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TODAY'S HEADLINES (click to jump there; use your browser's "Back" button to return here)
      •  Democrats Disjoin in Des Moines
      •  Onward and Upward
      •  Senate Is Likely to Pass War Powers Resolution
      •  Trump to Divert another $7.2 Billion for Wall Construction
      •  Cook Says the Senate Is Now in Play
      •  Trump Getting Set to Reduce Water Protections

Note: Sorry for the very late posting today. Many people wrote to us suspecting that we were hacked. Actually the problem was a bit more mundane. The fiber-optic cable leading to the datacenter we use, just outside of Albany, NY, was severed. Whether it was a gopher (gophergate?) or a backhoe (backhoegate?), we don't know, but crews worked for hours to find the break and fix it. Sorry for the inconvenience.

Democrats Disjoin in Des Moines

Tuesday night was the leading Democratic presidential candidates' last chance to show off their wares before actual ballots start to be cast. And the primary order of business for the night, as it turned out, was for each of the candidates on stage to differentiate themselves from their colleagues.

Who helped themselves the most? There was reason to expect Tuesday's debate to be the prickliest one so far, but it didn't happen. The four leading candidates presumably took note of two things: (1) they are all pretty tightly bunched with one another at the top of the Iowa polls; and (2) because Iowa uses a caucus system, your opponent's supporter could unexpectedly become your supporter, depending on who doesn't make the 15% threshold. But that won't happen if you insult their favorite candidate. And so, while the candidates certainly disagreed on policy, they did so respectfully, and largely did not directly confront one another (with one big exception; see below).

Among the four frontrunners, the two folks who had the best performance on Tuesday were Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D-South Bend), in that order. Warren usually delivers a pretty good debate performance, but on Tuesday she delivered a great one; her best in a while. She was persuasive, answered the questions clearly, and spoke with emotion and conviction. Buttigieg, for his part, was his usual steady self, and also benefited from being the only veteran on stage, since Iran was the first issue of the evening.

Who helped themselves the least? Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). He was also his usual steady self. There is one problem, though. Every single person watching the debate knew he was going to be asked whether or not he told Warren a woman can't win a presidential election. He was asked, denied it of course, and delivered a very forceful answer affirming his commitment to gender equality. You can watch for yourself here (it's the first 90 seconds of the video):

And now, the problem. A great many women, when calling out discrimination, harassment, or other sexist behavior, have been told that they misheard, or they misunderstood, or they were simply flat-out wrong. And that is exactly where Sanders has left the matter. At the end of his remarks, moderator Abby Phillip even gave him another chance to clean that up, following-up with: "I do want to be clear here, you're saying that you never told Sen. Warren that a woman could not win the election?" And his answer was: "That is correct."

That is not going to sit well with some viewers, particularly women who have been similarly dismissed. Especially given that Sanders is already a bit shaky with many women progressives and/or Hillary Clinton supporters. He should have said something that acknowledged Warren's claims, rather than, in effect, calling her a liar. For example: "Abby, I didn't say it, and I certainly don't feel that way. That said, if I gave the Senator that impression in any way, then that is on me, and I would like to take this opportunity to apologize to her."

Warren responded gracefully in the moment (more below), but that was not the end of it. After the debate was over, she and Sanders had a brief conversation that appeared to involve her refusing to shake his hand, and him getting frustrated and waving her off. It's only about 20 seconds; you can watch it here:

Everyone wants to know what they said to each other, but thus far neither has spoken up. Tom Steyer appears to have overheard part of the exchange, but on CNN's post-debate wrap-up, he said he wasn't listening, and he doesn't know what they were talking about. Expect to hear more about this story today.

Anyone else worth mentioning? Sen. Amy Klobuchar (DFL-MN) joins Warren and Buttigieg among the night's top performers. In fact, she probably did the best job of explaining why an Iowan, in particular, would want to vote for her. To take an example, when talking about "free college for all," the Senator said she wanted to take that idea further, by also including training in technical skills as well. "We're not going to have a shortage of MBAs. We're going to have a shortage of plumbers," was her conclusion. The only reason that we don't list her among the winners is that there is simply no chance that she did enough to make up the rather sizable gap in the polls that separates her from the top four candidates.

How did the moderators do? They were solid. Wolf Blitzer is a pro, Abby Phillip was fine, and you would never have known that this was Des Moines Register reporter Brianne Pfannenstiel's first time on the big stage. Each asked some tough questions; to take one example, Pfannenstiel queried Steyer thusly: "You say you're the climate change candidate, but you made your $1.6 billion in part by investing in coal, oil, and gas. So are you the right messenger on this topic?" Steyer didn't have a great answer for that (though he did come up with a pretty good one by the time he appeared for the post-debate spin-room interviews).

