DES MOINES — Liberty and Justice ain’t what it used to be.
Literally: Until a few years ago, this Iowa Democratic confab — the Liberty and Justice Celebration — was called the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner. Then Democrats decided they didn’t want to have a party under the banner of slave owners.
But also functionally. This dinner used to be a place where a dark-horse candidate could emerge from the shadows. Maybe it can be that again someday, but not this year. This year was all candidates shading each other, both with their veiled digs and with the sheer size of the field, forming a canopy that prevented light from shining through to those at the bottom.
As a refresher, this was the event that launched then-Sen. Barack Obama to a victory in the Iowa caucuses. It’s not hyperbolic to say that night in 2007, when he lit the room of Democrats on fire with a pitch-perfect address, transformed Obama from a questionable also-ran to an eventual president.
The speech was so legendary that it has cast a long shadow that loomed over this weekend, over the Wells Fargo Arena and over every low-polling candidate who came here looking for their moment in the sun.
“I was talking to someone who worked on the Obama campaign and he described how that campaign was scuffling in October,” candidate Andrew Yang told his followers earlier in the day after Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo played a rally for him. “Everyone was looking at them and saying, ‘Can this campaign do it?’ and then this weekend happened in 2007 and then their campaign caught fire. And that's exactly what's going to happen for us.”
Yang was hardly the only one with that strategy. Sen. Kamala Harris pulled her resources from other early primary states to “fucking [move] to Iowa.” Tom Steyer has spent hundreds of thousands of his own dollars here. Sen. Cory Booker has one of the best qualified ground games, watching and waiting for him to have a breakout moment they can sell to the people.
And that’s just the problem: Thirteen presidential candidates took the stage Friday night (mercifully winnowed from 14 when former Rep. Beto O’Rourke dropped out of the race earlier in the day). The vaunted event that catapulted Obama to stardom was reduced to just another candidate cattle call, long on rhetoric but short on results.
Lu Ann Pedrick, a Des Moines- based party activist and Booker supporter who lists South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg as her second choice, said the candidate field is just too large. That means no single candidate really has the time to spin a narrative. She thinks even Obama would be lagging somewhere towards the back of the pack in an environment like this.
“This isn’t a year for storytellers. This is a year for soundbites,” she said. “I don't think anybody's really going to have a breakout out of this. I would really be surprised.”
A big field isn’t necessarily bad for the party. After all, there were about twice as many Democratic spectators at this event than in 2007, showing the party has energy. But it makes it hard for the candidates. Back in 2007 the event was four hours for six candidates. Friday’s event was six hours for 13.
So unlike Obama’s 20 minute oratory — which balanced personal narrative with attacks on his opposition, optimism for the future with gloom over the past — each candidate on Friday had about half that time to fire up twice as many people.
It’s not that candidates didn’t give good speeches. Buttigieg, Harris and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, for instance, got huge reactions from their throngs of supporters packed into large sections of the stadium seating.
And it’s not as if candidates didn’t differentiate themselves from one another. Buttigieg and Warren, for instance, continued their fight from the last debate over how hard to fight.
“We will fight when we must fight. But I will never allow us to get so wrapped up in the fighting that we start to think fighting is the point. The point is what lies on the other side of the fight,” Buttigieg said, taking a shot at Warren’s, “Dream Big, Fight Hard,” mantra.
“Anyone who comes on this stage and tells you they can make change without a fight, is not going to win that fight,” Warren retorted a few speeches later.
Below that overarching fight over the direction of the party, shade was flying everywhere. Sen. Bernie Sanders took on former Vice President Joe Biden for accepting super PAC help. Sen. Michael Bennet poked fun at Buttigieg for being a small-town mayor. And so on and so forth.
Bob Mortimore, a retired teacher who drove upstate for the event with a group from Clio, Iowa, said he likes Warren and Biden — and a few others whose names he couldn’t quite remember at the moment.
“I need a list. Can’t tell the players without the program,” he said. “I was hoping that maybe the ones who didn't have much chance would lend their strength to any one of the primary candidates and I don't know, I guess I can't say who would be the primary candidates.”
When asked if he was facing the classic paradox of too many good choices he let out a hearty laugh.
“Yeah, I think that kind of fits my thinking,” he said.
Cover: Democratic presidential candidate, entrepreneur Andrew Yang acknowledges the crowd during The Iowa Democratic Party Liberty & Justice Celebration on November 1, 2019 in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images)