ROBERT COSTA: Welcome to the Washington Week Extra. I’m Robert Costa.
The Iowa caucuses are just weeks away, and six of the Democratic contenders were on the debate stage Tuesday in Des Moines. Senator Elizabeth Warren and Senator Bernie Sanders squared off over a private conversation.
SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT): (From video.) Anybody who knows me knows that it’s incomprehensible that I would think that a woman could not be president of the United States.
SENATOR ELIZABETH WARREN (D-MA): (From video.) Bernie is my friend and I am not here to try to fight with Bernie. But look, this question about whether or not a woman can be president has been raised and it’s time for us to attack it head on.
MR. COSTA: Warren and Sanders have similar platforms and have avoided criticizing each other for years. This recent New York Times headline summed up the distress in parts of the Democratic Party over the spat: Quote, “Mom and Dad Are Fighting: Left-Wing Democrats Lament Sanders-Warren Rift.” Meanwhile President Trump, as we discussed in the show, has scheduled some counterprogramming. He campaigned in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, this week and took action on one of his core 2016 campaign issues, trade.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) Tomorrow we’ll also be signing our phase-one trade deal with China, massively boosting exports of products made and produced right here in the great state of Wisconsin.
MR. COSTA: The president’s new U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement passed the Senate Thursday with bipartisan support.
And joining us to discuss the state of the 2020 campaign, Vivian Salama, White House reporter for The Wall Street Journal; Burgess Everett, congressional reporter for POLITICO; Julie Hirschfeld Davis, congressional editor at The New York Times; and Dan Balz, chief correspondent for The Washington Post.
Dan, I cut you off at the end of the broadcast – (laughter) – because we only – that’s a live – it’s a live broadcast. In case people are wondering, it is live, so we had to cut off the great Dan Balz. But to finish your point, the politics of trade on top of the politics of impeachment, how does this all play out in the coming weeks and months?
DAN BALZ: Well, the politics of trade are not insignificant, certainly, for the president’s reelection hopes. Farmers in particular have taken it on the chin because of the tariffs in the trade war with China. The president has poured billions of dollars into the farm economy or into farmers’ pockets to try to offset it. But to be able to get progress on trade deals, particularly USMCA in part because he’s always described that as the worst trade deal in the history of the world and now he has something that he can say this is better – people will debate about how much better, but nonetheless it’s something he can say he’s gotten done. Progress on China, at least they have deescalated – we’ll see how much phase one actually makes a difference – but nonetheless, again, something that’s important to him. But the issue for him is that whether it’s that or the – you know, the historically low unemployment rate, he seems to get in the way of those things when he goes out on the campaign trail or when he’s tweeting: he gets distracted, he takes – he picks fights, he takes other issues on, and so there’s not a consistency to that message.
MR. COSTA: Inside of the Senate – you talked about how they scheduled this vote – what was it like when they passed USMCA? What were they talking about? Were some Democrats reluctant to sign on or they thought it was the best deal they could get from a Republican president?
BURGESS EVERETT: I’d say the two most interesting things about that vote were in the leadup to it we had heard Senator Schumer, the minority leader, might oppose the USMCA, and they were being very cagey. He said he was still studying it, and then a few minutes before the vote he puts out a statement opposing it. That’s pretty notable. You know, I don’t want to read too much into it, but if you’re worried about a primary challenge the next time you’re up for reelection as the minority leader or the majority leader depending on how the next set of Senate races go, that’s a notable position to take. There were only 10 people who voted against it.
The other person that was most interesting was Pat Toomey, a Republican from Pennsylvania, only Republican to oppose it. He was just basically a one-man oppo shop attacking it. Obviously, it didn’t come to much, but you can see how there is still a segment of the free-trader sort of purists that don’t like this deal.
