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TODAY'S HEADLINES (click to jump there; use your browser's "Back" button to return here)
      •  Iran Drama Has Not Yet Subsided...
      •  ...Nor Has Impeachment Drama
      •  A Brokered Convention?
      •  The Hawk-Why? State
      •  Steyer Makes the Cut
      •  Trump Goes 0-for-2 This Week in New York Defamation Lawsuits
      •  Loeffler Takes Her Seat

Iran Drama Has Not Yet Subsided...

The war with Iran is off (at least for now). But the fallout from the killing of Gen. Qasem Soleimani continues to pile up.

The biggest news on this front on Thursday was that the House adopted a resolution demanding that Donald Trump consult with Congress before taking any future action against Iran. It was a mostly party-line vote, of course, with just 8 Democrats and 3 Republicans crossing party lines. The most surprising of these was Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), who is usually a firm Trump loyalist. Although the resolution is symbolic and non-binding, and so does not require a presidential signature, the President is reportedly furious that anyone dare question his power. After all, l'état, c'est moi.

The Democratic-dominated House isn't the only place where Trump is being questioned, however. Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) is still steamed at the briefing he (and other senators) got from the President's team, and he went on NPR (of all places) on Thursday to vent. The most significant thing Lee revealed is that he asked if Trump would speak to Congress before taking particularly aggressive action, like killing Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and the President's team refused to respond. Again, l'état, c'est moi.

Meanwhile, there are also reports that dozens of Iranians and Iranian-Americans who have tried to enter the United States via Canada this week have been detained and subjected to aggressive questioning by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. While it is legal for the government to question border crossers with cause (for example, their paperwork is not in order), they cannot target people on the basis of national origin. Border Patrol says nobody was targeted like that, and maybe they are telling the truth. On the other hand, responding to foreign provocations by targeting people domestically would be par for the course for the Trump administration. See, for example, the Muslim travel bans.

And finally, the destruction of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 is looking less and less like an amazing coincidence and more and more like an act for which the Iranians bear responsibility. There is now video that appears to show the plane being struck by a missile, and authorities in the United States and elsewhere now believe that Iran did it, albeit probably by accident. Exactly how that affects an already tense situation, given that Iran obviously tried to cover it up, is anyone's guess. And if "accidental" starts to look "not so accidental," that could really light the fuse again.

On the other hand, if it becomes clear that Iran shot down a civilian aircraft, either by accident or intentionally, it could help Trump. He could tweet something to the effect of: "Iranians are monsters, so we are fully justified killing them whenever we want to." Many people would no doubt agree with him on that. (Z)

...Nor Has Impeachment Drama

Nothing is happening when it comes to impeachment, in the sense that the articles of impeachment are still in Speaker Nancy Pelosi's (D-CA) desk drawer, and so the trial remains unscheduled, the impeachment managers remain unknown, and everything remains in a holding pattern. On the other hand, lots of stuff is happening, as the two sides play a skillful and high-profile game of chess.

Much of the drama on Thursday came from the Senate chamber, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) announced that he now supports a bill proposed by Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) that would allow the Senate to dismiss the articles of impeachment if they don't get them in a timely manner. Further, McConnell and his lieutenants are making a big show of telling anyone and everyone (by which we mean Rush Limbaugh and Fox News) that they expect to start the trial next week. Meanwhile, House Republicans are discussing the possibility of censuring Pelosi.

All of this may seem forceful, but it's really just political theater. It is questionable whether Hawley's measure can pass the Senate, and even if it does, it is highly questionable whether it is legal. Further, in an attempt to make it kosher, the measure says the Senate can only vote to quash the articles after 25 days. So, even if the Senate somehow passes the measure today (unlikely), Pelosi wouldn't face a "deadline" until February. As to going on Fox News and declaring that the trial will begin next week, you probably didn't need us to tell you that's just for show. As to the Republicans trying to censure Pelosi in the House, perhaps they have forgotten they are the minority party.

Pelosi, for her part, is playing her cards very close to the vest. She hasn't even told her committee chairs (some of whom will surely become impeachment managers) what her plans are, though there are some rumors that she's told very close friends that she'll send the articles over to McConnell "fairly soon." That makes sense; she's gotten most of what she wanted from holding the articles—a microscope on the Majority Leader and new evidence (John Bolton, Pentagon e-mails) coming to light.

