Our Mad King, Desperate and Dangerous - Notes on 2020

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Nov 4th/Ukraine Scandal Is Enormous - While the House is attempting to keep the Impeachment investigation focused and narrow on Trump’s shakedown of Ukraine, the more we learn the more difficult this is proving to be.  Three points: 1) As new documents revealed this weekend, Trump’s attempt to blame Ukraine for Russia’s interference in the 2016 election began with top campaign aide Paul Manafort before the 2016 election; on Friday David Ignatius reported that Trump’s first shake down of Ukraine occurred in 2017, and was done to get Manafort out of trouble over there.  Taken together, we now know that this ongoing Trump/Putin/Ukraine play began more than 3 years ago, and we will come to view the Mueller probe as an early chapter in this single ongoing mega scandal.  2) The current iteration of the Ukraine scandal involves most of the US govt’s senior leadership – Pence, Pompeo, Barr, Mulvaney, Maguire, Sondland, Volker, and dozens more in WH/State/DOJ.  Does the House have any choice other than to pursue their impeachment or prosecution? 3) As Manafort’s longtime business partner Roger Stone’s trial begins today in DC, it is a reminder of the Olympian level of criminality around Trump.  Top campaign aide, personal aide, national security advisor, political advisor, deputy campaign manager, and now Parnas/Fruman all indicted or in jail.  In just 2 ½ years, much of his Cabinet has resigned in scandal, already.  Not going to be easy to get all that down to two or three articles of Impeachment and a short Senate trial my friends. 

On the Dem side, it is now looking like a four way race with Mayor Pete and Senator Warren showing well these past few weeks.  Our initial read on Warren’s single payer plan is that legit questions about the accuracy of her estimates both on the spend and income sides are a huge problem for her, for it raises broader questions about her intellectual integrity – the very core of her brand.  We also wonder why there isn’t more of a conversation about the role of Trump’s illicit and conventional attacks on Biden in helping to cause some of the VP’s recent rough polling numbers in the early states (particularly considering that he received a boost in several national polls this weekend).  For if the Trump effort is indeed impacting Biden, then we need to describe the Trump effort to use Ukraine to interfere in our elections as something live and ongoing, and not in any way “an attempt” or speculative. 

Finally, ACA sign-up period began last week. As NDN has written before, politicians on both sides of the aisle should use this period to advocate to their constituents to get signed up, and Democrats should stress the integral role of the Affordable Care Act in increasing access to healthcare across the country. 

OCt 28th/Countering the Trump-Putin Alliance - In the crush of daily news, we shouldn't lose sight of two important moments in the past week.  First, we learned that Russia had resumed its efforts to undermine our democracy and had launched a major social media campaign to denigrate Vice President Biden.  It still boggles the mind that this reprise of 2016 has happened without much comment, or action, from the US government; and rather than condemning Russia for the resumption of these active measures, on Wednesday Trump rewarded Putin with Syria, an entire country.  The second moment came in Trump’s presser yesterday when he jaw-droppingly thanked Russia far more profusely for helping capture Baghdadi than those who actually helped the US - the Kurds of Syria and Iraq. 

Wherever one looks now one sees the US aligned or partnering with Russia, almost always against what had been stated US interests – Syria, Ukraine, Iran, Brexit, EU/NATO, climate change, Venezuela, Cuba, Open Skies and INF treaties, interfering in US elections, and Trump’s broader campaign to normalize authoritarianism here and abroad (did we forget something?) It is as if Putin and Trump have forged a secret alliance, and that Speaker Pelosi was right to share her concern that all of Trump’s roads seem to lead to Putin. 

What all this means for the 2020 debate is that it is vital for Democrats to start articulating what we are going to do to untangle the US from Russia in the coming years, and roll back its spirited insurgency against the West.  There is perhaps no greater foreign (or even domestic) policy challenge now, and all of us should aid our leaders in the months ahead to help them tackle the budding Trump-Putin alliance head on. 

