And so after a year in which the foibles, follies and fallacies of the sausage factory that is American presidential politics have been on full and often excruciating display, a year in which Hillary Clinton kept climbing out of holes she dug for herself as she fought off a challenge from the remarkable and formidable Bernie Sanders and the unremarkable and flailing Republican candidates found endless ways to dig holes for themselves as they appealed to the basest of instincts, the first votes have been cast.
After such a tumultuous year, you might anticipate that the results from yesterday's first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses would be surprising, but on the Republican side, at least, they were not. The Republican results were shocking because they were an in-your-face validation, as if one was really needed, of all that is wrong with the Republican Party -- from the growing dominance of its hating and race-baiting lunatic fringe to the cowardice of its fading establishment -- in coronating Ted Cruz, who hands down is the most vile presidential candidate since Pat Buchanan, a thug who shows not a scintilla of compassion, is loathed by his Senate colleagues, fond of using Nazi analogies in his solipsistic rants, and "is the most spectacular liar to ever run for president," in the words of one pundit.
But the results were not surprising because Iowa is about as representative of America as is Los Angeles, although they do have about the same population.
Still, the mainstream media can't break its addiction to Iowa and all those Norman Rockwell-esque town hall meetings, ham-and-egg diner breakfasts and folksy, aw-shucks flesh pressing. This is because, aside from the perils of frostbite, reporters can happily overlook that choosing a president has little to do with Iowa and no longer has anything to do with what Joan Didion called "the fables of the American experience." This is because the process today actually marginalizes voters as players and is all about a deeply incestuous relationship between the real players -- politicians and the media -- that rears its ugly head every four years with Sisyphean regularity as the mighty electoral rock is pushed uphill yet again.
This, by the way, is pretty much a wash when it comes to the still bloated Republican field, but hurts Sanders and helps Clinton.
A Watershed Moment? Or A Watercloset Moment?
The Iowa Republican caucuses are dominated by a bunch of white guys in flannel shirts with high cholesterol levels, and the last two caucus winners quickly became historical afterthoughts -- Mike Huckabee in 2008 and Rick Santorum in 2012.
This raises the question of whether Iowa Republicans are stupid -- which was oft asked by pundits, seized on by Trump and leveraged against him to good effect by Cruz -- when Iowans first embraced an embarrassment by the name of Ben Carson, whose campaign collapsed under the weight of the good doctor's bad intentions, before they moved on to . . . Trump and Cruz.
Iowans displayed their religiousosity, and they are evangelical in numbers far out of proportion to the American mainstream, in getting behind Santorum and Huckabee, and now Cruz.
And they aced their media screen test by getting all apocalyptic and angry -- again far out of proportion to the mainstream -- in voting for Cruz (28 percent of the vote) and runner-up Trump (24 percent). Establishment hope Marco Rubio was a respectable and surprisingly strong third (23 percent), with other establishment candidates left in the dust, or more likely a fallow corn field somewhere between Davenport and Des Moines. (Carson faded to a distant fourth with 9 percent, while one-time nomination shoo-in Jeb Bush got a paltry 3 percent.)
Which begs the big question: Will Cruz similarly be consigned to the dust bin of history, as were past caucus winners, or are we looking at what is a watershed moment? Or perhaps a watercloset moment?
Empathy-Free Cruz Is Scary Dangerous
Some pretty troubling Republicans have run for president, but Ted Cruz really scares me because he seems incapable of -- no, make that is incapable of -- showing compassion, and because he is so bereft of anything resembling empathy, or what his evangelical pals might call grace, and is truly dangerous.
This is someone who as solicitor general of Texas refused to let go a young man sentenced to 16 years in prison for time served for a theft when it was found prosecutors had incorrectly applied an habitual offender law. Cruz took the case to the Supreme Court to keep the man in prison for the full 16 years. He lost. And earlier as a clerk to Supreme Court Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist was obsessed with capital punishment.
So is Cruz's Iowa victory a sign of things to come?
Did Trump crap out because of his decision to skip last week's Republican debate because of a feud with Megyn Kelly and Fox News, or did the pollsters really screw up?
The answers to all three are probably "no" because, lest we forget, Trump leads the field by a country mile in New Hampshire, which votes next Tuesday, Cruz's support in Iowa was bolstered by the inordinate number of evangelicals who seem to have dropped the concept of grace from their spiritual kit bags, and most of the polls were within hailing distance of being correct.
And there's hope yet for the party establishment with Rubio's non-victory victory.
Hillary Underperforms, But It Hardly Matters
On the Democratic side, Iowans have been as predictable as ethanol subsidies. Eight of the last 10 winners were the eventual nominees, and one of the two who was not was a favorite son (Tom Harkin in 1992).
Bernie Sanders (49.6 percent) has hypothetically altered the race by more or less tying Hillary Clinton (49.9 percent) by virtue of his army of young foot soldiers. He will win the New Hampshire primary and raise inevitable questions about whether Clinton is doomed to suffer the same fate she did in 2008 when Barack Obama came from behind to win Iowa. (Can you say Groundhog Day, which today happens to be?) But Clinton surely is relieved to have escaped with a tie, remains much better positioned for the long haul despite underperforming in Iowa, will regain momentum and win the nomination.
And before Sanders supporters get too giddy, consider that he did not do particularly well in Iowa. The state was tailor made for him: Very liberal on the Democratic side and overwhelmingly white, yet all he could manage was a tie.
In the meantime, we can revel in the contrast between the Republican and Democratic campaigns. And the hateful Trump being caught in the pincers of Cruz and Rubio.
The Republican tilt is a mean, dreary and issues-free affair filled with posturing, while progressives should delight in how Sanders and Clinton are energizing the Democratic Party with their substantive -- and I daresay perhaps even transformative --clashes on the issues, putting it in much better shape for the general election and another presidency.