The one thing that Pelosi most certainly did do on Thursday was remind everyone that she's just as good at whipping her caucus into line as McConnell is. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA) declared early Thursday that Pelosi really ought to get on with it, but by Thursday afternoon he was claiming he "misspoke." Undoubtedly he got an angry call from the Speaker telling him that if he did not fall back in line, he might lose his chairmanship, and even the wealth of nations would not be enough to get it back.

And finally, on the Bolton point, Rep. Adam Schiff (not Smith, D-CA) reiterated on Thursday that he is not interested in talking to the former NSA before he talks to the Senate. Said Schiff:

There's little to be gained by having him testify separately and then have the Senate get the stale records. If we're doing this rationally and we're trying to achieve a fair trial, he should testify before the Senate.

There has been a fair bit of discussion in our weekly Q&A and mailbag of the wisdom of calling a witness that you have not previously deposed. Clearly, the Democrats think that Bolton has some bombshells he wants to lob, and they want the first occasion on which he does so to be during the "trial of the century," with everyone watching on TV. That said, if the Senate categorically refuses to call witnesses, there is nothing stopping House Democrats from changing their mind and summoning Bolton for a chat. (Z)

A Brokered Convention?

In most presidential elections of the past 50 years, at least one of the parties has had a fractured primary field, giving rise to talk of a brokered convention. Most people who hope for this outcome support an underdog or dark horse candidate whose only path to the nomination is a brokered result. Others just like drama, or else would like to know what a "classic" political convention feels like.

Of course, it never happens. The last conventions that were actually brokered were in 1952, when it happened for both the Republicans (Dwight D. Eisenhower) and Democrats (Adlai Stevenson). Those fellows re-matched in 1956, and by the time the 1960s rolled around, the primary/caucus system of choosing candidates was firmly established. There have been a few close calls, like in 1968, when the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy probably spared the Democrats a nasty convention fight. However, every candidate since 1952 has been nominated on the first ballot, and it's been nearly 40 years (1984) since a convention began without the nominee's identity being set in stone (Walter Mondale was about 40 delegates short when the convention commenced that year, but he managed to round them up before balloting began).

That said, it's looking like 2020 might just be the year. We have a somewhat unusual dynamic this year, with a somewhat weak frontrunner from one wing of the Democratic Party in Joe Biden, and two reasonably strong challengers from the other wing in Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT). That means a possible split of delegates something along the lines of 40%, 30%, and 20%, which would keep any candidate from claiming the nomination pre-convention. Of course, one of the progressives could drop out, and the combined progressive vote could be enough to push Biden down to second place. However, if that person waits more than a few weeks after Super Tuesday to drop out, there may not be enough delegates left for the other progressive to claim a majority. Further, the more likely a brokered convention looks, the more motivation that weaker candidates have to stick it out, in hopes that they are chosen as the compromise candidate. In particular, that is the only real path available to Sen. Amy Klobuchar (DFL-MN).

This is not just a guess, though—there's math to back it up. Specifically, FiveThirtyEight has put together a delegate tracker, and has crunched the numbers based on current polling numbers and current delegate allocation rules. At the moment, they give Biden a 40% chance to claim the nomination, Sanders a 22% chance, Warren a 12% chance, and Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D-South Bend) a 10% chance (the other 16% goes to the other candidates and to "no one"). Across all the simulations they ran, Biden collected an average of 1,484 delegates, Sanders 1,018, Warren 634, and Buttigieg 536. None of these totals are anywhere near the approximately 1,990 needed for the nomination.

There's still a lot of campaign to go, a bunch of known unknowns, and undoubtedly a bunch of unknown unknowns. So, this discussion of a brokered convention is undoubtedly a tad premature. Still, it is interesting to ponder. If it does happen, it's hard to say which candidate would benefit most. Normally, a party insider like Biden would be in line for anointment at a convention, but the fact that the combined progressive support is somewhat more substantial than his could be a real problem. It's also hard to say whether this would hurt or help the Democratic Party. On one hand, a brokered convention would mean that the party remained split until deep in the campaign, and that the hopes of one faction or the other were dashed at the last minute. On the other hand, the defeated faction would at least know that their views and their candidate(s) got full hearing at the convention, something that many Sanders supporters felt did not happen at the 2016 convention, thus heightening their resentment. The only thing that is really certain is that this will not be the only item you read about brokered conventions this year.

