Opinion - Politics

Op-Ed: Iowa caucus disaster proves the Democrats still don't know how to beat Trump

Key Points
  • The clearest first takeaway from not just this Iowa debacle, but the last week's worth of election news is this: DNC Chairman Tom Perez must resign, writes Jake Novak.
Supporters of democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) wait for results to come in at his caucus night watch party on February 03, 2020 in Des Moines, Iowa.
Joe Raedle | Getty Images

If the delayed and confusing results from the Iowa caucuses results have also left you confused, here are at least three very clear things we know right now:

The clearest first takeaway from not just this Iowa debacle, but the last week's worth of election news is this: DNC Chairman Tom Perez must resign.

Ultimately, Perez deserves to bear the brunt of criticism for overseeing the rules changes the Democrats instituted in their Iowa caucus format. It may seem hard to believe, but as recently as Monday night Perez was actually boasting about those changes.

This comes after yet another Perez blunder connected to debate rules. The DNC officially changed the debate qualifying rules on Friday to eliminate the minimum requirement for individual donors. The move was largely seen as a concession to Mike Bloomberg and the sign of an organized effort by the DNC to stack the deck against Sen. Bernie Sanders. Even President Trump made that second accusation on Super Bowl Sunday:

This Perez move was bad for the Democrats in more ways than just inducing a taunt from Trump. It seems not to have dawned on Perez or anyone else at the DNC that changing the rules to put a billionaire like Bloomberg onto the debate stage as a counter to Sanders is exactly the kind of thing Sanders rails about when he bashes billionaires. This will likely make Sanders stronger, as long as he has the aggressiveness to make his argument against this rule change a prominent part of his campaign message in the coming days and weeks.

The second clear reality is that there's a bigger problem for the Democrats than just Perez's mismanagement at the DNC. The party still only has one unifying message, which is "get Trump." All that anti-Trump focus has created a chaos that looks more and more like it will result in not defeating Trump in November after all.

Tom Perez
Cameron Costa | CNBC

We're seeing two aspects of that chaos right now. Iowa's messy results aren't just the result of bad management and faulty reporting aps. They're also the result of a still overly large number of presidential candidates at this stage of the game, and the crowded field has led to more confusion. It's a direct result of the DNC and its numerous close allies in the news media rewarding and focusing on anti-Trump messages over and above any unique policies or qualities in any individual candidate. Most of what passes for discussion or analysis of any given Democratic candidate is a debate on whether he or she can beat Trump.

Speaking of being able to beat Trump, most polls have shown that Joe Biden has consistently been the most competitive in a hypothetical one-on-one contest against Trump. But Biden has begun to fade in the Democratic primary polls. That's the result of the simple fact that to defeat even the most controversial of presidential incumbents, challengers have to spend much less time bashing the current president and more time building themselves up instead. Jimmy Carter in 1976, Ronald Reagan in 1980, and Bill Clinton in 1992 all proved that.

Biden's fall may also be the result of yet another poorly coordinated effort by the Democrats: the impeachment process. It took a while, but the impeachment inquiry has made the embarrassing details about the Biden family's finances much more public. This was a predictable outcome that became even more evident given Biden's testy exchange with "Today" show co-anchor Savannah Guthrie in an interview that aired Monday.

To make things worse, it's beginning to look more and more that no Republican senators will vote to convict President Trump in the impeachment trial and that two or three Democrats will vote to acquit. That doesn't mean the impeachment process will be a complete victory for Trump. But if it results in less than 100% Democratic unity in Congress and continues to create embarrassing blowback for Biden, then it sure looks like a defeat for the Democrats.

The final bit of clarity we have right now is that the Democrats need an aggressive winner, and they need him or her right now. The lack of results from Iowa produced a "participation trophy" like atmosphere where almost every candidate declared victory. That's the opposite of what the party needs now.

Some Democrats are hoping all of this will benefit Bloomberg, especially since he wasn't even a candidate in Iowa. But while Bloomberg is doing better in the polls recently, he's still far from taking the lead in any single primary state poll right now. He needs a massive surge in his numbers with less than one month to go before the Super Tuesday primaries. If Bloomberg can't win one or two of those 15 contests, it will be hard to make the case that he's a strong choice of actual Democratic voters. The whole "surging in the polls" thing only matters at this stage if it leads to victories, not just impressive finishes.

Bashing Trump alone won't win any of the Democratic candidates the White House, but one of them is going to have to start pushing back harder on his or her opponents in the primary field to win the nomination. After this Iowa mess and the impeachment muddle, the entire Democratic Party now seems like it simply doesn't know how to win.

Jake Novak is a political and economic analyst at Jake Novak News and former CNBC TV producer. You can follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.