Blitzer, Phillip, and Pfannenstiel also localized the debate skillfully. There was no talk of corn subsidies or hog futures, but they did take a few questions from locals, and they also addressed the local implications of certain national issues, like global warming, and Obamacare. In the latter case, there was discussion of how Obamacare will affect the insurance industry, which is a major part of the state's economy, particularly in Des Moines.

That said, the candidates are all pretty battle-tested by now, and have heard almost every curveball question that someone might plausibly throw at them. So, the moderators had a pretty difficult time getting anything other than canned answers to most things. Further, even conceding that the debate was just two hours, they didn't spend enough time on the issues of the moment, namely Iran and impeachment.

Issue of the night: The progressives vs. the moderates. As we note above, the primary goal of the candidates was to distinguish themselves from one another. If anyone watched on Tuesday, and was unable to figure out who the three progressives are and what distinguishes them from the moderates, then they weren't paying attention.

Snarky line of the night: When asked if he was ready to deal with constant attacks from Donald Trump, Joe Biden said: "I am prepared for that. Look, I've been the object of his affection now more than anybody else on this stage." You don't completely get the sarcasm from merely reading that line, so you might want to watch it for yourself here:

Non-snarky line of the night: Warren, presumably well aware that aggression from women is not tolerated by voters nearly as well as aggression from men, came armed with a very strong (but not too direct) response to the "Sanders said women can't win" situation:

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. And I think the best way to talk about who can win is by looking at people's winning record. So, can a woman beat Donald Trump? Look at the men on this stage. Collectively, they have lost 10 elections.

The only people on this stage who have won every single election that they've been in are the women...Amy and me. And the only person on this stage who has beaten an incumbent Republican any time in the past 30 years is me.

That's pretty smooth.

Reddest meat of the night: From Steyer: "I would declare a state of emergency on day one on climate." Steyer isn't going to win the presidency, but that's a promise that should have GOP pooh-bahs quaking in their boots. With Donald Trump having gone mostly unchallenged by Republicans on "an emergency is what I say it is" (see below for more), the stage is set for the next Democrat to decide that climate change, prescription drug prices, voter suppression, and a host of other things are "national emergencies." And climate change really is an emergency, so when the inevitable Republican lawsuit is filed, the GOP will probably lose.

Blunder of the night: There were two awkward moments, both of them during the exchange on women politicians. First, after Warren made the observation that she's the only person who has beaten a Republican incumbent in the last 30 years, Sanders made a point of correcting her, breaking in to say: "Well, just to set the record straight, I defeated an incumbent Republican running for Congress." Warren pointed out that happened in 1990...30 years ago. The exchange ended with Sanders conceding: "Well, 30 years ago is 1990, as a matter of fact." Good to hear everyone is in agreement on that.

Meanwhile, Klobuchar had a little bit of a Rick Perry moment, talking about the female governors she's friends with, but clearly forgetting the name of Gov. Laura Kelly (D-KS):

Understandable, since politicians undoubtedly meet hundreds of people, and Laura Kelly is a pretty generic name. Still, it was not a great moment for the Senator.

A little historical perspective: Klobuchar mentioned that a short candidate (like her) can win, and that "James Madison was 5'4"," pushing back against the old trope that presidential elections almost always go to the taller candidate. Klobuchar is right to push back against it, because it's not especially true. Before 1900, the shorter candidates actually won more often, going 14-8 (there were also three uncontested elections, and two others where the candidates were the same height). Between 1900 and the dawn of the television age in the 1950s, the taller candidate went 11-3, but that was very much influenced by the fact that Franklin D. Roosevelt was very tall, and the prominent Republicans of his era were pretty short. Since the advent of television, the taller candidate is 12-5 (with one election, 1992, where the candidates were the same height).

In short, it's possible that taller candidates do gain a little bit of an edge, but it's not much of one. Certainly, they do not win "almost always." And even if it's true, it hasn't exactly held in recent elections, as Barack Obama and George W. Bush both beat taller opponents.

A detail that may fly under the radar: Like other outlets who broadcast the debates, CNN refused to air advertisements for political candidates during the proceedings. However, they did accept this ad from NumbersUSA:

Although "NumbersUSA" sounds like a fairly neutral name, it's actually a far-right anti-immigrant group that also has ties to Holocaust deniers. The ad, if you prefer not to watch it, is specifically intended to highlight the evils of undocumented workers. Put another way, this was dangerously close to a Donald Trump campaign ad. Accepting it may have honored the letter of the "no candidates' ads" policy, but certainly not its spirit.

