IOWA CITY, Iowa — For three-quarters of a century, the Airliner has been a popular Clinton Street haunt, full of University of Iowa flags, beer signs, photo tributes to the Hawkeyes’ famous 2005 last-second 30-25 bowl victory over LSU, and massive televisions tuned to college basketball games. The fries are fat, the meat-craver pizzas legendary. The special the other night was a steaming plate of wings for $4.99.
But also on offer as the night went on was a heaping platter of talk about women’s safety, labor rights, environmental imperatives and economic justice, all sprinkled with anti-Trump chili sauce. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand was in town, and a crowd of students and activists — spilling into the adjacent tap room — braved the 14-degree cold for some hot rhetoric.
The New York Democrat isn’t an official presidential candidate yet — the trend this year is for contenders to run before they actually reach the starting gate — but there was no mistaking her intentions: a feminist appeal crackling with anger and yet fueled by optimism. If she were a Republican, she’d be one part Ted Cruz darkness and one part Ronald Reagan sunshine.
Gillibrand is nowhere in the polls but soon will be everywhere in Iowa, which next February holds the first caucuses of the 2020 presidential campaign. Last weekend, as news spread about President Donald J. Trump’s border-barrier emergency, she was in New Hampshire, which votes eight days after this state, saying “the only emergency is in Donald Trump’s mind.” Her two appearances at college sites were remarkably similar, the sort of polished, rote stump speech that candidates give deep into a campaign out of fatigue rather than the more improvisational fugue of a political newcomer. And though whole portions of her remarks here seemed shopworn — they track almost identically with an interview she gave four years ago — they were new to her audience, which responded with enthusiasm.
That’s the trick a year out. The Iowa pollster Ann Selzer, who conducts the Des Moines Register/CNN/Mediacom survey, says Gillibrand was the first or second choice of only 1 percent of Iowans in her December poll, which is no surprise and, really, of no importance. What is important is that 48 percent said they could see themselves supporting her sometime. Successful presidential candidacies have been made of less.
Gillibrand is nothing if not a firebrand. Her lawyer mother was a black belt in karate; some years she shot the Thanksgiving turkey. The daughter is a fighter, taking on the military over sexual assault, helping to push out her liberal Democratic Senate colleague, Al Franken of Minnesota, over groping charges, even suggesting Bill Clinton should have resigned because of his Oval Office assignations with a White House intern. That identifies her as independent, almost an insurgent. But as the campaign wears on, her identification with the discredited Albany political machine will present her with the sort of political challenge Harry Truman had as the product of Missouri’s Jackson County Pendergast machine. Truman battled through it, even attending Tom Pendergast’s Kansas City funeral only days after his inauguration as vice president.
But that’s in the distant future. For now, Gillibrand has as good a chance as any of the two dozen candidates who soon will be blanketing Iowa like the twin snowfalls that stormed through the state in recent days. Every one of those snowflakes was different — every one of these candidates is different — but the very mass of them makes it hard to distinguish one from the other. That is the year’s principal political challenge.
Right now, as the winter political storm of high winds and low visibility deepens, Gillibrand is offering much the same as the rest of the falling flakes: Big-time health care plans. Green New Deal. Repudiation of the Trump tax measure. Shovels full of criticism of the president.
For Democrats, especially when visiting ultra-liberal Johnson County and speaking to University of Iowa student activists, that is the natural fare, irresistible and intoxicating. That would have been enough in 2000, when there were only two Democratic candidates, or even in 1984, when there were eight; in those Iowa caucuses, each won by the eventual nominee, it was easier to differentiate candidates. This time, not so much.
Listen to this riff and you’ll see the difficulty: “This race is about our values. President Trump has created so much hate, so much division, so much cruelty. He spews hatred and racism and anti-Semitism.” That could be any one of Ms. Gillibrand’s rivals — Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Bernie Sanders, even South Bend, Indiana’s Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Try this line from Gillibrand’s appearance here: “This country’s never been afraid of immigrants, never been afraid of refugees.” Is that Kamala Harris or Amy Klobuchar? Hang around Iowa long enough and you’ll hear those very words spew from all of their mouths.
Now that the other Iowa preoccupation, the state high school wrestling tournament, is over, Iowans are approaching a giant political salad bar, looking at the mushrooms and the red onions and the broccoli crowns, figuring out what is to their taste. For the time being, they’re examining everything; in fact, many of them will be going to all the candidates’ events, in part for the taste test that is part of Iowa’s civic character, in part for the pure joy of hearing someone semi-famous (and semi-serious as a candidate) saying that Trump is a disgrace to the human race or that he is, as Gillibrand put it, “tearing at the fabric, the very soul of who we are as Americans.”
That was enough to win the evening, and Gillibrand surely did — though she may not have convinced Miriam Kashia of West Liberty, Iowa, who describes herself as a “full-time climate activist” and whose question about global warming (“On your first day in office, are you willing to totally endorse the Green New Deal and declare an emergency on climate change?”) prompted only a Gillibrand “call to action,” rather than the emergency Kashia wanted.
In this campaign, in Iowa, where Democratic caucus-goers are more liberal than the voters who have placed two Republican senators and a Republican governor in office, urgency rather than an emergency may not be enough. Then again, in a general election, it may be too much.
David M. Shribman is executive editor emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org