Monday, May 13, 2019

Good Gets Better for Biden

Towering Democratic frontrunner has 72 hours of strongest press coverage of young candidacy.

My take: In some ways, the most important 2020 story of the weekend was this Washington Post piece about how key supporters of and strategists for Barack Obama are largely holding back on joining Team Biden.

The story is essential reading, because these savvy Democrats (mostly speaking anonymously) give voice to the concerns that could (could!) eventually topple Biden from his current lofty perch above the field.

The central worry of the Obamans, who maintain their 2008 sensibility that the party needs a fresh insurgent candidate to unite and inspire, is that Biden is just too much a man of the past to capture the hearts of the Democratic Party and the nation.

They also doubt he can sustain his widely acknowledged fast start.

Someday, this Post piece reflecting the feelings and analysis of this group might prove to be the prologue of the story of someone else winning the Democratic nomination.

But today, this account is an outlier in the extreme.

Look at the other solid reporting over the last three days and all you see is good news for Biden.

Item: Donald Trump (who is actually a pretty good political analyst) made it clear in an interview that he sees Biden as the frontrunner and the likely eventual nominee.

Item: The often-woke New York magazine realized that the Democratic Party electorate hasn’t moved as far to the left as Twitter, cable news, and some Internet chatter would lead one to believe.

Item: Biden is close to 50% support in a new South Carolina poll.

Item: With the demographics of Florida’s Democratic electorate tailor-made for Biden, the state can deliver the nomination to him if he can head into the Sunshine State primary as the frontrunner.

Item: Biden and his team have organized his schedule and campaign practices to avoid any narrative-changing gaffes.

Item: Biden’s entry has exposed weaknesses in Bernie Sanders’ second-place campaign that has surprised me and many others, while other Democrats are still spending more time trying to pass Sanders than trying to take a piece out of Biden.

Items: Kamala Harris is having to defend California in the fundraising and political realms, and having to deal with some members of the Congressional Black Caucus pitching her as Biden’s vp candidate.

Item: Beto is already talking about trying to re-launch his campaign.

Biden’s formula is hiding in plain sight: avoid criticizing or engaging with his Democratic rivals, while focusing on Trump; rack up endorsements; campaign energetically but carefully; stay optimistic; roll out policy later in the nomination cycle; choose his media interviewers carefully; and never talk about being the inevitable nominee while subtly doing everything possible to create the impression that he is the inevitable nominee.

The other twenty candidates all face the same dilemma: how to effectively overwhelm their non-Biden rivals to build enough polling, fundraising, media, and political strength to earn the ability to say they have the capacity to catch the Democratic frontrunner and topple Trump.

It can be done. It is a simple formula:

Biden collapses + a candidate quietly builds a massive field operation + that same candidate then gets hot on the stump at just the right moment

After the last 72 hours, however, that formula looks more theoretical than real.

Raptors Top 76ers on Buzzer Beater to Take Game 7

Watch it.

China Trade Talks Fall Apart…for Now

Wall Street Journal has the best tick tock of what happened.

Sweden Seeks Assange

Rape probe complicates fate of Wikileaks big.

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Friday, May 10, 2019

War Footing

From David Brooks to three (3!) different Wall Street Journal opinion pieces, the center-right is claiming Rep. Nadler and Speaker Pelosi have suspect motives in talking up a constitutional crisis and pushing subpoenas. They minimize what is obvious: the White House has provoked much of this fight, not just because it reflects Trump’s pugilistic nature, but because it also helps the incumbent’s re-election prospects.

Speaking of which….

Trump’s Obsession with 2020

Per the NY Times: “An internal poll of 17 states taken by Mr. Trump’s campaign showed…Biden..overtaking Mr. Trump in a head-to-head contest…. Mr. Trump fared better in a matchup against…Bernie Sanders…, but Mr. Trump’s low approval numbers were dragging him down against the Democrats.”

My take: Why does Trump spend so much time thinking about the campaign?

a. He knows history will condemn him as a failure if he is the first person in over twenty years not to win a second term.

b. He is much more interested in politics than in his actual day job.

c. He believes (rightly) that his chances of winning depend to a very large degree on who the Democrats nominate and what the political health of that person is on the day she or he becomes the de facto nominee.

d. Despite his reputation in some quarters, Trump loves a challenge, especially one in which he believes his own performance will almost uniquely determine if he wins or loses.

Stephens: Democrats Should Stop Rooting for a Bad Economy

NY Times columnist cautions Democrats not to think Trump can be beaten on his economic record.

