In this edition: Tom Steyer on the trail, the Democrats debate Iran by agreeing with each other, and Republicans take aim at seats they'd drawn to be Democratic.
Please excuse me so I can listen to the Des Moines Register's new podcast, and this is The Trailer.
LOGAN, Iowa — Tom Steyer, the billionaire who had spent more than any other American to impeach President Trump, was not happy with how that wish was granted. Democrats, he said, had been too timid about the political implications. They’d passed two narrow impeachment resolutions, then bottled them, as the scandals that had really bothered Steyer went unpunished.
“I said from the beginning that the emoluments thing was just an obvious constitutional breach,” Steyer said last week, as his campaign bus rolled toward a town meeting in rural northwest Iowa. “Look, they made a decision to go with a very limited set of charges, and now the Republicans are saying, 'Well, it’s just a limited set of charges, it’s not worth impeaching him over.' Did you notice that? It’s ironic.”
If Democrats seemed eager to move on, Steyer was far ahead of them. For six months, he had spent more than any other presidential candidate on ads in early-voting states such as Iowa. He’d secured spots in televised debates, becoming the target of liberal anger at how their historically diverse primary produced a nearly all-white final bracket. Nobody had appeared on more Iowa TV screens; nobody had more Democrats asking who, exactly, was voting for his candidacy. With Mike Bloomberg skipping the early states, and with the New Yorker's ads focused more on experience than any "outsider" candidates, Steyer had a lane all to himself in Iowa: the wealthy candidate crashing the system.
Steyer had ignored Democrats who’d told him not to run a multimillion-dollar “Need to Impeach” campaign. As he saw it, he’d been right, while they’d been panicky and wrong. That was worth remembering as they complained about him spending more than $100 million to run for president, on a platform of "making change happen" by capping congressional terms, allowing voters to pass laws in national referenda and otherwise governing as an Obama-style liberal.
“The real truth is that you can't buy a nomination,” Steyer said. “The real question is, do you have anything to say that anyone cares about? That's the real question. And that's the lens that I look at every single candidate through, including myself. Are you saying something different? Are you saying something true?”
In the first days of Steyer’s new-year bus tour, he did sound different, and he brought out some voters who’d been unmoved by other Democrats. Last Thursday, over four stops in Iowa’s bright-red “Siouxland,” he got two questions about the national debt — an issue neither Democrats nor Republicans talked much about anymore — while curious conservatives asked about his business experience and his support for term limits. Steyer didn't pander, usually taking the debt questions as a cue to attack the budget-busting 2017 tax cut. (This is how most Democrats, the politicians Steyer is running against, handle debt questions.)
“He’s a better candidate than any of the Democrats I’ve seen,” said John Berg, 65, who heard Steyer speak in Sioux City. “I voted for Trump last time, and I’ve regretted it every day.”
Steyer’s wealth has not broken him out of the low single digits or brought out the kind of Iowa crowds that turn heads. But it has meant that he can try anything. His campaign bus was wrapped with both his signature tartan plaid, in the back and front, and the bright primary colors of the Kenyan belt he wears. (Asked twice about it, he told about the artisans he and his wife had meant on a charity trip.) In Sioux City, the candidate's wife, Kat Taylor, sang a Jackson Browne song, "For A Dancer," in its entirety. Plastic tubs of Steyer merchandise appear at every town hall, some it more focused on Trump than on the Democratic candidate himself. That’s all fine by Steyer.
“I’ve had 8-year-old kids come up to me and say, ‘Fraud and failure!’” Steyer said in Sioux City, pleased that the anti-Trump refrain in his ads had broken through.
Democrats who are not working for Steyer are often critical of his campaign — not what he’s saying, but that he’s running at all instead of spreading more money across their causes. But there is a recent model for what Steyer is trying, built by Democrats who have sought seats in Congress or statewide offices.
In 2018, Iowa Democrats nominated Fred Hubbell, a wealthy businessman and party donor, in a gubernatorial election that they narrowly lost; one state over, Illinois Democrats nominated billionaire J.B. Pritzker, who ousted a Republican governor with a free-spending, liberal campaign. The liberal-minded voters at Steyer’s events were unconcerned with his wealth and intrigued by the premise of a billionaire attacking Trump as an ineffective plutocrat.
“There's just way too much money in politics,” said Terri Vincent, 61, who saw Steyer speak in Council Bluffs. “Even though he's a billionaire, I get the feeling that his character is such that he wants to do the right thing. Get corporate money out. Level the playing field. The division between the poor and the 1 percent is growing astronomically, and the middle class is disappearing.”
