Friday in Des Moines, Haaland made a version of the same point. She did not name Biden when she criticized those who favor “small ideas and short-sighted solutions” — but she hardly needed to do so.
Warren supporters such as Rebecca Cohen, a graphic designer who came to Iowa from Portland to canvass for the senator, take a similarly ambitious view.
Warren, in Cohen’s view, “has made it her life’s work to fight the corruption and imbalance that keeps working families down and disadvantages us to the benefit of the richest people. … It’s about more than defeating Trump — though that’s the first step.”
Biden, preemptively defending himself from such criticism, said in Fort Madison that his opponents were wrong to call him naive, insisting that he had been able to work constructively with Republicans as recently as the end of the Obama administration.
“The old days — three years ago!” the former vice president told the crowd wryly.
The return to normalcy promised by Biden is clearly just what some Democrats are seeking.
Jeraine Hofer, an 81-year-old from Fort Madison, said of the former vice president, “I hope he gets it. … He’s cool and calm. He doesn’t holler out too much.”
But whether Iowas in general want more to feel the balm or — in Sanders’s famous slogan — to feel the Bern remains to be seen.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily forced on Donald Trump’s presidency.