The polling has been very noisy on both sides in the past week. Trump has dropped to one of the lowest places in his Presidency, and Dem polls are showing a lot of movement in various directions suggesting things are changing and evolving there.  On Friday, Simon was quoted in the NYTimes about a clear, recent development on the Dem side – Mayor Pete’s improving position: “How much Buttigieg can grow is one of the most interesting questions in the race right now,” Simon Rosenberg, a Democratic consultant and founder of the centrist New Democrat Network, said in a phone interview. If Mr. Buttigieg finishes strongly in the Iowa caucuses, Mr. Rosenberg added, he could make a play for the center lane of the Democratic electorate, establishing himself as a moderate alternative to Ms. Warren and a more youthful centrist pick than Mr. Biden, who is 76. “What’s important is that he’s demonstrated a capacity to do it already, by getting into clear double digits in Iowa,” Mr. Rosenberg said. “In a place that has to make up their mind first, he has been able to put himself in play.”

Oct 21st/Potemkin President, Buttigieg Appears To Be Making A Move - On Sunday, in the midst of a dangerous moment for the US and the world in the Middle East, the President referred to his Defense Secretary, Mark Esper, as “Esperanto,” and INVENTED a quote from him about what was happening on the ground in Syria which contained false information.  Friends, I'm not sure how much more Republicans need to know to conclude that it is time for Trump to go. 

As we saw Pompeo and Mulvaney get drawn deeper into the Ukraine scandal over these past few days, it was a reminder that the scandal involves a criminal conspiracy of the entire senior leadership of our government, including Trump, Pence, Pompeo, Barr, Maguire, Perry, Mulvaney, and dozens of other staff in the WH, State, and DOJ.  The scale and gravity of the scandal is enormous; and, as we wrote last week, we think that the President’s indefensible abandonment of the Kurds has made his impeachment inevitable.  We also expect far more attention to Trump’s astonishing fealty to Putin in the coming weeks. 

On the Democratic side the big news is clear movement for Buttigieg and some rough days for Warren.  Warren’s refusal to answer direct and simple questions again about her single payer health care plan has raised questions about her intellectual integrity, perhaps the core of her candidacy.  Meanwhile Mayor Pete has had a very good month of polling in Iowa, coming in third now in the last two polls including a new one out this morning from USA Today.  The Dem race seems to be changing a bit now. 

Finally, a series of stories in the last few weeks raises questions about whether the Democrats are entering the 2020 cycle ready to win in the current way campaigns are fought.  We’ve seen smart new stories on whether Dems have fallen behind in the digital realm (here and here), are prepared for this new age of disinformation, should be going after Trump more directly, and risk being dangerously outspent (here and here).  Simon offered this observation in a recent Politico piece:  “A lot of thinking went into not replicating the mistakes of 2016,” said Simon Rosenberg, who acted as a senior advisor to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 2018. “I’m not sure as much thinking went into re-imagining the DNC’s communications responsibilities in an age of social media, disinformation, and Trump.”

Oct 15th/Syria Fiasco Makes the Case for Removing Trump Far Stronger - Trump’s reckless decision to surrender Syria to Russia and Turkey has made the case for his removal far stronger.  For we now have clear evidence of the threat posed by leaving this desperate and dangerous man in office for the next 15 months – Russia strengthened, ISIS revived, and America humiliated.   Removing him to prevent further damage - and yes there is much more damage he could do to America and our interests - is now an urgent task, something that cannot wait to the election in 2020. 

That this decision also involved a country where the President has hundreds of opaque investments also gives the House’s quest for greater visibility into his finances more gravity.  As we’ve seen in recent court decisions siding with the House on access to information, and the cooperation of top Trump officials with the Intel Committee, the absurd blockade that Barr, Trump, and the White House have erected has begun to erode.  The scope of the Ukraine scandal remains extraordinary, as it involves not just Trump but Pence, Pompeo, Barr, Perry, Mulvaney, Maguire, Rudy, and dozens of staff.   And as all of this once again involves felony level election law violations, it is time for Congress to force the re-opening of the FEC which was shuttered on August 26th, the same day that the White House learned the Ukraine scandal would become public.

