SAN DIEGO — When picking a presidential nominee, Democrats have only two ways of doing business: coronation and chaos. Neither works out very well.
In 2016, there was a coronation. Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee conspired to sideline Bernie Sanders. In the general election, many of the Vermont senator's supporters responded by petulantly staying home rather than voting for Clinton.
This year, there is chaos. The nomination battle is a jump ball. That should be a good thing for Democrats, given that the extended process may draw in more voters. But what if those who support a given candidate take an all-or-nothing approach, and walk away from the game if their choice gets beat?
The caucuses in Iowa — or, as the state should henceforth be known, "I.O.U." — are a perfect metaphor for the gang that can't shoot straight.
It took 72 hours for state officials to report anti-climatically that all that caucusing had resulted in what is essentially a tie between Sanders and former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
On Thursday, with 97% of precincts in the state reporting, Buttigieg had a slight lead over Sanders, 26.2% to 26.1%. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren trailed at 18.2%. Joe Biden and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar finished outside the money.
By the time Democrats arrived in New Hampshire, the party was in disarray.
For one thing, it had changed its tune. All last year, Democratic party activists talked about how the top issue in the 2020 election was electability and how the only thing that mattered was defeating President Trump. At the time, that argument appeared to benefit Biden. Now, however, given all the body blows that Biden has taken, it's hard to remember exactly why that was. The former vice president had familiarity, but it quickly turned to contempt.
The new strategy for Democrats seems to be to have no strategy at all. Iowans doubled down on purity and practicality. If you like your liberalism extra strong, have a shot of Sanders. If you want a moderate who might appeal to the center, maybe you'd prefer the smoother blend represented by Buttigieg.
Judging from the polls, Warren's prospects aren't much brighter in New Hampshire or South Carolina. She has no Democratic constituency she can call her own. If labor goes for Sanders, African Americans for Biden, and moderates for Buttigieg, where does that leave her? Mostly, out in the cold.
Now Warren is making a pitch for the one group that none of the white males who lead the field has much interest in courting: Latinos. She'll get a crack at them in Nevada, where Latinos represent 30% of the population. She also plans a five-city tour in Texas, as she sets her sights on the March 3 primaries on Super Tuesday. Those contests include elections in the Lone Star State and California. We can expect Julián Castro — her chief Latino surrogate — to figure prominently in that strategy.
Castro deserves credit for recognizing that Iowa was behind the times. While he was in the race, the former housing and urban development secretary argued that first-in-the-nation status should go to a state with a more diverse population. After the voting debacle, we can expect that view to become more popular.
Meanwhile, nothing on the Democratic menu is appetizing to James Carville. After the Iowa caucuses, the veteran political strategist went on MSNBC and declared that he was "scared to death" of where the Democratic Party appears to be headed. He's not just talking about the prospect of losing to Trump. Carville thinks the party has become an "ideological cult" and that Democrats need to "wake up" and "talk about things that are relevant to people." As one of the chief architects of Bill Clinton's pair of successful White House races, Carville knows how to win. He doesn't care much about being "woke" or starting a movement.
"What we need is power!" he said. "Do you understand? That's what this is about." Carville complained that he is "not very impressed" with the Democratic field. And that's why he is scared.
He's not alone. Political observers will often say that Trump is his own worst enemy, and that name-calling, handshake-shirking and rage-tweeting could ultimately be his downfall. Trump can beat Trump, they insist.
As a Never Trumper, this gives me some comfort. Because, heaven knows, none of the clowns headlining the Democratic circus seems up to the task.
Ruben Navarrette can be reached at email@example.com.