VIVIAN SALAMA: Absolutely, and there’s – the other issue is that it is a phase-one deal – we’re talking about China now – he just signed phase one. The president initially came out and was promising a sweeping trade deal with China that covered basically dozens and dozens of problematic areas, and they settled for phase one that just focused on – well, there’s tariff reduction, but also agriculture purchases from U.S. farms and also changing some of the rules for IP and technology. And so this was a win to a lot of people, but at the same time it fell short of the sweeping deal that the president had promised. And so a number of people on the Hill, also a number of the hawks within his administration concerned that he’s starting to get soft on China as he starts getting closer to the election and desperate to deliver some wins, and so that was something really notable in the past few days as well.
MR. COSTA: And it was interesting about the China deal, for months the markets have worried that the deal wouldn’t be big enough, yet as this deal was signed – phase one – the markets are at a record high.
JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS: Right, I mean, this certainly was a confidence – seen, at least by the markets, it seemed like it was being seen as a confidence-building measure and something that was giving people a comfort level that they didn’t – that the markets didn’t seem to have beforehand. I think USMCA also probably contributed to that. The fascinating thing to me on the North American free trade deal was how, you know, lopsided the vote was.
MR. EVERETT: Yeah, you never see that.
MS. DAVIS: As Burgess said, all these Democrats, including Sherrod Brown, the leading Democrat on – in the Senate against most of these trade deals in the last several decades, you know, was a supporter of this, an avid supporter of it, and what it showed was just how far they bent over backwards to make this a progressive deal that Democrats could support because they knew they needed to. And that is, in the end, what so alienated people like Senator Toomey, and it – and it’s sort of a throwback to the way that President Trump campaigned when he talked about, you know, having sort of a large, big infrastructure package and big spending package and creating all of these jobs. He was going to be this populist. And this deal was much more on the – in the progressive direction than a lot of Republicans would have liked.
MS. SALAMA: And that was something that they really aimed to do because the labor provisions in particular were something that the Democrats were really fighting for, but also on the political end of things you had a lot of the unions, you have someone like Trumka who heads the largest group of unions, coming out and saying that they needed to do more for union workers, and labor provisions in particular. And so that actually sings to what a lot of the Democrats were fighting for. Robert Lighthizer was going out there, the U.S. trade representative, meeting with Nancy Pelosi and other members of the Hill, to just really try to work something out. And he promised that it would be something that would get bipartisan support. And in the end, like Julie says, a lot of Democrats were really rallying for it because of those labor provisions that they really fought for in it.
MR. COSTA: So to close out this discussion let’s go around the table and talk a little bit about 2020 and the Democratic presidential race. Inside the White House, Vivian, how do they see Mayor Bloomberg, sitting there spending money on Super Tuesday states?
MS. SALAMA: So far, I mean, it’s definitely something that they notice, but I don’t think that the White House, and particularly the president, sees him as enough of a threat to really worry about. I think if anything – if the president could have his way tomorrow, he’d go against Bernie Sanders in the election because he feels that he would probably be somebody that he could really fight against. You know, he labels him a socialist outwardly, and just feels like that’s someone that he could really take on. So that’s sort of where they’re aiming for. Whether or not he gets a Joe Biden or someone else remains to be seen. But Bloomberg, for now the president kind of takes him with a grain of salt and goes out and makes fun of him quite a bit too.
MR. COSTA: What about Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota? Rising in Iowa. When you talk to her allies, or even her, what’s your takeaway, just a few weeks before Iowa about Klobuchar?
MR. EVERETT: I mean, the fact that she’s still in the race and in the top five I think would surprise folks who saw this roster three years ago, who was going to get into this race. So she’s had some staying power there. But her whole thing has been, I’m from the neighboring state. I can beat – I can win in this Trump country area. And so if she doesn’t really impress in Iowa, I think it’s going to be hard to see her campaign going much further, because nobody’s campaign seems more designed around producing a surprisingly good result in Iowa than hers. And if she doesn’t clear that bar, it’s going to be a big disappointment.
MR. COSTA: Julie, let’s not forget Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, dropped out of the race this week, reflecting some of the unease in the party about the struggles of minority presidential candidates, from Senator Booker, to Senator Harris, and others.
