George F. Will: In Iowa, signs of civil health

George F. Will

George F. Will

WASHINGTON — When Huck Finn asked Tom Sawyer what a Moslem is, Tom said a Moslem is someone who is not a Presbyterian, which is true, but not the whole truth. Donald Trump says he is a Presbyterian (“I drink my little wine … and have my little cracker”), which apparently was not good enough for enough of Iowa’s evangelicals.

One person who left Iowa having earned the nation’s gratitude is Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse. He campaigned with three Republican aspirants (Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Carly Fiorina) in order to advance this year’s most urgent task, which is to elevate the Republican race by removing the Trump distraction.

Given Trump’s sexual boasts (“If I told the real stories of my experiences with women, often seemingly very happily married and important women, this book would be a guaranteed best-seller”), Sasse tweeted: “You brag abt many affairs w/ married women. Have you repented? To harmed children & spouses? Do you think it matters?” Noting Trump’s evident intention to replicate Barack Obama’s anti-constitutional executive authoritarianism, Sasse tweeted “You talk A LOT about ‘running the country’ as tho 1 man shld ‘run America.’ Will you commit to rolling back Exec power & undoing Obama unilateral habit?” Finally: “These r sincere questions & I sincerely hope u answer rather than insult.”

Trump responded: “@BenSasse looks more like a gym rat than a U.S. Senator. How the hell did he ever get elected?” Iowans who made up their minds in the last month broke heavily against Trump, perhaps a harbinger of voters everywhere recoiling from the prospect of this arrested-development adolescent sitting in Lincoln’s chair.

Cruz’s theory of the race, including the general election, is that he can locate and motivate voters who, having concluded that voting is futile, have turned away from politics. The 2008 and 2012 presidential elections were momentous because they empowered a progressive president to vastly expand the administrative state, often by unilateral executive actions. But the 2010 and 2014 off-year elections also were momentous. Although they substantially expanded the congressional strength of Republicans pledged to resist progressivism, subsequent events convinced a significant portion of the Republican electorate that those pledges were pointless — that only presidential elections are significant, because congressional power is insignificant.

Monday’s record turnout for the Iowa Republican caucuses may be a sign of civic health. Or not. Lincoln’s 39.9 percent of the 1860 popular vote is the lowest in history for an electoral vote winner, but the 81.2 percent turnout of eligible voters in 1860 is the second-highest in history: High turnouts can coincide with high anxiety about irrepressible conflicts.

Distributional conflict is written in the arithmetic of economic sluggishness. Monday’s beginning of the 2016 nomination process came one week after the Congressional Budget Office issued its 10-year outlook, projecting cumulative deficits over the next decade at $8.5 trillion, resulting in a 2025 debt-service cost of $772 billion. And Iowans voted three days after the government announced the economy’s fourth-quarter growth rate of 0.7 percent, completing a lost decade — 10 years without a year of even 3 percent growth.

Time was, Republicans preached realism about the demographic pressures on the entitlement state as every day 10,000 more baby boomers become eligible for Social Security and Medicare. This year, the subject rarely enters the political conversation. Time was, the Democratic Party was at least thoughtful about its Keynesian economics. Today, the intellectual tone of the world’s oldest political party is set by Bernie Sanders, who thinks America has one problem, or perhaps 536: That, according to Forbes magazine, is the number of Americans in what Sanders calls “the billionaire class.”

Sanders, a sandbox socialist, promises a “revolution” but actually represents dreary continuity with the current president, who has said ATMs and airport ticket kiosks cause unemployment.

Sanders has similar economic sophistication: “You don’t necessarily need a choice of 23 underarm spray deodorants or of 18 different pairs of sneakers when children are hungry in this country.” The connection between childhood poverty and multiple deodorants is as unclear as the reasons Americans should be unhappy that Steve Jobs became a billionaire by producing Apple products that make Americans happy.

It probably is too late for the Democratic Party to get what it needs, which is a third candidate, someone somewhat likable and somewhat plausible. It is not too soon to hope that Republicans will soon get what they need, which is a contest without Trump, who is a negative illustration of Emerson’s axiom that “the force of character is cumulative.”

Email: georgewill@washpost.com

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