But one day into Steyer's bus tour, he got a lesson in how events can overwhelm a campaign's message. On Thursday night, while he was taking questions about the national debt and gun control in Sioux City, the world learned that the United States killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani. Foreign policy had simply not been a focus of Steyer's campaign — not in the TV ads, not in direct mail, not on a campaign website that devotes just one paragraph to the subject.
“I need to learn much more,” Steyer said, when asked about the attack. “What's clear is that the president's determination to step away from the negotiated agreement with Iran, what six other countries did in terms of their nuclear capabilities, and to go to go it alone in a very confrontational fashion, is escalating problems. And, you know, I want to read this story, to make sure that I understand exactly all the ramifications."
Steyer was on more comfortable turf when asking voters to picture him in a debate with Trump about the economy, or ethics, or climate, the issue he would make his "top priority" as president. It all came back to Trump. Removing him, Steyer would argue, would be the start of solving every problem voters came to him with. At several stops, Steyer referred to his father's work as a prosecutor after World War II to explain why he needed to spend these years ending Trump's presidency.
“What my father said was, when you see something really wrong in your society, then it’s your responsibility to fight back,” Steyer said in Sioux City. “The reason that I started the Need to Impeach movement was that my father told me the German people didn’t push back against the Nazis, so it metastasized; it got worse and worse.”
But lots of people had become interested in Steyer from his TV ads, which pivoted away from impeachment to his just-fix-it agenda. Some of them weren't on board when they heard him attack the president.
“I like him, and he seems different, but I don't like the way he bashes Trump,” said Diane Lustgraaf, 64, after Steyer spoke in Logan. “He talks like Trump didn't do anything. What does mean? Trump's thing was that when he got in office, he was going to bring jobs back.”
Lustgraaf had voted for Trump in 2016. “If he doesn't get impeached,” she said, "I might vote for him again.”
Behind her, the man who'd spent most of Trump's presidency working to impeach him climbed onto his multicolored bus.
Holding out hope for a candidate who has struggled to catch on.
Why so few Democrats have made endorsements.
What's happening with a paralyzed watchdog.
Can bankruptcy law become a flash point in the primary?
“Both Trump and Democrats see political benefits to U.S. killing of Iranian general,” by Robert Costa and Philip Rucker
Some foreign policy decisions unite the country. Not this one.
ON THE TRAIL
The escalating conflict with Iran has driven foreign policy into the Democrats' primary in a sustained way for the first time. Up to last week, no post-9/11 primary campaign had focused less on America's military power and foreign engagements. The first poll of the year, conducted by CBS News before the killing of Iran's Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, asked voters in Iowa and New Hampshire which of seven issues was most important to them. “Foreign policy” was not even asked about.
Since then, the Democrats leading in early state polls have largely agreed with one another on Trump's action: They were against it. Unlike previous primaries, where the party's candidates splintered on whether to support a Republican president's military moves, every leading Democrat — former vice president Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), and former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg — has suggested that they would not have killed Soleimani.
But the rest of debate, carried out by candidates crisscrossing each other in campaign buses and TV studios, has veered between substance and instant litmus tests. No candidate has been asked all the same questions, but Warren has answered the most. That has let her sketch out her worldview in more detail than we've seen before, while kicking off a sometimes surreal competition to find inconsistencies in her statements.
Sanders quickly separated himself from the three other candidates, all polling in double digits across the early states. His initial statement called the killing an “assassination” and did not characterize or condemn Soleimani, whose Quds Force had been designated a “terrorist” organization by the Trump administration. (The Treasury Department had already designated it as such in 2007.) In two sets of remarks in Iowa, Sanders reminded audiences that he had opposed the Iraq War and said that the next steps for Congress should be voting to prevent strikes on Iran.
“If Congress wants to go to war — and I will vote against that — but if Congress wants to go to war, let Congress have the guts to vote for war,” Sanders said. “Do not let this president take unilateral action.”
Sanders didn't take any media questions about his position until Monday night, when he appeared on CNN and spoke with Anderson Cooper. For the first time, he criticized Soleimani directly, but only on the way to again condemning perpetual war.
“I think it was an assassination,” Sanders told Cooper. “I think it was in violation of international law. This guy was a bad news guy, but he was a ranking official of the Iranian government. And you know what? Once you get into violating international law in that sense, you can say there are a lot of bad people all over the world running governments.”
That comment got little attention, compared with what came next: Sanders attacking Biden's Iraq vote and domestic policy record in the Senate. But it was striking because Warren, who had initially called Soleimani a “murderer,” released another statement calling the attack an “assassination.” She was quickly accused of changing her positioning under pressure from the left. By Tuesday morning, Warren had held two media gaggles, appeared on two Sunday shows and done three other TV interviews where the issue came up, and the frequent premise was that she had wobbled.