At the Democratic debate tonight we should expect far more attention to urgent foreign policy matters, Syria/Ukraine/Russia, giving both Biden and Buttigieg a chance to better showcase their experience and competency on security issues.  How Biden manages the President’s attacks on him and his family and their work in Ukraine could be one of the primary’s most important moments – and in my mind a huge opportunity for the Vice President.  Trump himself, and impeachment, will also now be front and center – all in all it is likely to be a very different debate in tone and substance than what we’ve seen in the first three gatherings this year.  

Oct 7th/Our Mad King – Part of what made the investigation into Trump and Russia so challenging was its size, complexity, and significance.  The nation is about to face a prolonged look into a far bigger scandal now, one which will soon be understood to be the biggest scandal in all of our history – the Ukraine affair.   It involves not just the President and his family, but his entire government – Pence, Pompeo, Barr, Maguire, Perry, and Mulvaney – and dozens of staffers at the WH, State, and DOJ.  It of course is also directly tied to the still unresolved first big scandal, Trump and Russia, as the President throughout this Ukrainian debacle has seemed far more interested in advancing Russia’s interests than our own. 

Which brings us to what happened late last night – without warning, consultation, or deliberation, and overruling his advisers, the President decided to pull American troops out of Syria altogether, abandoning our allies the Kurds and leaving open the possibility of a resurgence of ISIS.  I will let this early thread from former US Special Envoy to the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS Brett McGurk explain it all, but of course this new Syria policy directly benefits Russia and Putin, who’ve wanted the US out of their client state for many years now; and sends a very Russian inspired signal that the US is indeed feckless, unreliable, and weak - a spent force on the global stage.  The gravity of the moment cannot be overstated.  

The President’s recklessness here, and making big calls which do not clearly advance the interests of the United States, is why his removal from office is an urgent national priority now.  There is no version of the Founder’s vision which contemplated a Presidency like this one – it was indeed the very thing they worked so hard to prevent for our young and inspiring nation.  Additionally, the further damage he could do to the US – through ignorance and incompetence, fealty to Putin, and greed and corruption – is just far too great to leave him in office any longer. 

Finally, on the 2020 landscape.  The Dems debate next week – will be important.  Early polls on Trump’s impeachment are far worse for him than any of us could have imagined, and show what a weakened state he’s in.  Fears about Dem overreach appear completely unfounded at this point.  Trump should be removed, and the nation appears ready to see him go. 

Sept 30th/Trump Desperate and Dangerous – For the past few months we’ve been warning that the President’s public behavior was growing more erratic and wild.  With historically low poll numbers, a 2018 wipe out election even in the Rustbelt, and a weakening economy, the President’s 2020 re-election chances seemed to be dimming. Italy’s Salvini, Israel’s Bibi, and the UK’s Boris Johnson, Trump’s ideological fellow travelers, all suffered dramatic setbacks in recent weeks. We argued that a sense of desperation had begun to seep into Trump's daily performance, and we worried that he would do something extraordinary and dangerous to change the trajectory of the race.  We thought it might be war with Iran or Venezuela, but it turned out it was a months-long illegal shakedown of two Ukrainian Administrations to manufacture dirt on Joe Biden, the Democratic front-runner, and a clumsy, illegal cover-up. 

And so impeachment is here, and in a blow to President Trump, it already has the support of the majority of the American people.  House leaders have decided to pursue a quick and focused inquiry, mainly looking at the Ukraine Affair.  While their hope is that it remains narrow, there are two reasons why the inquiry may be more complicated than it first appears: 1) the scandal involves most of Trump’s top aides and the VP – Pence, Pompeo, Barr, Maguire, Mulvaney, and Giuliani – and potentially dozens of staffers in the WH, State, and DOJ.  2)  It also involves Putin and Russia, again.  Trump’s wild behavior this weekend of course strengthens the House’s hand, as it answers the question “why now, why not wait to the election next year?” For the country cannot risk keeping this dangerous, desperate and I believe traitorous man in the White House any longer – the damage he can do could last for generations (and may already have). 

