ROBERT COSTA: Welcome to the Washington Week Extra. I’m Robert Costa. This week Democratic presidential candidates criticized President Trump’s decision to order a drone strike on Iran’s top general, focusing on how he did not consult with Congress or build a public case for the strike. Here's what we heard from some of the contenders.
REPRESENTATIVE TULSI GABBARD (D-HI): (From video.) I just came from the intelligence briefing that the administration came and brought to Congress. Really they provided vague comments, no justification whatsoever for this illegal and unconstitutional act of war that President Trump took.
SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT): (From video.) We did not hear that there was any imminent attack being planned against the United States – period.
FORMER VICE PRESIDEN JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) If there was an imminent threat that required this extraordinary action that we are owed an explanation, and the facts to back it up.
SENATOR ELIZABETH WARREN (D-MA): (From video.) This is a reminder why we need to deescalate tension in the Middle East. (Cheers, applause.) The American people do not want a war with Iran. (Cheers.)
MR. COSTA: The strike continues to reshape the fault lines in the Democratic presidential race, as former Vice President Joe Biden and others talk up their experience, while Senator Bernie Sanders and others in that antiwar wing, they warn of interventionism. And on Friday night the Des Moines Register released its very critical new poll, which has been highly watched by the political community, by reporters. According to the paper, quote, “20 percent of likely Democratic caucus-goers” named Sanders as their first choice. Warren is at 17 percent, Buttigieg 16 percent, and Biden 15 percent.
And joining us tonight to discuss all this, Ashley Parker, White House reporter for The Washington Post; Jake Sherman, senior writer for POLITICO and co-author of Playbook; and Carl Hulse, chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times.
Carl Hulse, Bernie Sanders. You’ve covered the Senate for a long time. A narrow lead, but a lead in this latest Des Moines Register poll. What is happening in the Democratic Party?
CARL HULSE: I think that things are starting to take shape. People are actually going to making some decisions. You’re starting to see the fallout. I’ve covered the Iowa caucuses in the past. Things come together after all these months of everyone circulating. I think that if you look at these candidates, they really didn’t have much choice about what they were going to say over this attack because –
MR. COSTA: Well, there’s a real difference between those who said assassination first and those who didn’t.
MR. HULSE: Right. Right. And Joe Biden is going to play the Joe Biden, I have the great experience in foreign policy. I’m not sure if my gut would say to me, well, this helps Biden because, you know, he’s a figure, a reassuring figure. He dealt with this. But it’s also, like, I’m not sure what the Democratic primary voters want right now. So Bernie Sanders seems to be, against the sort of anticipation of a lot of people, solidifying himself at the top of this. However, things in Iowa can change extremely quickly. I covered the Howard Dean Iowa caucuses. Remember, he was going to win, and he did not.
MR. COSTA: If you think about the Democratic Party in the House, which you cover so closely, you have the rise of a new left flank in that chamber. So maybe the ascendency of Sanders in Iowa isn’t that surprising based on the trends in the Democratic Party.
JAKE SHERMAN: And the trends kind of in the political sphere just broadly speaking, right? I mean, Republicans were sick and tired of getting the person that made sense, right? Mitt Romney made sense, Ashley, as you know well, and then he didn’t, and lost, and gave us Donald Trump who was the nominee against what all – we all – many of us thought. Maybe people are sick of the next in line in the Democratic Party too. It was Hillary Clinton who lost, and Sanders who was almost just there, and didn’t quite make it.
And maybe they’re now realizing we should just nominate the person that we want. And I’m not saying this is over, but if Biden doesn’t win Iowa and New Hampshire, and then who knows what happens in South Carolina. Does support peel away? Does he win? Does the electorate going forward after South Carolina start getting skeptical about him? I don’t know. I mean, this is a big gamble for Biden, a big moment for a man who’s been in the public eye for the last 50 years.
MR. COSTA: We know the president’s focused on Vice President Biden, and he’s been focused on Biden for months. But I was just on the trail with Sanders. He’s talking about Medicare for All as a way to address rage over health care costs. He’s not using the word “revolution” as much. He’s framing his argument as fiscally responsible, that he’s essentially trying to lower health care costs by having a single-payer system. When the White House looks at a possible Sanders nomination, what do they see? Do they see someone who they can paint as a Democratic Socialist? Or do they worry a little bit that he could pick up some of that populism that lifted President Trump?
ASHLEY PARKER: Both. You hear both. And you also – if you ask a different White House aide, or different person in the president’s orbit, or a different person who’s talked to the president that week, you hear different people of who they are most worried about in any given moment. I think they think with a Sanders or a Warren, they can sort of do the blanket approach of painting them as a zany radical socialist leftist. They think that’s effective. But the president privately has expressed some concern about these candidates who are offering, as he says, you know, free stuff. And he loves free stuff. He’s always talking about return on investment. And that’s something he can’t complete with. He understands the appeal to that.
