ROBERT COSTA: Hello. I’m Robert Costa. And this is the Washington Week Extra.
Let’s look back at the week in the 2020 presidential race. President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden were both in Iowa and took shots at each other. President Trump said this.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) In the past and under the Obama administration our politicians let other countries push us around, treat us badly, treat our country with no respect, and you see that with Biden. We would never be treated with respect because people don’t respect him.
MR. COSTA: And the former VP also had sharp words.
FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) This is a president who, in fact, is embracing dictators, taking in front of the whole world – standing with Vladimir Putin, who I personally know, in fact standing there and saying I believe that he did not interfere in our elections, and my entire intelligence community is wrong. No, no, but think what that says to the rest of the world.
MR. COSTA: Meanwhile, NBC News announced the lineup for the first 2020 Democratic presidential debates.
Joining me tonight, Peter Baker, chief White House correspondent for The New York Times; Yamiche Alcindor, White House correspondent for the PBS NewsHour; Ashley Parker, White House reporter for The Washington Post; and Eamon Javers, Washington correspondent for CNBC.
A showdown in Iowa, President Trump versus Vice President Biden. Vice President Biden, though, in some of the polls has dipped a little bit. What do we make of the president and Biden? Is this the dynamic that’s so far dominating this contest?
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: It’s dominating it right now, but there’s – it’s mainly because I think Joe Biden still has the most name recognition. I think it was interesting to see this preview because you can see kind of what the tone of the 2020 election might be if these two men end up facing off. The president wants to in some ways or was indicating that Joe Biden had some sort of mental capacity issues. Joe Biden trying to not go specifically at Donald Trump, instead trying to make the case that he was just a better person and a better – and better-qualified to be president. But I think if it ends up being these two men, of course, it’s going to be a knock-down, drag-out fight, and I think that both of these men are known for being candid – if that’s the best way to put it – but they obviously are people that I think will definitely be slugging each other.
EAMON JAVERS: I’m not convinced the Democratic base has entirely bought in on Joe Biden as their nominee yet. I mean, Joe Biden’s got a long track record that’s longer than many of these Democratic candidates have been alive, right, and there’s a lot to pick apart there. You saw him struggling to get right with the Democratic base on abortion this week, so that’s one area where he’s trying to match the 2020 Democratic Party. He’s been a good fit for the Democratic Party in past decades; is he a good fit for this Democratic Party now, which seems to be wanting to be much more progressive than he’s been? I’m not sure.
ASHLEY PARKER: There’s also just some risks with Joe Biden’s strategy generally. On the one hand it’s savvy; he basically pretended the other 23 Democratic candidates didn’t exist and his opponent was President Trump, sort of launching him out of that primary and into a general. That makes a lot of sense. The flipside is he now has the president trained on him, and I say this as someone who covered Jeb Bush in 2016 that that is not always a good place to be. The president comes up with these nicknames with sort of a bully’s devastating precision, and there’s often a little bit of a grain of truth – not the mentally challenged part – (laughter) – but you know, he started calling him “sleepy Joe,” “Joe who’s lost a step,” and that’s something that reporters are hearing from Democratic voters who sort of say I wonder if Joe still really has it. And so if Trump can get something in the ether and cement it there, that could be very problematic for Biden.
MR. JAVERS: And there you have the 73-year-old suggesting that the 76-year-old is too old for the job. (Laughter.)
MS. PARKER: Well, shamelessness is one of the president’s most potent weapons. (Laughter.)
PETER BAKER: It is the president’s birthday. We should wish him a happy birthday.
MR. JAVERS: Yeah, that’s right. (Laughs.) Good timing.
MR. BAKER: Look, you know, if the – if the frontrunner at this stage of the election process mattered, we would be talking about President Clinton and President Jeb Bush, right? I mean, this is still the spring training. Starting in about a week and a half we’re going to start having actual games. And once people start to see some of these 20 other – these 19 other candidates along with Joe Biden, then the whole thing becomes scrambled. We don’t know yet who will rise to become his main challenger, but somebody will, and it will – not surprising it hasn’t happened yet because they haven’t had the exposure.
MS. ALCINDOR: It is interesting to see Democratic candidates, though, start to pile on on Joe Biden. You had Pete Buttigieg talking about we need a new generation. Beto O’Rourke was also taking aim at Joe Biden. Bernie Sanders has said he’s clearly not the most progressive candidate in the race – I am, essentially. So I think even as Joe Biden is still possibly not the person that the Democratic base is ultimately going to be voting for, I think the other candidates sense that they need to in some ways take him down in order to get the primary.
MR. COSTA: Let’s dig into that a little bit about the timing of this turn and look at some recent polling out of Iowa. Vice President Biden has been leading the race for the Democratic nomination, but according to the most recent CNN/Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll, support for him may be slipping as it builds for other candidates, as Yamiche was saying. And among likely participants in the first of the nation Iowa caucuses, Vice President Biden has 24 percent support. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont is at 16 percent. Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana are close behind with 15 and 14 percent respectively. And Senator Kamala Harris is at 7 percent, from California.
