On the menu today: I don’t know about you, but I’m really eager to dive into today’s topics. For once, we’ve got four consequential stories brewing simultaneously: Trump’s reelection argument in the State of the Union Address and House speaker Nancy Pelosi’s decision to literally tear it up on camera immediately afterward; the end of the impeachment saga; the Iowa Democratic Party’s implosion; and oh, hey, that really frightening virus spreading in China.
The End of ‘Nancy Pelosi, Master Strategist’
Last month the cover of Time magazine featured Nancy Pelosi, arms folded, looking defiant, with the headline “Her Gamble.” This was after she had delayed sending over the articles of impeachment for three weeks, convinced she could strongarm Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell into adopting rules that the Democrats preferred. I concluded that “the non-specialty press pays only intermittent attention to Congress, and when it does, the storyline is almost always the same. ‘The Democratic leader is bold and winning, the GOP leader is flailing,’ regardless of what is actually happening.”
A bunch of mainstream-media reporters who cover Washington really didn’t like that tweet, and felt it was unfair and inaccurate. They believed McConnell gets similarly good press, and that Pelosi got covered as a strategic genius and hard-nosed political mastermind because she really is one.
I remain unconvinced and would point to the past few months as vivid counterevidence.
Pelosi’s resistance to impeachment for the first three-quarters of 2019 indicates she at one point recognized the political risks involved. Let us assume that she pursued impeachment over President Trump’s dealings with Ukraine because she genuinely believed his actions warranted the most serious form of Congressional punishment possible. Her announcement of the impeachment inquiry did flip public opinion, from a majority opposing impeachment to a slim majority supporting it. The level of support for impeachment in the aggregate polling stayed around 50 percent, peaking at 51 percent once. The support for removal stuck around 48 percent. Those survey charts look like a flatlining EKG monitor — and unsurprisingly, the level of support for removal is right around the 48.2 percent of the American electorate who voted for Hillary Clinton.
But if impeachment had any effect on President Trump’s approval rating, it seems to have improved it a little.
On December 5, discussing the impeachment of President Trump, Pelosi declared, “If we do not act now, we would be derelict in our duty.” Two weeks later, she added, “It is a matter of fact that the president is an ongoing threat to our national security and the integrity of our elections, the basis of our democracy.” Earlier in the year, Pelosi’s allies in the Democratic House leadership accused the president in the most vehement of terms: “Massive coverup.” “Betrayal.” “Great danger.” “Totalitarian.” “Unpatriotic.” “Dictatorial.” “Disloyal.” In their view, nothing less than the fate of America was at stake.
And then the House adjourned for summer recess for six weeks.
You see the contradiction there, right? The Democratic argument was that the country was trapped in the grip of a dictatorial madman, but that the normal interactions between the president and Congress could still occur, with business as usual. They could still work out a North American trade deal with said dictatorial madman.
And then we come to the State of the Union. As Rich observed, “Democrats invited Trump to take advantage of this majestic setting for what’s basically a campaign speech at the same time they were saying he had to be removed from office, or the republic and Constitution would fall. This makes no sense.”
Impeachment ends today; as of this writing, the only question on the Republican side is whether Senator Mitt Romney of Utah votes for removal. The ceiling for removal votes is set at 48 senators, and that assumes Democrats Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Doug Jones of Alabama, and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona vote yes. It is conceivable that the vote for removal only gets 44 votes. (I would bet 46, with only Manchin flipping.)
While persuading congressional Republicans was always a tall order, Pelosi and her allies pretty much failed from top to bottom. (One reason for this is that the 2018 House elections wiped out the moderate, less-pro-Trump GOP House members who would be most open to an impeachment inquiry. Sure, now the Democrats miss Mia Love and Barbara Comstock and Carlos Curbelo and the rest.) I would argue that this is in part because advocates for impeachment never put much effort into trying to get into the heads of their target audience: Republican lawmakers. They just assumed that the arguments that worked when appearing on MSNBC or in an interview with Maureen Dowd would also persuade GOP lawmakers from the Midwest, where Trump’s approval is higher and a significant portion of the electorate thinks every president engages in some sort of unsavory arm-twisting of foreign leaders.
Sure, Trump looks bad for either ignoring, rebuffing, or not noticing Pelosi’s extended hand before his State of the Union Address. Then again, there’s an ongoing impeachment and she called him a threat to national security.
Then Pelosi tore up the speech right after Trump finished. You’re going to see a lot of “yas slay queen” cheerleading coverage of Pelosi’s reaction. No doubt, a lot of people in the Democratic grassroots adored the gesture, and a lot of people in the Republican grassroots are nearly fainting from shock and outrage. (That shock and outrage usually eludes them when Trump goes on one of this Twitter tirades.)
But if you’re one of those millions of Americans who isn’t attached to either party . . . and you did happen to watch . . . Trump’s speech probably included a lot that you liked. This was a masterfully produced presentation, with a lot of tributes to ordinary Americans who proved, as that Budweiser commercial argued, that you can find quite a bit of the extraordinary in “ordinary Americans.”
Your mileage may vary, but I think the most memorable parts of the speech were Stephanie and Janiyah Davis from Philadelphia and the discussion of opportunity scholarships, Kelli and Gage Hake and the story of the late Army staff sergeant Christopher Hake; Tuskegee Airman Charles McGee and his great grandson; aspiring astronaut and eighth-grader Iain Lanphier from Scottsdale, Ariz.; Carl and Marsha Mueller and the tribute to their daughter, Kayla; Rush Limbaugh getting the Medal of Freedom shortly after announcing his diagnosis of lung cancer; Robin Schneider and her daughter Ellie, born at just 21 weeks and six days; and most spectacularly, the reunion of Sergeant First Class Townsend Williams with his wife Amy and two young children. Exploitative? Maybe. But since Ronald Reagan, presidents have been spotlighting their guests in the gallery and trying to associate their presidency with the acts of amazing people. This was an Oprah-esque State of the Union Address, full of perfect-for-television human drama.