My take: If you are an American who wants Trump defeated, don’t take conservative Stephens’ word for it. Read this recent piece by genius Democratic strategist Mark Mellman, who makes the same point. Democrats need a nominee who has at least two things: a theory of the case on growing the economy and a clear vision on health care that is more popular than both the status quo and whatever the president has on offer.

China State of Play

Trade talks continue amid mixed singles from the markets and the negotiators.

My take: Too much of the focus of the US media has been on the challenges and perils for Trump and the American economy if the talks go awry. Read this New York Times story to understand why the Chinese also face cross pressure to both reach a deal and to walk away.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

North Koreans Test Another Missile

Second recent projectile launch off northwest coast adds uncertainty to already stalled talks.

My take: For all his (controversial) efforts, Trump is now back to where his three predecessors were in trying to disarm the Hermit Kingdom. The North is impatient for a concrete American offer to be put on the table and is using this second provocative act to try to get Trump’s attention, with multiple other world hotspots distracting the US national security establishment. Kim Jong-un, like his father, doesn’t like it when America attention gets diverted away from the NoKo show.

China Trade Talks Cliffhanger, Part XI

US media says China over-read various signals from American side to conclude they could reshuffle key stances.

My take: Press coverage of the ups and downs of trade talks always follow a “Perils of Pauline” storyline, with every setback cast as a potential final blow. As the talks start up in DC, the original reality remains in place: Trump wants a deal, China accepts that a deal is required to move forward on other fronts, and both sides see the outlines of a final pact. That doesn’t mean there will eventually be a bargain struck, but we aren’t even at the beginning of the end.

Calling Don Jr.

Senate Intelligence Committee issues bipartisan summons to presidential son for more testimony.

My take: Don Jr. and Roger Stone have always been the potentially weak links in the president’s efforts to get out of Mueller’s Russian finger trap. Two relevant special counsel mysteries remain mysterious, weeks after the probe concluded: why didn’t Mueller call Jr before the grand jury and why did the independent counsel conclude his investigation while the prosecution of Stone is on-going (and before Team Mueller had a chance to try to flip Trump’s longtime political adviser)?

The Biden Inevitability Mindset

Columnists, pundits, and reporters act as if we are headed inexorably towards Donald vs Joe, even as TIME follows its Buttigieg cover with a Warren one and news organizations continue to staff up to cover the nearly two dozen Democrats in the hunt.

My take: The Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Henninger is the latest prominent voice to basically declare the Democratic nomination fight over. Biden continues to smartly act as if he agrees, by, ironically, saying the very opposite publicly.

This can’t be overstated: Political elites privately look at Biden’s poll strengths, the sheer size of the Democratic field, and the failure of any contender to both catch fire and (so far) build a coalition that can rival Biden’s to jump to the conclusion that Biden is going to be the nominee. That potentially self-fulfilling prophecy is one of the former vice president’s biggest assets right now.

Rove: Republicans Have to Solve Health Care

In Wall Street Journal weekly column, GOP strategist says pummeling single-payer plans is essential for Trump win.

My take: Rove intended his piece to be advice to Republicans about what they need to do to dilute swing voters’ greater faith in Democrats to handle health care. But the column also serves as a caution to and roadmap for Democrats about what THEY need to do to keep health care issues from becoming a liability in a general election.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

All-Out War With No End in Sight

Trump systematically withholds documents and testimony from Congress; McConnell and Hill Republicans in full wagon-circling mode to defend the president; Pelosi still wary of an impeachment attempt backfiring.

My take: Team Trump has mostly gotten what it wanted out of the Mueller aftermath, even though the report was of course more substantively damaging on both Russian cooperation and obstruction than the president pretends. The Wall Street Journal editorial board symbolically gets fully in line with other conservative media by suggesting Democrats must either move to impeachment or quit investigating the president, creating a false choice.

Pelosi remains the bedrock disciplinarian of her party’s pathway: point out the case against Trump is not closed; push for Mueller to testify; empower committee chairs to investigate; but ignore the rhetoric of Elizabeth Warren and others who are demanding an immediate start to impeachment hearings.

It seems laughable to think this current state of affairs leaves room for bipartisan immigration or infrastructure deals. 2020 politics are near full swing.

Trump is focused on rallying the base (including by using the Mueller outcome), demonizing the Democrats vying to run against him, and looking for victories on the economy.

Democrats are focused on using the courts to win fights with the White House, getting the president out of office, and finding a brand for its party that stands for more than just being anti-Trump.

Barring a Martian invasion, that is going to be the state of play for the next eighteen months.

New York Times Gets Trump Tax Data

Numbers suggest real estate mogul lost over a billion in ten-year span.