“You issued a statement calling Soleimani a murderer,” said Meghan McCain, the co-host of “The View” and the daughter of the late senator John McCain. “Later, you issued a second statement saying that he was ‘an assassination of a senior foreign military official.’ Now, this is a man who is obviously responsible for hundreds of American troops’ deaths, carnage that we can’t even imagine. … I don’t understand the flip-flop. I don’t understand why it was so hard to call him a terrorist, and I would just like you to explain the change.”
As McCain repeatedly asked Warren to call Soleimani a terrorist, the senator said he was, then made the same point she'd made over the weekend: There were strategic reasons not to simply attack and kill every enemy of the United States.
“He’s part of a group that our federal government has designated a terrorist,” Warren said. “The question though, is what’s the right response? And the response that Donald Trump has picked is the most incendiary and has moved us right to the edge of war, and that is not in our long-term interests.”
Warren had not flip-flopped; she'd added to her initial statement, consistently opposing the airstrike. But for Warren, the argument was only partly about Iran and partly about the impression, advanced by her updated Medicare-for-all plan, that she can be made to cave under pressure while Sanders cannot. But like Sanders, Warren favors revoking the 2001 authorization of military force, then targeted at the perpetrators of 9/11, that has been used to justify war actions outside Congress.
Buttigieg was less consistent on the point about whether Soleimani was assassinated. After using that word at a Saturday appearance in Wolfboro, N.H., Buttigieg told CNN that it wasn't relevant to the crisis.
“I am not interested in the terminology,” he said. “I'm interested in the consequences and I'm interested in the process. Did the president have legal authority to do this? Why wasn't Congress consulted?”
Buttigieg used the focus on Iran to advance his own idea for presidential war power: sunset clauses for force authorizations, which would force presidents to return to Congress and get permission for further action.
Biden, who has led decisively in polls in which voters were asked which candidate they trusted on foreign policy, also avoided the semantics of assassination and took fewer media questions than Warren or Buttigieg. His fullest response to the crisis was a speech delivered on Tuesday in New York.
“Was the reward of removing a bad actor worth the risk of what comes next?” Biden asked. “Trump's impulsive decision may well do more to strengthen Iran in the region than anything Soleimani might have accomplished.”
Sanders was working to pull Biden into an argument he didn't want, about the initial decision to invade Iraq, which Biden has claimed to oppose after he voted for it. Buttigieg was working to convince voters that his personal military experience informed a serious worldview; Warren was introducing her worldview to voters who had not really asked about it and been told that she didn't have one.
The latest on the impeachment of President Trump:
- McConnell says he is ready to proceed with Trump impeachment trial with no agreement on witnesses
- Bolton’s willingness to testify in Trump’s impeachment trial ramps up pressure on Senate Republicans
- John Bolton says he would testify to the Senate. So why not the House?
Deval Patrick, “Not Too Late.” The former Massachusetts governor entered the race so late that he missed at least two states' ballot deadlines (Michigan and Alabama) and actively annoyed some early-state Democrats who were exhausted by the size of their field. “I planned on announcing a year ago, but life had other ideas,” Patrick says, briefly telling the story of how his wife got a cancer diagnosis and got back to health. “Growing up back on the south side of Chicago, people told me then what I couldn't do,” said Patrick, which is typically the argument he makes with people who say he got in too late to win.
Pete Buttigieg, “Windshield.” The former mayor's Iowa ad campaign so far has been pitched straight at the voters most likely to support him: comfortable, middle-class Democrats. This is a departure, using clips from a Buttigieg speech to emphasize, without many specifics, that his focus as president would be on blue-collar workers. “Workers have to work multiple jobs just to hold onto what they’ve got while corporations making billions of dollars are paying zero in taxes,” he says. “I am running to be a president for the guy who’s up early scraping the windshield on his way to the first of his jobs.”
Bradley Byrne, “Dale.” Alabama's U.S. Senate GOP primary, just two months away, will determine the party's challenger to Sen. Doug Jones. Since entering the race at the last minute, former attorney general Jeff Sessions, who previously held the seat for 20 years, has moved ahead of less-experienced candidates, ranging from former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville to 2017 nominee Roy Moore. Byrne, a congressman from the Gulf Coast, has been lost in the shuffle. In this spot, he attempts to break out by invoking his late brother, a veteran, and saying politicians such as Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and athletes such as Colin Kaepernick are allowed to disrespect America. (The ad implies that Omar made light of 9/11, a misinterpretation of a speech she gave to a Muslim rights group last year.)
IN THE STATES
Republicans have had a rough run of it in House elections since Donald Trump's election, picking up two seats in districts won by the president and losing dozens of seats in districts he lost. But this year, they may be playing offense against two Midwestern Democrats whose districts voted for Hillary Clinton by surprisingly small margins.
