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Cruz, Rubio and Hillary's hollow victory

Iowans may epitomize middle America, but their caucus last night kicked an oddly European election into high gear. Two mass movements that have long been mainstays of European elections, one socialist and one nationalist, emerged overnight in revulsion to the Clinton and Bush dynasts decreed by the party elites.

Socialism and nationalism typically gain popularity when society's trusted leaders fail to grapple with challenge and change.

Americans today see their employment prospects dwindling and their hopes for social mobility evaporating. They see China, Russia, Iran, and ISIS ascendant on the global stage.

Marco Rubio, Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz
Getty Images
Marco Rubio, Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz

Such environments have always proved fertile for populist personality cults—though rarely in America. Granted, the cantankerous Bernie Sanders and the brash Donald Trump may be caricature American personalities, but their roles are purely European (or perhaps Latin American).

Like all socialists, Bernie Sanders will solve our problems using the assets of the undeserving rich.

Like all nationalists, Donald Trump will solve them by protecting our neighborhoods and jobs from the predations of foreigners. Two obvious villains, two easy solutions, and two movements far more common in European parliaments than in the White House.

America's voters have typically done better. Each time we have experienced lengthy stretches of lackluster, divisive leadership, we have found an inspiring, unifying leader to turn things around. Twenty-four years of mostly ineffectual leadership slid inexorably into the Civil War; Abraham Lincoln gave birth to a new America.

Thirty years of weak leadership following his death led to a deep, long recession and the birth of Jim Crow; Teddy Roosevelt ignited the American century.

Another quarter-century of uninspired leaders imploded into the Great Depression; FDR ascended to the almost messianic pantheon of Washington and Lincoln.

Most recently, the disappointments and disillusionments of the Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter presidencies and the long frigid pall of the Cold War gave way for Ronald Reagan to awaken a new morning in America.

Each of these leaders rose above their times in a uniquely American way to inspire and uplift sizable majorities of their countrymen. Our ability to produce such leaders precisely when the nation most needed them has long been one of the finest expressions of American exceptionalism and a testament, for the majority of Americans open to such signs, of God's blessing.

Leading up to last night, numerous trends suggesting that our luck – or grace - may have run out placed an enormous burden on Iowa's voters. Out of a sense of responsibility, pride, destiny or anger, they came out in force, breaking all records.

On the Democratic side, they split their votes evenly between the dynast Clinton and the socialist Sanders—likely tempering the extent of their socialist leanings to accommodate their obsession with identity politics.

The great factional debate among today's Democrats is coming down to whether it is more important to redistribute other people's money or to elevate representatives of designated demographic classes. Hillary Clinton's victory is hollow.

She cannot transform the technicality into a win: the night belonged to Bernie Sanders and his socialists, whose strength continues to erode her aura of dynastic inevitability. Democrats clearly prefer his agenda to hers; were it not for her gender, the socialist would have defeated her handily.

On the Republican side, roughly a quarter followed the siren song of nationalism, but Trump still fell short. Though he generated enthusiasm and helped bring out new voters, his bombastic cultivated persona thrives on winning.

Twitter immediately lit up with the schadenfreude of an old Trump tweet "No one remembers who comes in second." His address to supporters was confident but subdued. His remains an incredible story of an outsider, but how indeed will the Donald handle finishing second?

Meanwhile, a far larger number of Iowa's Republicans rallied behind two candidates following recognizable American paths to leadership. More than half of them favored young, dynamic, first-generation Senators. Both Ted Cruz, as the night's clear winner, and Marco Rubio, who came within a hair's-breadth of overtaking Trump, beat expectations.

Rubio emerged well positioned vis-à-vis those considered his strongest competitors for the "establishment" vote—including the all but ignored dynast Jeb Bush. And Trump's weakness (relative to expectations) may help Cruz pull away decisively with Evangelicals who had been showing a surprising affinity for the libertine celebrity mogul on the rise.

Taken together, a good night for Cruz and Rubio should reassure the many conservatives who had feared that the GOP was falling into the easy allure of nationalism. A good night for Sanders serves only to affirm the Democratic embrace of socialism. While many Republicans may be angry, Democrats have shown that they are far, far angrier.

Last night, Iowans became the first Americans to consider the European-style dynastic, nationalist, and socialist options—along with those emerging from more recognizable American traditions. Iowa Republicans did not flock to nationalism in anything near the predicted numbers. Instead, more than half of them rallied behind two young inspirational leaders of immense potential.

For those who believe in American exceptionalism and the American penchant for producing extraordinary leaders when we need them most, those two candidates seem to hold out the greatest hope. And they, in turn, in a decided departure from the European model, were profusely, unabashedly grateful to God in their triumph.

We are grateful to the people of Iowa for strengthening their hands. We will consider Iowa's lessons quite seriously—until the fine people of New Hampshire weigh in next week.

Commentary by Bruce Abramson, Ph.D., J.D. and Jeff Ballabon. Abramson is a senior fellow at the London Center for Policy Research, and director of policy at the Iron Dome Alliance. Ballabon is CEO of B2 Strategic where he advises and represents corporate and political clients. He previously headed the communications and public policy departments of major media corporations including CBS News and Court TV. Follow them on Twitter @bdabramson and @ballabon.

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