MR. JAVERS: Look, you saw Bernie Sanders out there today making the case for being the left flank of the Democratic Party, talking about democratic socialism and trying to put himself in the legacy of FDR. You know, he is saying that he does not believe that Joe Biden, as a mainstream candidate, is the right guy for the Democratic Party. And there might be some Democratic primary voters who are going to go along with that. The question is whether some of these younger candidates who you’re talking about – Buttigieg and Beto O’Rourke – can sort of swing in there and capture some of that left-leaning momentum in the Democratic Party.
MR. COSTA: Well, maybe it’s not just the younger generation. It could be Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. If you look at that Iowa poll, Biden dipping down a little bit, and then you have Senator Warren and Mayor Pete Buttigieg rising. What does that tell us, when you see Buttigieg and Warren catching a little fire?
MR. BAKER: Well, it’s that they’re not yet sold on Vice President Biden. The sale is not complete, and it’s not surprising.
MR. COSTA: But what’s Warren and Buttigieg doing that’s making them rise compared to Beto O’Rourke or Senator Klobuchar, or others?
MR. BAKER: Yeah, it’s a good question. I think, look, Pete Buttigieg is a remarkable story in American politics. And he has gotten from zero, basically, to a serious contender based on the performance on television, right? In other words, there is a moment where somebody actually – they watched him do a town hall, they said, huh, I’m kind of impressed. Because you wouldn’t otherwise suspect that the mayor of a town of 100,000 people would be anywhere near the first tier at this point.
Elizabeth Warren, I think, has just sort of gone out there with her I’ve got a plan for that, you know, intensity, saying, you know, everybody else is talking smack but I’m the one who’s going to get some stuff done on things you really care about. Each one of them is kind of carving out their place.
MS. ALCINDOR: I would also say, if we think about it, Elizabeth Warren not taking the Fox debate – or, not taking the Fox town hall, and being very pointed. Being the first candidate that came out in support of impeaching the president. You think about Pete Buttigieg, and him reclaiming the idea of faith from the Democratic side. I know a lot of Catholic Democrats, a lot of Christian Democrats. African Americans are largely still going with the Democratic Party, but there are a lot of religious people in the African American community who have been saying, well, what – our faith is not what Mike Pence is talking about. We have a different kind of faith.
And for Pete Buttigieg as a homosexual man, who might have the first same-sex couple in the White House, he’s saying: I can have faith too. I’m not going to just cede this area to Mike Pence. I think those are interesting decisions that they’re making that might be contributing to them rising.
MR. JAVERS: Yeah, they’re crosscurrents that we haven’t seen in American politics before – a gay candidate being the faith candidate on the Democratic side is a mix of attributes that we just haven’t seen. And that might be why he’s gathering some steam, is people are looking at that and saying: That’s new and that’s different. And this might be a party that wants something new and different this time around.
MR. COSTA: Do the debates matter? They’re coming up soon, down in Miami.
MS. PARKER: Yeah, I think so. I think they’re a moment – it’s going to be a challenge for the Democrats, because you have one moment to stand out that turns the tide and tenor in the debate. And it’s these crowded fields. And there are two different debates. And already, people are unhappy with the way it was randomly chosen. But look at the way the debates helped President Trump. Those last time were determined by polling. Because of his place in the polls he was always center stage, and he never left. And then you also had moments in the debate – remember Governor Chris Christie going after Marco Rubio in a sort of just absolutely devastating way. That was borne out of Christie had to do something. He had nothing to lose. But it was one of the things that sort of began Rubio’s ascent. So I think moments can emerge from debates and go viral.
MR. COSTA: Any final thoughts from our esteemed panel?
MR. JAVERS: Still too early for final thoughts. I have early thoughts. I don’t have any final thoughts. (Laughter.)
MR. COSTA: No final thoughts.
MS. ALCINDOR: There’s so – and there’s so many people. That’s 20 people, two nights. I was talking to – I’ll just be honest – I was talking to my mom in Florida.
MR. COSTA: The best source in the world. (Laughter.)
MS. ALCINDOR: And telling her, you know, these debates are happening. And she was, like, but there are so many people. So it’ll be interesting to see how voters react to having to process 20 candidates and whether or not they’re not really just comparing the two that they already like.
MR. JAVERS: And will President Trump live-tweet the Democratic debate and heckle them on Twitter as he’s watching?
MS. ALCINDOR: Or have a rally.
MR. JAVERS: Right, he might counterprogram.
MS. PARKER: Yeah, classic counterprogramming.
MR. BAKER: But this is the beginning of the winnowing, right? We will not have 23 candidates, you know, in three months. This is the beginning of the winnowing.
MS. ALCINDOR: I’ll be sure to tell my mom that. (Laughter.)
MR. COSTA: So whenever I am watching you on PBS NewsHour, and I hear an attribution for a long-time person familiar with Yamiche Alcindor’s thinking – (laughter) –
MR. JAVERS: It’s mom in Florida.
MR. COSTA: That’s it for this edition of the Washington Week Extra. You can listen wherever you get your podcasts or watch it on our website. While you’re online, check out our Washington Week-ly News Quiz.
I’m Robert Costa. Thanks for joining us. See you next time.