In Ohio's 13th District, which covers the historically Democratic Mahoning Valley, Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan is likely to face his first energetic GOP challenge in 18 years. Seven Republicans have declared against him, including two also-rans from previous races and Christina Hagen, a former state legislator who lost a primary last year in the adjoining 16th District. In Michigan's 5th District, which runs from the city of Flint up the western shore of Saginaw Bay, Democratic Rep. Dan Kildee will face the first well-known challenger of his career, former state representative Tim Kelly.
“The unhealthy obsession Democrats have with unilaterally removing President Trump from office makes both of these races competitive because it’s come at the expense of getting nothing else done,” said Chris Pack, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Both districts swung toward the GOP in 2016, though Republican candidates for governor ran behind Trump's margins two years later. Kildee's saw one of the most dramatic swings in the country, backing Barack Obama by 22.4 points in 2012, then backing Hillary Clinton by just 4.3 points. Ryan's district went the same direction, backing Obama by 27.5 points, then backing Clinton by just 6.5 points. Kildee and Ryan have something else in common: Both saw their own margins of victory, while commanding, slip slightly from 2016 to 2018. That's not uncommon in midterm races, but it cut against national trends in a strong Democratic year.
Winning either race would be tough for Republicans, though, for two reasons. First: Neither Hagen nor Kelly is an ideal fit for the district; Hagen doesn't live in the 13th, while Kelly withdrew from consideration for a Trump administration job after critics surfaced his old social media posts. (“Instead of assuming that all people are interested in, let alone capable of, blowing up Western, Christian, or Jewish things, let's assume all Muslims are,” Kelly wrote, after a failed terrorist attack in Detroit.)
Second: At the start of last decade, Republicans controlled the redistricting process in both Ohio and Michigan, and they never imagined that these seats could be competitive. To shore up as many Republican seats as possible, they packed Obama voters into a handful of districts, just like these.
Ryan suddenly represented the Democratic stronghold of Akron, while Kildee, whose uncle held the seat for decades, had some conservative areas carved out and replaced with more of Democratic-leaning Bay County. The districts' urban, Democratic voters simply outnumber its Republicans; Ryan's 2018 margin was padded by a 20,000-vote win in Akron's Summit County, while Kildee built a nearly 50,000-margin out of Flint's Genesee County. The Republican Party was simply too effective in creating Democratic vote sinks, while in Michigan, it accidentally created suburban seats around Lansing and Detroit that became vulnerable as their voters became alienated from the Trump-era GOP.
On Tuesday, DNC Chairman Tom Perez confirmed what Trailer readers have known all week: The party is being urged to move the next debate, scheduled for Jan. 14 in Iowa, if the impeachment trial dates clash with it.
“Obviously, if there's a trial on the 14th, then we'll move the debate,” Perez said on MSNBC. “If there's not, then we're going to have the debate. And at the moment, all systems are go, and so we're going to move forward. And our candidates are very agile, just as the American people are agile.”
That was the first time Perez tentatively endorsed the idea of moving the debate, though he didn’t mention a specific potential makeup date. But Monday, Jan. 20, when several candidates will be in Iowa for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, is the focus of some early speculation.
Elizabeth Warren. She'll rally tonight in Brooklyn with former HUD secretary Julián Castro, the highest-profile Democrat to quit the 2020 race and endorse a rival candidate. (Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio has endorsed Joe Biden, former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper supports Sen. Michael F. Bennet of Colorado, and former senator Mike Gravel of Alaska issued dual endorsements of Bernie Sanders and Tulsi Gabbard.)
Joe Biden. He delivered an address on the Iran crisis while in New York City, largely laying out the decisions the Trump administration made after taking the reins from the Obama-Biden administration. “He acted erratically and impulsively,” he said, urging some next steps that would reassure allies that the conflict wasn't accelerating.
Bernie Sanders. He'll campaign this weekend in eastern Iowa with Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, one of the two Muslim women in Congress, alongside Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota. Both have endorsed his campaign, and he has defended both from accusations of anti-Semitism.
Pete Buttigieg. He's on a fundraising swing through Texas this week before returning to the public campaign trail in Nevada.
Amy Klobuchar. Her campaign is organizing a weekend “day of action” across Iowa, with at least one event in all 99 counties.
Mike Bloomberg. He's spending $10 million on an ad that will air during the Super Bowl; like Klobuchar, his campaign is using this weekend to organize supporters, albeit across the country and outside the first four voting states.
... four days until the cutoff for the seventh Democratic debate
... eight days until the seventh Democratic debate (maybe)
... 13 days until the Iowa Brown & Black Forum
... 21 days until the special legislative election in Texas
... 27 days until the Iowa caucuses
... 35 days until the New Hampshire primary
... 46 days until the Nevada caucuses
... 54 days until the South Carolina primary