Iowa voters will be the first, but not the last, to choose between Democratic candidates with very different movements that all proclaim that they will defeat President Trump, unite the party, heal the country and address real crises.
But if the closing candidate rallies and events in Iowa have revealed anything, it is that the differences between the top-tier Democrats are much deeper now than they were in 2016. Nowhere is this contrast clearer than at events for Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, where their faithful see each man as a sage on a sacred mission, while the other leads a doomed wing of the Democratic Party.
The 3,000 attendees at a Sanders rally and concert in Cedar Rapids on Saturday night didn't just hear Sanders recite why Trump must be defeated, what American wounds must be healed and how a popular uprising will succeed. They first heard leading progressives deliver secular sermons casting Sanders as a prophetic figure who would finish the economic reforms begun under FDR's New Deal and revive Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream of real justice and social transformation.
"It isn't just about the numbers, is it?" said filmmaker Michael Moore, citing Sanders' lead in polls in Iowa, New Hampshire and California. "It is about the heart and soul of the things that we believe in. The America that we still believe in; the America — I say this all the time — I believe in the America we have yet to have. That's the America I believe in. I believe we can still make the promise real."
"We will send a message to the nation and the world [that] it is a new day in America," said cultural critic Cornel West. "The spiritual catastrophe, ecological catastrophe, economic catastrophe, political catastrophe will be attended to with deep love. When you love, you hate injustice. That's what we're here for. And we will win!"
But Sanders isn't the only 2020 Democrat seeing their campaign as a deeply moral mission, if not a secular crusade, to save America. A day later, on Sunday in Des Moines, former Vice President Joe Biden held a "community meeting" in a high school gym. Speaker after speaker — Democrats centrists elected to government posts at every level, including Obama's Cabinet — said that only Biden, a deeply empathetic man, could return America and the world to saner times.
"Folks, empathy is an incredibly important consideration for a president," said Tom Vilsack, former Iowa governor and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. "And no one has a deeper empathy [with], has a deeper connection to, those who are in need of someone to reach out to provide hope that there is a better day than Joe Biden."
"So remember this," he continued, offering talking points for caucus-goers. "He gets things done. He can fix our place in the world as a global leader once again… [Biden] is the person with the greatest empathy and connection with all of those Americans who are suffering; [the] understanding of what this country needs most of all. Why? Because when we are united, when we are healed, when we are no longer divided, there is absolutely nothing this country can't do and everything we can do."
At Sanders' rally a day before, thousands of people — mostly under age 30 — heard passionate testimonials about the need for deep fundamental change. At the Biden "community meeting" where hundreds of people, including many former government officials and party leaders, there were quieter but very serious arguments about the need to fundamentally rescue the government from Trump and his GOP accomplices.
This amounts to a clash of the party's fundamentals and fundamentalists. Indeed, some of the hecklers at Biden's rally — yelling questions about climate change or oil and gas industry donations, who were quickly drowned out by chants of, "We want Joe! We want Joe!" and elicited no response from Biden — were doubtless inspired by the seminar-sermons that have been fixtures of Sanders' events.
Democrats are really in a bind. Reached by phone while driving between Iowa events, Debra Kozikowski, vice-chair of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, a longtime grassroots organizer and founder of the Left of Center PAC, raised the latest lament: Democrats can't win with, or can't win without, Sanders in 2020. And back in the Des Moines gym, one of the few Iowans watching Biden from near the podium, Wallace Bubar, 46, a Presbyterian pastor, came to almost the same conclusion about Biden.
"I know plenty of people who are moderate Democrats, or in the past might have been Republicans, who are not fans of Trump," he said, before Biden spoke. "They are not going to vote for Bernie Sanders. His message is too progressive for lots of centrists." When pressed why, Bubar said that raising the taxes needed to pay for reforms, "more than anything else," was off-putting to these moderates.
But after hearing Biden, who spoke without a script and rambled, often in muffled and truncated phrases, Bubar raised the inescapable question: Was Biden past his prime? Before leaving, he brought up Michael Bloomberg, the ex-New York City mayor and media mogul who is also reaching for the political center.
Iowans and the states whose primaries and caucuses follow don't have an easy choice. Biden and Sanders have spent their lives seeking to stand up deeply opposing political systems and cultures, even as they both say that they want to uplift the working and middle classes. Sanders has put that goal front and center in his speeches, while Biden cites it after restoring American democracy and global leadership.
Sanders believes the spark to ignite his revolution to transform America has finally arrived. Biden believes he and other civil servants must serve again to preserve the governmental system that they have dedicated their careers to. Yet that is the very system that Sanders has sought to transform for decades. Both camps know this, despite candidate pronouncements of beating Trump and uniting the party.
"It just stuns me the things he says every day," Biden told the Des Moines gym. "We need a president that brings us together, and unite our party when this nomination is all over, and unite the country. We're a democracy. I've been criticized for saying we'll unite the country. Well, we're a democracy. Democracies depend on consensus. And there's no way to govern, to progress, if we can't reach consensus in America. We have to be able to pull Democrats, Independents and Republicans together. We have to be able to do that."
"The whole world is looking at Iowa," Sanders told the Cedar Rapids arena. "The whole world is asking whether or not the people in Iowa are prepared to stand up and fight for justice… All over the world, people are watching to see if people in Iowa are prepared to help create a government and an economy that works for all of us, not just the 1 percent… And it all begins in Iowa."