It's way too early to know what this means for 2020.  First, it is time to start treating the GOP side as if they are having a real primary.  On the Dem side, recall that in 1992, a big scandal helped make Bill Clinton the nominee as it denied oxygen to his opponents, making it much harder for them to break through.  A lot of what happens in the Dem primary in the next few months will depend on how Biden’s campaign handles his role in this crazy affair; and so far I’m not terribly impressed.  Trump starting a $10m ad campaign attacking Biden raises some interesting questions about how ready the Dem infrastructure is to handle an early sustained attack on its leading candidates, regardless of the source.  It is an issue I addressed in a recent column about how the US political parties need to re-imagine themselves for the current information and communications landscape.  I think we would all feel better today if the DNC had raised a $100m media fund or organized 2-3m Dems to act as a networked War Room going after Trump, rebutting his false attacks.  It will be fascinating to see how all this plays out at the next Democratic debate in two weeks.  Russia’s attack on the US and the Democratic Party didn’t come up in the first three debates – I assume it will be central this time. 

Sept 25th/Impeachment - So here we are. Impeachment.  A few hastily thrown together points.  1) The read out released by the WH this morning is a smoking gun and devastating to the President, Pence, Barr, Pompeo, Mulvaney, and Giuliani.  And a reminder - undermining our democracy and elections may be the most serious "High Crime" of all.  2) As the 7 Dem freshmen argued in their influential op-ed in the Washington Post on Monday, that Trump was taking steps to disrupt/cheat in the 2020 election required Congress to act (more here on Trump bringing “Moscow Rules to US politics).  3) Dems should view impeachment as a tactic, not an end in of itself.  The end is to educate the public on all the ways the President has betrayed the country and his oath, and to begin to far more effectively draw lines, re-establish right and wrong, and defend the rule of law. Removal will come if we make our case effectively.  

Finally, the closer one looks at Trump and Ukraine, the more one finds Putin and Russia.  Very soon we will once again be discussing Trump’s extraordinary fealty to Putin, and what transpired in 2016 which kept Trump in Putin’s malevolent pocket all these years.

What impact will it have on the election next year? Too early to tell. But we do know a few things.  1) Trump is very weak and even a drop of a few points in his standing could cause the Rs to start to abandon him.  He has three credible challengers in the primary, so all eyes are now on the R side of the Iowa caucus.  2) Will these sustained attacks hurt Biden and propel Warren? Perhaps.  But Biden would be smart to lean in more aggressively and turn this to his advantage. This will almost certainly, however, make it far harder for the second tier candidates to get the oxygen they need to grow – we saw that happen in the 1992 Democratic primary. 

Sept 16th/The Landscape Is Changing – In recent weeks we’ve been arguing that the national political landscape was changing, driven by a slowing economy, domestic security concerns, and a more far worrisome and erratic daily performance by the President.   It is our view that three new emergent issues also now have the potential to reshape our national dialogue in the coming weeks – the attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities and a potential spike in global oil prices, the President’s increasing alignment of US interests with Russia including on Iran, and the illegal suppression of an intelligence community whistleblower by the White House.  

Every election cycle is unique, with its own contours, opportunities, and challenges.  For the first half of 2019 things felt a lot like 2018, but Presidential years are always different from midterms as the Presidential candidates in each party define the terms of the national debate.  How this cycle will be different is becoming a bit more apparent now.  

A few things which haven’t changed of late – the President remains historically unpopular, and is far more likely to lose next year than win.   And Joe Biden continues to lead the Democratic field, with Elizabeth Warren at this point, in our eyes, his only serious competitor.  In general we thought the last debate was far better for the Democrats than the previous ones, and the talent and depth of the field was on full display.   We found this analysis of the debate by FiveThirtyEight to be helpful and spot on.