Another thing to keep in mind is that as a result of how the 2016 primary played out and the anger of Sanders' supporters at the superdelegates (who largely supported Hillary Clinton), the rules for 2020 were changed. There still are superdelegates (formally, PLEOs, Party Leaders and Elected Officials), but they are not allowed to vote on the first ballot. However, they are allowed to vote on the second and subsequent ballots. So if there is a brokered convention, the superdelegates may have the final say. In nearly all other democratic countries, the party leadership chooses its candidates without any input from the voters. They get their say in the general election. The idea that a political party isn't allowed to have even a small say (about 16%) in choosing its candidates would seem strange to them beyond belief. (Z)

The Hawk-Why? State

Speaking of changes in the American electoral system, the Iowa caucuses have been "first in the nation" for about 50 years (since 1972 for the Democrats, 1976 for the Republicans). In that time, they have taken on grossly outsized importance, relative to the fairly small number of delegates that are actually awarded (about 1% of the total needed to win the nomination). In part, this is because of the possibility that a candidate could pull a Jimmy Carter and ride surprise success in the Hawkeye State to the nomination. And in part, it is because the caucus gives us our first actual data after many months of campaigning and horse-race talk. It's kind of like what happens in baseball, where a team that starts its season with five losses or a hitter who starts with an 0-for-20 streak becomes the subject of countless "What's wrong with X?" articles, whereas nobody even notices if these things happen midseason.

This year's candidates appear to have noticed that Iowa is small, not terribly representative of the Democratic electorate, difficult to campaign in, and hasn't propelled a dark horse to the top of the mountain in 40 years, and they are spending far less time there than candidates have in recent elections. Iowa still gets more candidate visits than any other state, but the gap is now relatively narrow. For example, Joe Biden spent 120 days in the state in 2007, but only 41 in 2019 (compared to the 39 he spent in California in 2019).

To some extent, Iowa's importance is being propped up by the fact that it is much more heavily polled than any other states, which not only influences perceptions of the campaign, but also (in this cycle) affects who qualifies for the debates. However, things are working against Iowans as they try to retain their special status. The importance of losing Iowa is now muted by the fact that New Hampshire votes a week later (usually for someone other than the Iowa winner), and then Super Tuesday happens just three weeks after that. In addition, it's a little problematic for a party that is made up of 45% minority voters to give so much influence to a state that is 91% white. Check back in a few cycles, and the odds are good that Iowa isn't first in line anymore. (Z)

Steyer Makes the Cut

Democratic Presidential Candidate Tom Steyer is absolutely blanketing the airwaves with commercials, something that his hefty bank balance allows him to do. And although his policy prescriptions are both simplistic (even by 30-second-commercial standards) and entirely unrealistic, he's finding a little bit of an audience. Enough that he qualified for the sixth Democratic debate at the last minute (today's the deadline). Barring a major last-minute surprise, the field for that matchup will be made up of six candidates, all of them white, all but one of them old enough to have earned their 10-year AARP membership pins.

There is a theory out there, which we have noted, that Michael Bloomberg is only a "candidate" for president because that makes it easier and cheaper for him to try to undermine Donald Trump (because candidates can buy television time cheaper than PACs). Steyer, by contrast, seems to be 100% serious about his candidacy. If so, it's hard to see what his game his. Among the four early caucus/primary states, he's polling in the Top 5 in just one of them (Nevada, where he's in fifth place). His numbers in the big Super Tuesday states are also dismal; for example, he's at less than 2% in polls of California, despite its being pretty liberal and its being his home state for the last four decades. He's also unlikely to make any more debate cuts, as the threshold goes up and up. It's his money, and if he wants to burn through $100 million of it tilting at windmills, then that is his right. But he has zero chance of becoming president. Maybe he wants to be EPA administrator in a Democratic administration. Only he knows for sure. (Z)

Trump Goes 0-for-2 This Week in New York Defamation Lawsuits

As we noted yesterday, Summer Zervos accused Donald Trump of sexual assault, he called her a liar, she sued him for defamation, and—earlier this week—a judge refused to throw out the suit just because Trump says that presidents can't be sued. The story was the same on Thursday, except that this time the plaintiff is magazine columnist E. Jean Carroll, and the court allowing the defamation lawsuit to stand is one rung lower on the ladder than the court that allowed Zervos' lawsuit.

The judge who issued Thursday's ruling, New York state Supreme Court Justice Doris Ling-Cohan, was none too pleased about the President's casual attitude toward the whole thing. "Although defendant Trump, through his counsel, claims lack of personal jurisdiction, notably, there is not even a tweet, much less an affidavit by Trump in support of his motion." In other words, the President is not actually trying to secure dismissal, as he is surely aware that the Supreme Court has already ruled on this question, in the case of Paula Jones v. Clinton. He's just trying to drag this out until the election is over, and it can't do him any damage at the ballot box. It's less than 10 months to the election, so he's got a good chance of pulling it off. (Z)

Loeffler Takes Her Seat

Kelly Loeffler, appointed to the seat of Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA), who resigned due to ill health, was sworn in earlier this week. And, at that very moment, she made a little bit of history. She is the 26th woman serving in the current Senate, which is a record number. Loeffler joins 8 other Republican women senators, along with 17 Democratic women senators.