And then Pelosi tore up the speech as soon as it was done, with the whole country watching.
Democrats can and will argue Pelosi’s act was some sort of three-dimensional chess, where the speaker ensured more of the discussion would be about her ripping up the speech than the speech itself, but . . . the cost–benefit analysis of that move has to come out pretty even. Sure, people already inclined to oppose Trump will find it defiant and bold, but I think a lot of Americans will find it childish and petty, an action more fit for an angry kindergartener than one of the leaders of the legislative branch of the United States. Pelosi lost her cool and came across as an unserious leader consumed by rage — exactly the kind of figure that the Democrats insist President Trump is.
Today impeachment ends, and Gallup has Trump’s approval rating at the highest of his presidency. Mike Allen of Axios concludes: “Trump is getting stronger, not weaker, despite his impeachment.”
What the heck did Democrats get out of this?
It’s Almost As If the Iowa Democratic Party Wants to Fuel Conspiracy Theories
But an impeachment effort that failed to remove the president and a childish response to the State of the Union aren’t even the biggest problems Democrats face this week.
It is Wednesday morning, the Iowa caucus was held Monday, and we only have 71 percent of the results.
Read this sentence in the New York Times, discussing the Iowa caucus results: “It is not clear when the rest of the caucus results will be released, or if the full results would alter the current standings of the candidates.”
This is not the sort of thing that happens with a routine technical snafu. The staff of the state party should be able to add up all the results from 1,600 precincts with a pencil and paper and a calculator by now. The Democrats started holding their caucus in Iowa in 1972, long before the Internet and mobile phones and apps and the rest. The voting ended 36 hours ago, as of this writing. This assessment is not designed to fuel conspiracy theories; every caucus place was open to the public. But it simply does not make sense for the state party to say: “We still can’t tell you the results from nearly a third of the precincts, and we cannot tell you when we will have those results.”
As for the results we have . . . Pete Buttigieg at 26.8 percent of state delegate equivalents, Bernie Sanders at 25.2 percent, Elizabeth Warren at 18.4 percent, Joe Biden at 15.4 percent, and Amy Klobuchar at 12.6 percent.
If Klobuchar couldn’t hit 15 percent in Iowa, she’s not going to hit 15 percent in many other places, and she’s wasting her time and splitting the less-enamored-of-socialism vote.
Biden finishing fourth and just barely above the line required for delegates is a really bad night for him. He’s not done, but he really needs better nights in New Hampshire and Nevada. That lead in South Carolina won’t disappear instantly, but it’s been shrinking, and if Biden has three bad finishes heading into the Palmetto State, a good night there probably won’t balance it out. I had been bullish on him all last year. Now it appears he really does have a glass jaw that shattered at the worst possible moment.
Warren’s finish is fine — not bad, enough to keep going, not quite sure it’s easy to see her vaulting to the nomination. Sanders is arguably now the frontrunner — the last two polls in New Hampshire give him a really solid lead, and everybody else is uncomfortably close to the delegate line. And winning Iowa — in terms of delegates, if not total votes — gives Buttigieg a second wind. He might just turn out to be the last guy standing against Sanders.
We’re Living in a Slow-Motion, Low-Level Pandemic Movie
The good news about coronavirus: “The scientist leading the UK’s research into a coronavirus vaccine says his team have made a significant breakthrough by reducing a part of the normal development time from ‘two to three years to just 14 days.’ Professor Robin Shattock, head of mucosal infection and immunity at Imperial College London, said he is now at the stage to start testing the vaccine on animals as early as next week with human studies in the summer if enough funding is secured.
Unfortunately, there’s a lot more bad news about coronavirus.
I guess we should just get used to the dead and infected numbers steadily climbing each day: “The death toll from the monthlong coronavirus outbreak has continued to climb in China, rising to 490. New cases have surged by double-digit percentages in the past 11 days, with no sign of a slowdown . . . The new figures from China’s Health Commission on Wednesday showed that 65 people died on Tuesday and that 3,887 more people had been infected. So far, 24,324 people are known to have been infected.”
If you fear the numbers are worse than the Chinese government is saying, your lack of faith in Beijing’s honesty is understandable.
Also note that when authoritarian regimes start finding themselves with big problems, they start looking for scapegoats. I figure it’s just a matter of time before the Chinese government starts blaming foreign governments for the outbreak. The Chinese government is already accusing the United States of an “inappropriate overreaction” to the disease by restricting entry by those who have been to the Wuhan region.
Ahem. 50 million people are quarantined, the first doctors who discussed it were jailed, and they think we’re overreacting.
You can’t operate your economy normally when you’re dealing with a pandemic and enforcing quarantine zones. China’s economy is going to slow down, and this is going to have an impact on the global economy, because a lot of supply chains run through China. Economic hardship is small potatoes compared to people dying, but that consequence is coming down the track, headed for us.
ADDENDA: On the latest episode of the pop-culture podcast, Mickey and I have a big disagreement about the Super Bowl halftime show, we dissect that new Netflix documentary about Taylor Swift getting political, and ask whether Gwyneth Paltrow has now become something of a cult leader.