My take: Kudos to the Times for getting this information. The story they tell is rich but not a surprise. We still need to know more about Trump’s more recent tax returns in order to understand both what his financial situation was and what he is apparently so afraid of being released to the public. Getting the information by forcing the courts to release it might not happen as quickly as more thunderous leaks.

Markets, World Leaders Unsettled by Iran, China

Nuclear and trade face-offs boil on high for another day.

My take: Trump’s foreign policy and national security teams are making things up as they go along, dealing with two foes who are both wily and unpredictable. Trump does not want a crisis to break out on either front. One could have dire national security implications, the other disastrous economic implications. The uncertainty of how either conflict ends reminds one of the old joke: there are only two people who understand how the world economic system works, and unfortunately they disagree. As the Magic 8 Ball says: “Cannot predict now….Concentrate and ask again.”

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Joe Biden, Frontrunner

New polls show lead sustaining, while rivals watch the calendar move like sands in an hourglass.

My take: There are basically now two schools of thought on Joe Biden.

One school says he was underestimated. He launched smart (staying away from hard media questions, focusing his rhetoric on Trump, stressing electability), and strong (rising poll numbers and impressive initial fundraising). This school says that if Biden continues to stay disciplined, he will consolidate enough support to be the frontrunner from wire to wire. Voters who care about electability, centrists, older voters, union households, and non-white voters are all part of the Biden coalition. This dynamic is being reinforced by sophisticated voters and donors who have appraised the rest of the field and feel that literally any other prospect would be a risk to lose to Trump. They worry that a Sanders nomination would bring a third candidate into the race, guaranteeing a Trump victory. Right now, for voters who want to stop Sanders, Biden appears to be the only game in town.

This camp says that Biden has shown much more discipline than they were expecting, and that his team thought through how to launch in a much more clever manner than they expected. They also believe that voters don’t care about the various controversies from Biden’s past that the media gets all worked up about. Additionally, they think Biden’s appeal to bipartisanship is not as poisonous in the nomination context as liberal Twitter makes it out to be.

The other camp concedes that Biden is stronger than they thought he would be, but think he is living on borrowed time. They say we are already seeing gaffes (like his China comments) that foreshadow more damaging errors to come. They believe Biden will eventually have to speak in more detail on health care, trade, and other issues, and he will start to alienate voters. They point to his relatively small crowds. And they say that other candidates will be able to make their own electability arguments if the head-to-head polls with Trump continue to show them competitive.

The big dilemma for the other candidates is how much to try to take Biden down. As with the Republicans and Trump in 2016, there’s a temptation to leave Biden alone for now, fight it out with the other members of the pack, trying to become the last person standing along with Biden, and only then take him on as a too-centrist creature of the past. Obviously, this strategy did not work to stop Trump four years ago.

And there is concern in the camps of the other candidates that the time is actually growing short to head Biden off, unless he makes his own errors.

They don’t believe the crowded debate stage will be a productive venue to engage Biden, who they predict will focus on staying above the fray and attacking Trump. They worry that going negative on Biden might hurt Biden, but will work to the benefit of some other candidates (rather than the attacker), in part because large segments of the party have no appetite for intra-Democratic conflict when the focus needs be on beating Trump. The attacker might hurt Biden, but will also hurt him or herself.

We’ve seen that dynamic in past Democratic nomination battles (See 1988 and 2004.). Even those who aren’t for Biden worry about other Democrats wounding him before he goes on to be the nominee, allowing Trump to win.

Even if he eventually takes the nomination, history strongly suggests that Biden will see turbulence at some point. The questions now are where does it come from, when does it come, and how much damage does it do to the frontrunner?

Biden is more likely to come down to earth by his own errors than based on the efforts of the other candidates, Trump, or outside groups. Until he starts taking voter and tough media questions, we won’t really know. Everyday he avoids his time in the barrel is another day closer to Iowa. But we haven’t seen him truly tested yet.

Trump Bumps

New high in Gallup poll and new support from big money Republican donors are more than tea leaves.My take: Of course the Democrats can beat Trump in 2020. But the failure to grapple with his advantages leaves the out-party in peril of not understanding the challenge of the task at hand. Beating an incumbent president with an economy showing signs of strength is not an easy task.

Great Wall of Confusion

US-China trade talks continue and/but with signs of ruinous brinkmanship.

My take: My take is the same as the Wall Street Journal editorial board. Read their lead item to understand the state of play as well as one can, given the inscrutability of the Chinese posture and the fuzziness of Trump’s bottom line.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Trump Threatens Tariffs

Markets brace for fall as analysts wonder how China will react.