The Senator starts her new job at a tricky time, as the Senate will be taking a lot of very tough votes in the next several months on matters like impeachment, Iran, the budget, and so forth. She is actually something of a wildcard when it comes to how she will vote. A businesswoman, she's never actually served in political office before, so the only information we really have on her political proclivities is her longtime registration as a Republican, and her history of donations to various candidates, about 2/3 of them Republicans and the other 1/3 Democrats. That, and the fact that Gov. Brian Kemp (R-GA) feared that a fire-breathing right-winger might lose a 2020 reelection bid in increasingly purple Georgia suggests she's something of a centrist. Further, her total lack of political experience means she's not currently in the debt of Mitch McConnell.

That said, McConnell is already working hard to get Loeffler squarely on Team Mitch. He's already appointed her to the Senate Agriculture Committee, which just so happens to oversee the company owned by Loeffler's husband. Further, new senators are rarely willing to rock the boat. Heck, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT), a multimillionaire, was a governor and a major-party presidential candidate, and he lacks the fortitude to stand up to the Majority Leader. Odds are that Loeffler quickly becomes another one of the pod, another loyal GOP foot soldier. Still, the possibility that she might rebel on occasion is at least worth noting. (Z)

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
Jan09 Trump Backs Down
Jan09 Progressive Groups Are All Taking Aim at Biden
Jan09 Democratic Unity Will Determine Trump's Fate
Jan09 Congressional Democrats Aren't Taking Sides in the Primaries
Jan09 Trump's Pitbulls in the House Will Not Be Unleashed in the Impeachment Trial
Jan09 Can Democracy Survive 2020?
Jan09 Kansas Democratic Candidate for the Senate Raises $1 Million
Jan09 Massachusetts Senate Primary Is Very Strange
Jan09 Trump Defamation Case Heads to New York's Highest Court
Jan08 Iran Makes Its Move...
Jan08 ...And So Does McConnell
Jan08 Democrats May Postpone Next Debate
Jan08 Flynn Looking at 6 Months
Jan08 Hunter Finally Resigns
Jan08 The Law of Unintended Consequences
Jan08 Trump Jr. Continues to Run the Trump Sr. Playbook
Jan07 Iran Situation Gets Messier and Messier for Trump Administration
Jan07 Bolton Says He's Willing to Testify
Jan07 Q4 Fundraising Numbers Are Almost Complete
Jan07 Yang Can't Figure Out Where to Spend His Money
Jan07 Castro Endorses Warren
Jan07 Pompeo Says He Won't Run for the Senate
Jan07 Chelsea Clinton Collected $9 Million for Board of Directors Work
Jan06 War with Iran?
Jan06 Congress May Clash with Trump over War Powers
Jan06 Will the Iran Situation Help Buttigieg?
Jan06 Sanders Soars
Jan06 Appeals Court Hears Arguments in McGahn Case
Jan06 A Report from Trumpland
Jan06 Who's Ahead? 2024 Edition
Jan06 Another House Republican Retires
Jan05 Sunday Mailbag
Jan04 Saturday Q&A
Jan03 Iranian General Killed on Trump's Orders
Jan03 Evidence Against Trump Continues to Mount
Jan03 More Q4 Fundraising Numbers Are In
Jan03 Bloomberg Makes His Strategy Official
Jan03 Castro Gives Up
Jan03 Williamson Campaign Enters Its Death Throes
Jan03 Why Do Young Voters Hate Pete Buttigieg?
Jan03 Unions Are Cool on Sanders This Time
Jan03 Five Fights to Expect in Congress
Jan03 Over 200 Members of Congress Ask Supreme Court to Revisit Roe v. Wade
Jan02 Trump Says He Will Sign China Trade Deal on January 15
Jan02 Trump-Critical Pieces by Christians Are Piling Up
Jan02 An Under-the-radar Sort of Gerrymander
Jan02 Beginning-of-the-Year Democratic Polling
Jan02 Beginning-of-the-Year Democratic Power Rankings
Jan02 Q4 Fundraising Numbers Are Trickling In
Jan02 Elections to Watch in 2020