And people in his circle will also say that there is someone like a Sanders or like a Warren who is very Trumpian in their own way. They’re outsiders. They’re leading a movement. They’re not of the party. They’re – Elizabeth Warren is less a Democrat. She casts herself as an Elizabeth Warren Democrat. That’s who her supporters are. Bernie Sanders, of course, is an independent who caucuses with the Democrats. And they think there is a chance that one of these candidates kind of catches fire and rides that populist wave that Trump rode just four years ago, but from the other side.
MR. HULSE: I think that the White House, they see these pictures of Bernie Sanders at these rallies that are big – thousands of people, a lot of younger people. And the president is somebody who thrives on a rally. And he’s, like, well, that – he’s attracting –
MS. PARKER: And he understands size.
MR. HULSE: Yeah, so, exactly. (Laughter.) So.
MR. COSTA: What do we make of Warren at 17 percent, close to the top in Iowa, Buttigieg has slipped, but he’s still at 16?
MR. SHERMAN: Yeah, I think the most interesting thing to me is, yeah, Buttigieg is – he’s spent the most time in Iowa. I mean, that’s the place he’s spent the most time. He certainly has the resources to spend a long time in this race. And then there’s the person we’re not talking about, which is Mike Bloomberg, who has said recently he’s going to spend money no matter if he’s the candidate or not, which is a welcome sign for Democrats all over because he seems to have kind of endless amounts of money that he’s willing to throw into this race. I will say – I mean, there is a momentum element of this. And you go from Iowa, to New Hampshire, to South Carolina quickly. And you really want to get that momentum rolling.
MS. PARKER: And when you think of Iowa especially, there is the actual winners and then there’s the winners of the expectations game, right?
MR. HULSE: You can be number one, and not be considered the winner.
MS. PARKER: Yes, exactly. Or someone like a Klobuchar, who in theory should appeal to a lot of Iowa voters, and our Post reporters on the ground talking them they mention her, they like her. If she was someone to come and finish third or fourth, that would be a huge –
MR. HULSE: If she beats expectations.
MS. PARKER: Yes, exactly. That would be a huge win for her, in a way where if Biden finishes third or fourth that is not the ticket out of Iowa for him that it is for an Amy Klobuchar – even potentially a Pete Buttigieg.
MR. COSTA: But it is Iowa. It’s 90 percent white. Biden still has South Carolina. So it could be a long race. Super Tuesday has so many states – March 3rd, I believe it is. And that is – that seems to be the critical moment in this race.
MR. SHERMAN: I spoke to a Biden – person close to Biden recently. And I said, what happens if he loses Iowa and New Hampshire, and then wins South Carolina and, you know, takes off from there? And this person said, then he’s the nominee.
MR. HULSE: That would be their – that’s their ultimate scenario.
MR. COSTA: What, a Bernie-Biden race?
MR. HULSE: Well, and for them if – do well in Iowa, New Hampshire, but win South Carolina.
MR. SHERMAN: Even don’t do well in Iowa, New Hampshire. Then win South Carolina, go to California and then – yeah.
MR. HULSE: Right. Don’t totally – don’t totally collapse.
MS. PARKER: And South Carolina also lets you say: I can build a coalition. I can win more than just white voters. I can win African American voters. I can win minority voters. And this is what you need to win nationwide.
MR. SHERMAN: And that argument extends to Nevada. It extends to California. Two big states, very diverse states, that are at least a little bit more representative of America than Iowa, New Hampshire.
MR. HULSE: In Nevada you have Harry Reid. Does he decide to put his thumb on the scale for an old colleague? And which one does he do it for, you know?
MR. COSTA: Right. I mean, I was just talking to Sanders people this week. They’re putting a lot of chips on California. Win Iowa, New Hampshire or not, they think Biden’s strong clearly in South Carolina. That California primary, that’s going to be a fight coming after Super Tuesday.
MR. HULSE: Which people didn’t think was going to be a big fight because –
MR. COSTA: But they moved it so early.
MR. HULSE: Right.
MR. COSTA: It’s part of Super Tuesday now. Remember, it was late last time. It was in the summer.
MR. HULSE: But also you see Steyer in Bloomberg –
MR. COSTA: Rising in the polls.
MR. HULSE: Rising. And it goes to show you the power of money and advertising. And in a state like California where people don’t usually have the money for really comprehensive advertising, maybe they’ll make a difference.
MR. COSTA: We got to leave it there, but we’ll keep an eye on Bloomberg and everyone else.
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.