My take: American talks with China on any topic are always going to involve brinkmanship and chaos. Add Trump (and Twitter) into the mix and those dynamics quadruple. Trump and his negotiators believe there is a bright line between a good deal and a bad deal. That line separates both on substance and on optics. Trump has long known he will have to endure some short-term pain to the American economy if he is going to get the Chinese to do the unprecedented: make real concessions that create a more level playing field on trade. Trump’s latest move reflects the reality that he does not believe the Chinese are taking him seriously — yet. And he believes the US economy has enough strength to survive a few short-term hits.

Hot Hotspots

Trump foreign policy team on overload with tension rising with Iran, Venezuela, North Korea, Israel-Palestinians.

My take: Trump has purposefully kept the US out of most military entanglements and tried to avoid having his domestic and trade agendas hijacked by national security tensions. That is part of the reason for the robust U.S. economic growth. But now world events are forcing his hand. The shops of Bolton and Pompeo have more on their plates right now than at any point in this administration. Sabers are being rattled, but look for attempts at de-escalation wherever possible. For all his bluster, Trump is extraordinarily risk adverse in this realm.

Mueller Showdown

Trump suggests independent counsel shouldn’t make long-anticipated Capitol Hill appearance.

My take: Trump will do anything and everything he can to either stop Mueller from testifying or to discredit his words if Mueller does appear. The media obsesses about the timing of the hearings, but the trajectory of this story as it will impact the prospects for impeachment or the views of the American people will be determined primarily by what Mueller actually says when he opens his mouth. The press and the Democrats are way too hungry to hear from the independent counsel to drop this quest, but the mystery remains: why is it still so hard to get this event locked in place? The longer the delay, the less impact the testimony will have.

“Own the Mainstream”

Pelosi advises Democrats to stay in the center-left.

My take: In interview, the Speaker demonstrates that even more than Joe Biden, she is using her influence to try to coax the nominating electorate into choosing a Trump opponent who can’t be defined as a socialist unfit to be commander in chief and a good steward of a good economy. Tom Perez, Democratic Twitter, and the party’s interest groups are still forcing the debate to the far left — or letting it go there with no pushback. Pelosi is increasingly emboldened out of necessity from her point of view to speak out. She is doing something very few people in public life ever attempt: she is trying to get her party to choose a leader who is more centrist than she herself is, because she has made the judgment that that is what is required to stop Trump from winning a second term.

Friday, May 3, 2019

The Meaning of the Attacks on Barr

Pelosi targets AG as criminal liar; conservatives claim it’s a smear campaign intended to head off investigations into 2016 FBI actions.

My take: Democrats feel they have no option but to pursue Barr to the ends of the earth. The Wall Street Journal editorial page has yet two pieces Friday claiming this effort is motivated by a desire to neuter Barr’s probe into the origins of the investigation into the Trump campaign and Russia. Beltway media remains transfixed by every twist and turn of Democratic outrage at Barr and rejects the Journal’s thesis. Pelosi and Co. are being applauded for doing what they think is right. But the chances are a lot higher that their pursuit hurts their 2020 chances than that they actually do any damage to the attorney general — let alone force him from office. Barr simply doesn’t care and is experienced enough to know how to decline, delay, and deflect.

Only Mueller Can Speak for Mueller

Hill Democrats try to directly book G-Man of few (spoken) words for testimony.

My take: Team Mueller has proven to be adept at leaking (despite its reputation to the contrary). Now the main question is just how clever Mueller will be when he finally appears on the Hill. It is a near certainty that he will be more cautious in his pronouncements than Democrats would like. The additional questions are, what are Muller’s own goals when he finally speaks and how effective will he be in achieving those goals?

Mind the Gap

Trump’s job approval on the economy is well above his overall approval numbers.

My take: This is why it is essential that the eventual Democratic presidential nominee have a clear theory of the case about how to be a good steward of a good economy. If the party picks someone to go against Trump who is seen as incapable of handling the economy, Trump could win re-election with a historically low job approval rating.

Not a Bumper Sticker

Michael Bennet trumpets entrance into Democratic field with essay that would fill the beds of a pair of Ford pickups.

My take: The Coloradan has fans among the donor class, the Obamas, the Clintons, and his Senate colleagues, but he is going to need a lot of time on the ground in Iowa and New Hampshire to get better known by those voters who don’t read Medium posts.

Biden the Free Trader

Rivals lay in wait over former Veep’s past support for trade deals.

My take: Hillary Clinton hurt herself politically with some in 2016 by walking away from her past backing of trade pacts. Biden will eventually have to demonstrate whether he plans to stand and fight — or shift and explain. Both paths are littered with danger.