The Big Picture

The Iowa victories of Republican Ted Cruz and Democrat Hillary Clinton offer the first glimpse of clarity in the fractious—and sometimes surreal—2016 election season, which has been the nation’s most troubling since 1968. Forty-six years ago, the Democrats were engaged in serial acts of self-cannibalization. Today, it’s the Republicans.

In a narrow, mechanical sense, Texas Sen. Cruz’s victory was an upset. Caucus day dawned with Cruz narrowly behind New York billionaire Donald Trump, who shrewdly said that he’d like to win; never, however, claiming the sort of ownership he does for New Hampshire.

Monday morning, the question was this: If the Canadian-born son of Cuban émigré Evangelicals could not beat the twice-divorced, onetime pro-choice Trump in this redoubt of awe-shucks Christian fundamentalism, then where could Cruz prevail? Well, that’s been asked and answered. By Tuesday morning Trump was a loser.

Maybe skipping the Fox News debate moderated by Megan Kelly, during which Rubio shined, was not such a good idea?

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who finished third, was also a loser. But Rubio lost in a way that makes him a winner of sorts. Rubio exceeded expectations. He lost with more votes that expected. And for establishment Republicans seeking someone to stop Trump and Cruz, Rubio today shines more brightly.

Cruz and Trump are red-meat nativists. They carry a whiff of unapologetic hard-right, European-style authoritarianism about them. Richard Nixon, the ultimate ’68 victor, could only have dreamed about their brutalist style.

Still, America favors happy warriors: Witness Ronald Reagan. Is Rubio happy and heavy? Will he emerge from New Hampshire next week as “the comeback kid”—as Bill Clinton did in 1992?

Among Democrats, the takeaway is more complicated.

In the narrowest sense, Clinton did win. And in the playbook of expectations that not only counts, but provides psychic cover should she not blunt or reverse Sanders’s New Hampshire momentum.

Iowa, in the past, was unkind to Clinton. Eight years ago, when still considered the front-runner, Clinton finished third, behind Barrack Obama and the as-yet-undisgraced North Carolina Sen. John Edwards.

To date, the Democrats have been more decorous than the GOP. I can’t imagine the tone not changing in New Hampshire. But while the Republican are all over the place emotionally, policy takes second place to tone.

For Democrats it’s a battle of young (Sanders) versus the middle-aged and old (Clinton), impatient idealists vs. practical centrists.

The gender card, Hillary as a historic groundbreaker—the first woman to win a major party nomination as a prelude to capturing the White House—might not prove as elastic a concept, at least in the earliest primaries.

If Sanders does win in New Hampshire, it won’t mean as much until it is cemented with a matching victory in, say, Nevada, or Massachusetts.

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