MS. DAVIS: Yeah. I mean, we saw a debate stage that had no candidates of color anymore this past week. And it’s certainly the case that, you know, now that the field is whittling down, it just happens – it has panned out that, you know, none of these candidates of color who I think initially thought that they might try to be able to recreate something like the Obama coalition within the Democratic Party were quite able to get there. And of course, that’s harder when Joe Biden is in the race, because he was the former vice president to Barack Obama and he has some of that support that, you know, some of those candidates were going for. But I think for whatever reason none of them were able to catch on and have the staying power to be able to create that kind of coalition to stay in the race. So that’s sort of where we are.
MR. COSTA: And as congressional editor for The New York Times, when you look at the fight between Senator Warren and Senator Sanders – we’re now a few days away from that debate interaction. As Burgess and others have said, they don’t want to talk about it anymore. And so as an editor and a reporter, how do you see that story playing out in the coming week or so? Are you still paying attention to it, or does it probably fizzle?
MS. DAVIS: I think people are still going to pay attention to it. And I think certainly given that they’re going to be, as I said before, in the same room at desks not very far away from each other for maybe a few weeks here is going to continue to fuel at least questions about, like, how are they getting along? Are they making up? Are they not making up? And then, you know, out on the campaign trail, where they will not be, their surrogates are going to have to deal with these questions. And I’m really interested to see how that goes, because sometimes as we know with some of these sort of tensions that rise between members of Congress or candidates, it can actually be nastier among the staff than it is among the principals themselves. And I’m just fascinated to see how that might play out.
MR. COSTA: Dan, final question. You’ve covered Vice President Biden for some time. And his family, Hunter Biden, is being mentioned as a possible witness in the Senate impeachment trial of President Trump. He’s even being talked about as a possible witness, a presidential candidate, by some Republicans. What’s your thought on this moment for VP Biden?
MR. BALZ: Well, we know how important family is to Vice President Biden, and all he’s gone through with his family, the losses he’s had with his family. And so his instinct is always: Protect the family as best he can. I think this has to be painful for him, on the one hand. One the other hand, I think he’s indignant about what has been done. Whatever he thinks privately about what Hunter Biden did in joining the board of that company in Ukraine, Burisma, publicly he will staunchly defend him. But I think that his belief is that he can get past this. His focus, I think, right now is trying as much as he humanly can to win in Iowa. If he were to win in Iowa, that would change the nature of this race, because people have not projected that he is a likely winner in Iowa. Sanders has been rising. There have been four Iowa polls by Ann Selzer. There’s been a different leader in each of the four polls.
MR. COSTA: Who were the four? Buttigieg in one, Biden –
MR. BALZ: Biden led the first, Warren led the second, Buttigieg led the third, and Sanders led the most recent one, which came out a week ago tonight. And I talked to Ann Selzer a couple of days ago, and she said: This is the first time that Bernie Sanders has led one of these polls. She wasn’t predicting – you know, she’s not in the prediction business. But she thought that was notable, that this was the first time he’s done it. The penultimate poll in Iowa isn’t the key one. You want to lead the last one. And her polls have always – generally picked the winner. So we will wait until the weekend before the caucuses to see what that looks like. But at this point, any one of those four has an opportunity. You talked about Klobuchar. She’s been on the cusp of breaking through but is struggling to actually do that. And that’s her challenge. And it’s all the more difficult if she’s stuck here.
MR. COSTA: So there’s one more poll from the Des Moines Register?
MR. BALZ: Generally there’s a poll on the weekend before the caucuses. The caucuses are on Monday, February 3rd. So look for a poll on Friday night or Saturday night before.
MR. COSTA: Well, that’s it for this edition of the Washington Week Extra. You can listen wherever you get your podcasts or watch on our website. While you’re there, check out our Washington Week-ly News Quiz. I’m Robert Costa. Thanks for joining us. And see you next time.