Both the general election and Democratic Primary elections have been remarkably stable of late – but, as we suggest above, that could also change in the coming months as the broader landscape itself transforms. 

Sept 9th - In a recent NDN News, we wrote about how the political landscape here in the US is changing, driven by rising concerns about our safety, a worsening economy, and growing worry about the President’s performance and overall fitness to serve.  Even for Trump the last few weeks have been a shocking combination of incompetence, impulsiveness, and general unwillingness to abide by long-held democratic norms and laws.  And we are seeing this sense of decline and drift really impact the GOP now – more House retirements, the Senate looking more and more competitive, and now 3 real primary challengers to the President.  Problems within the Republican Party are getting really serious now. 

The Vice President continues to lead the Democratic pack, though Warren is showing signs of continued strength and energy.  The next Dem debate is this Thursday night (one night only), and it will tell us a great deal - particularly about whether anyone can challenge Biden or Warren for the top tier.  While the race has been really stable, we doubt it will remain that way in the coming weeks and also doubt that Bernie will have the staying power to remain in the top tier – but have to admit that he has checked his erosion, and seems to be hanging in there.  So like everyone else we wait, and watch. 

The recent cancelling of the remote voting system in Iowa and Nevada, and a sustained misinformation campaign against Beto O’Rourke, has put the issues of cyber security and mis/disinformation back on the 2020 front burner.  Simon weighs in with a new piece calling for the parties to re-invent themselves to meet these new challenges; and a new Politico article details the ongoing debate inside the Democratic Party on how to best approach all this.

Don’t miss our recent work on some of the big demographic and geographic developments we are seeing this cycle – the big swing of under 45 voters, 45% or so of the electorate, towards the Democrats; the extraordinary erosion of the GOP in the heavily Mexican American parts of the US; and the dramatic decline of Trump and the GOP in the Rustbelt.  Along with a President far better known and far more disliked, these big developments of the Trump era are critical to understanding the current national political landscape.  As of now, 2020 is looking a lot more like 2018 than 2016.  Nothing better captures the President’s significant decline and his uphill re-election battle than this chart from Axios using Morning Consult data that shows Trump's approval falling significantly in every battleground state since his election.

Aug 22nd/The National Political Landscape Is Changing - When Congress returns in a few weeks and Democrats debate again in mid-September, our conversations will be happening in a rapidly changing political landscape.  Fears arising from domestic terror and gun violence, a slowing economy and talk of a recession, and an ever more weakened President will make the fall different from even where we left things at the end of the recent Democratic debate.

From a polling standpoint, the President has taken a big hit in the last few weeks, dropping almost 3 points, from 42.8/52.5 (-9.7) on July 30th to 41.5/53.9 (-12.4) today (we use FiveThirtyEight's polling aggregator).   All the major polls this month have found the President declining, some by way more than 3 points.  What has to be the most alarming to the White House is the President’s precipitous drop on his handling of the economy. The NBC News/WSJ poll released last weekend found Trump's approval rate on the economy falling from +10 in May to +3 now, while the Ipsos poll released yesterday saw a similar decline from +10 in July to +3 now. This represents an especially steep drop from last summer, when NBC News/WSJ had Trump at +16 and Ipsos had him at +18 on his handling of the economy.

On the Democratic side, Vice President Biden continues to have a clear lead.  Elizabeth Warren has a lot of energy and momentum now, and the rest of the field is fighting to keep up and stay in the game with her and the VP.  The winnowing of the field, in theory, should give some of those in the second tier desperate for exposure renewed chances to shake up the race.  These next few debates will really matter. 

We believe Congressional Democrats should make the fall about keeping America and its people safe, and offer a big bold agenda which includes gun safety, countering domestic extremism, and protecting our elections at the very least.  On the economy it is critical that we explain just how much of a failure the President’s economic policies have been, so as we discuss remedies to a slowing economy we don’t make some of the same huge mistakes he’s made in the last few years.   We also have to note that if we do tip into a recession that this will make the third consecutive GOP President to have brought a downturn, reminding us just how dramatically better the Democrats have been in managing the American economy since the global economy was born in 1989. 

