Was he still talking about Sanders? It wasn’t really clear.
The event was in a casino conference room, but Buttigieg was not willing to gamble, because the nearly unbreakable rule of Iowa 2020 is that candidates don’t attack each other. The campaign here has been marked by a relentless pleasantness. By this point in 2004, Dick Gephardt and Howard Dean were mauling each other. It’s often forgotten now, but on the cusp of caucus night in 2008 Barack Obama was subtly but clearly arguing that Hillary Clinton was a liar. There have been vigorous debates about policy among this group of Democrats, and one notable run-in between Sanders and Elizabeth Warren over whether he told her in private that a woman couldn’t beat Donald Trump. But the character assassination that has been fairly common in nomination fights has so far been absent.
There are generally a few reasons cited for all the positivity. The first is that in a multi-candidate field you never know will benefit from an attack. In 2004, Gephardt and Dean famously ended up destroying each other and clearing the way for John Kerry. That rule of thumb is especially important in Iowa because of the Democratic Party’s unique rules, which require caucus-goers whose top choice doesn’t hit 15% at their caucus to then “re-align” and support an alternative candidate. You’re not going to win over converts during realignment if you’ve been pillorying their first choice. Sanders and Joe Biden, the polling leaders, have high approval ratings and attacking them could repel as many voters as it attracts.
But just below the surface there is an id of every campaign, where the real feelings about opponents is expressed. Sometimes it’s on social media, where supporters unleash their true beliefs about how Biden is a racist and Sanders is a communist and Buttigieg is a cop and Warren is a liar. Often it’s in the whispers from campaign aides over drinks or in the opposition research they circulate.
And so the campaign has been fought on two levels: the happy, public-facing one marked by earnest policy debates; and the raw underground one where the candidates’ physical appearances, age, health, mental acuity, temperament and level of corruption are all nakedly discussed.
In the morning at Buttigieg’s event, I saw the first campaign. But in the evening at a Sanders event in Des Moines, the second campaign suddenly became public.
The unlikely venue was a concert in Clive, Iowa, just outside Des Moines, in support of Sanders by Justin Vernon, the superb but somnolent indie singer-songwriter who records under the name Bon Iver. The Sanders campaign is a bit like a bag of microwave popcorn. Their project has been to keep the temperature and timing just right, lest the bag burst open or light on fire. The candidate himself exercises extreme discipline. But he’s staffed and supported by plenty of people who are enraged by the Democratic establishment and by Sanders’ primary opponents and by many of the reporters who cover him.
The tension was apparent at the Bon Iver event. The crowd was young and celebratory and lubricated by several bars at the venue. If you want to pick out a particular Sanders supporter cliché, you could find them: the white dude with dreadlocks below his knees, the hippy college kids with peace sign Bernie pins, the Democratic Socialists of America members who would never consider voting for one of Sanders’ primary opponents. The trick at these events is for the speakers to keep the crowd’s ruder tendencies in check. (It’s the opposite of a Trump rally, where he encourages his supporters to let loose.)
Not everyone got the memo. Michael Moore took the stage and romped through a tribute to Sanders’ consistency over the years. But then he noted that something had happened today that “broke his heart.”
“Every day Bernie cautions us, ‘Don’t say anything — you can point out the record of our opponents, that’s good. But don’t trash the people that are my friends, that I work with [and] that we want them to come along and think about these issues in this way.’” Moore then launched into a tirade against the Democratic National Committee and “corporate Democrats,” before explaining that what had him so worked up were the new DNC debate rules. The criteria announced Friday do away with a threshold based on donors and replace it with one based on how many delegates a candidate wins in the first states.
To Moore this was a plot to undermine Sanders and help Michael Bloomberg. He then alleged, in a rather unusual interpretation of the facts, that “the DNC will not allow Cory Booker on that stage, will not allow Julián Castro on that stage, but they’re going to allow Mike Bloomberg on that stage because he’s got a billion fucking dollars!”
He mentioned Biden and the crowd booed. Moore had seen a Biden TV ad that argued he was the “safe” candidate. “If you’re single and you’re on match.com or any of those dating sites,” he said, “if you saw a guy write in his profile, ‘I’m safe,’ whoa you’re not safe! And I’m going to tell you Joe Biden, here’s who’s not safe: those who voted to send us to invade the nation of Iraq. You did that Joe Biden. You’re not safe!”
A little later, three of Sanders’ supporters in Congress, Reps. Rashida Tlaib, Pramila Jayapal, and Ilhan Omar, came on stage to discuss policy with local activist Dionna Langford. When Langford mentioned that “someone by the name of Hillary Clinton” recently remarked that “nobody likes” Sanders, the crowd booed. It seemed cathartic. Langford tried to reign in the conversation. “We’re not gonna boo, we’re not gonna boo,” she said. “We’re classy here.”
Tlaib interrupted. “I’ll boo. Booo!” she said. “You all know I can’t be quiet.” Jayapal grabbed her hand and laughed, seemingly trying to get her to tone it down. “The haters will shut up on Monday when we win,” Tlaib said. The crowd loved it.
Earlier, Bernie’s voice had been beamed in via an awkward phone call played over the sound system. He stuck to his stump speech, and as much as his supporters love him, his remarks didn’t quite satisfy that itch of partisan combat the way that Moore and Tlaib did.
When I left the lights were dimmed. Couples were embracing each other and swaying while Bon Iver sang “For Emma,” one of his most beloved songs, in his distinctive falsetto. He ended the night with a cover of Bob Dylan’s sixties ballad “The Times They Are A-Changin’.”
Whether we are witnessing the old Democratic order rapidly fading or not was unclear.