Aug 5th - Remarkably, the two Democratic debates have done little to alter the trajectory of the Democratic primary – Biden still maintains a formidable lead, with Warren and Sanders in a next tier, and everyone else fighting to stay in the game.  The horrible events of this past weekend will almost certainly make issues about protecting our homeland far more important in the coming days, creating a new and different landscape than what we saw this summer.  The next Democratic debates are scheduled for Sept 12-13, and will feature a much smaller field.  So far only 8 have qualified – Beto, Biden, Booker, Buttigieg, Harris, Klobuchar, Sanders, and Warren.   The Democratic race is going to look and feel very different in September.  Though one thing looks like it will be the same – the President is deeply unpopular and hovering about in the same place which brought a 9 point Dem victory last year. 

NDN spent time this week writing about three critical demo/geographic trends we are seeing which will be critical to 2020 – under 45 year old voters are breaking hard towards the Democrats; the GOP brand is going through profound erosion in the heavily Mexican-American parts of the US; and Democrats have already won back the Rustbelt – it is up to Trump not the Ds now to win it back. 

July 22nd - After these last few months, what is there to say? Partying with pedophiles, clear evidence of felony level crimes which helped him win the 2016 election, return of Mueller and Trump-Russia, inhumane/war crime level treatment of kids and families at the border, globally condemned racist attacks against Members of Congress – and yet he persists. 

Make no mistake – Trump is a very weakened figure in US politics.  All of this stuff, firing offense after firing offense in any other executive job in America, has hurt him.  He remains about where he was on Election Day 2018, a 9 point wipeout election, and is underwater now in the most important battleground states – AZ, FL, GA, MI, NC, PA, and WI.  As Simon argues in this recent podcast and essay, it is essential now for the ultimate Dem indictment of Trump to get bigger and try to capture just how fundamentally unfit Trump is for this job, President of the United States.  Has to be way more than “obstruction.”

Two big events in the next two weeks – Mueller’s testimony Wednesday, and the Dem debates next week. Most significant dynamic in the Dem race is Biden righting the ship, for now.  His post debate slide has stopped and he has even recovered a few points in a few polls.  We remain convinced – see this thread - that Biden more than any other Dem candidate is successfully tapping into what we believe is the most powerful sentiment out there right now – fear of Trump, desire for strong leadership, pragmatism, and steady progress, not another four years of upheaval and conflict. 

July 8th/Parade Of Trumpian Horribles – While Trump’s poll numbers ticked up a bit, and the Democratic race became far more competitive and real, it is hard to escape this morning the big story of the past few weeks – what we will call for lack of better words Trump’s relentless parade of horribles.

Think about what we’ve seen – inhumane conditions for adults and children at the border; an epically embarrassing performance at the G20 which included repeated warm embraces of the world’s worst leaders, tough words for our allies, and another “no biggie” for Putin for Russia’s critical support of Trump’s campaign in 2016; whatever it is the US is doing in the Middle East; the new, ugly effort to circumvent the Supreme Court's rout of the President’s attempt to rig the census; the corrupt tax payer funded July 4th campaign rally on the Mall; news his campaign is already using completely fake images and people to grossly mislead voters; his dissing of the US Women’s soccer team during their historic and inspiring World Cup run; another credible account of rape; and his direct involvement in the Epstein scandal, whose toxic combination of wealth and abuse of power may come to symbolize the moral failings of the elites of this era in ways we don’t quite yet understand.

Underneath all this Trumpian sludge, there is an overwhelming sense of “can’t we do better? Aren’t we better than this? How did we get here?” with this President.  And to us here at NDN, this is the big challenge for the Democrats now: how can they make the case against Trump - with or without impeachment – that gets at the enormity of the failings of his Presidency and the elites who have propped it up? The abandonment of the America creed by many elites we’ve seen in recent years goes far beyond Trump, and is why one of the themes we hope Democrats can take up in coming days is something along the lines of “a return to virtue.”