One could argue that CNN balanced things out by also airing this Freedom From Religion Foundation commercial, featuring Ron Reagan, who is as liberal as his old man was conservative, talking about how he's not worried about burning in hell because there is no hell:

That said, none of the Democrats is running on a platform of promoting atheism, so it's a little harder to argue that this is a backdoor Sanders or Warren or Biden spot than it is to argue that the NumbersUSA commercial is a backdoor Trump ad.

On a scale of 1-10, how contentious was it? Assuming we don't count the Warren-Sanders interaction after the debate, it was about a 2. There was very little direct confrontation.

On a scale of 1-10, how much will this debate move the needle? In terms of the Iowa caucuses, a 5. Polls show that the voters there are particularly open to considering multiple candidates this year, and last night, those folks undoubtedly got a lot to chew on. In terms of the overall race, maybe a 3. Sanders could be hurt by his handling of the Warren accusation, but beyond that, nothing much happened to change the overall trajectory of the campaigns.

The bottom line: This is probably the last "civilized" debate. By the next time the Democrats meet on stage, some candidates will have an official reason to be desperate, and the "I don't want to offend any caucus-goers" concern will be moot.

That's the story for now. They (well, except for Steyer, probably) will do it again in New Hampshire on February 7. (Z)

Onward and Upward

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) is not likely to gain much more by keeping the articles of impeachment in her desk drawer, especially since Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is much better at playing chicken than Donald Trump is. On top of that, she and her party have made the argument, over and over, that impeachment cannot wait because the President is undermining national security as we speak. So, as expected, the Speaker announced yesterday that the House will vote today to send the articles to the Senate, and to name the impeachment managers. That means that, sometime this afternoon, the ball will officially be in McConnell's court. He announced that the trial will begin in earnest next Tuesday.

Beyond the fact that the gears are now in motion, there's actually relatively little new information about what's going to happen next. As part of the power struggle with Pelosi, McConnell is not going to say a word about the rules for the trial until he absolutely has to. In response, Pelosi is keeping the names of the impeachment managers under wraps for as long as she can (a few more hours, by the time you read this).

That said, we can direct your attention to a few key players behind the scenes, and what they are up to:

  • Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY): Schumer has far less power in this trial than McConnell does. However, the one thing the Minority Leader can do is call for votes on various procedural issues, including what evidence is admitted or what witnesses are allowed. He is preparing to use that power to its full extent, and to force moderate senators into a series of votes that will either compel them to rebel against McConnell, or else will give the Democrats material to use on the campaign trial. For example: "Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) says she's a moderate, and yet she apparently didn't feel it was necessary to hear testimony from former NSA John Bolton or from White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney. Sounds like just another Trump toady to us." Schumer sees an excellent opportunity to improve his odds of becoming Majority Leader (see below for more).

  • Senate Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough: There have only been 17 impeachment trials in the entire history of the Senate, including just 2 previous presidential impeachments (plus a third near-miss, in the case of Richard Nixon). The Constitution offers only the barest of guidance. It is the responsibility of MacDonough to achieve as much clarity about the rules as is possible under these circumstances, so she and her staff of two have been carefully studying all of the past impeachments (plus the Nixon near-impeachment) for insight.

    What this means is that when McConnell or Schumer has questions about what's legal and what's not, it will be MacDonough they will turn to for insight. Even more importantly, MacDonough knows far more about impeachment procedures than presiding officer Chief Justice John Roberts. So, it will be up to her to guide him and to serve as his advisor. Normally, the Senate Parliamentarian is basically anonymous, and MacDonough herself famously only makes one public-speaking appearance per year (an annual training session for Senate pages). However, she's about to become one of the most famous people in Washington.

  • Presidential Lawyer/Fixer Rudy Giuliani: Giuliani really, really wants to be a part of the President's defense team. And it's not impossible; Trump loves loyal attack dogs, and Giuliani certainly is that.

    There are also a number of arguments against using Giuliani in this way. For example, he's not a particularly good lawyer these days (if he ever was), and he's prone to making mistakes. He's also not currently licensed to practice law in Washington, D.C., so it is potentially illegal for him to represent the President here. Most important, however, is that Giuliani is dangerously close to a co-defendant in this case, as a key figure in the events under consideration. That opens up multiple cans of worms, both legally and politically. And on that front, on Tuesday, the Democrats announced they have even more evidence of Giuliani's puppet mastery of the scheme to put pressure on Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky.

Anyhow, the calm before the storm is coming to an end. This is going to dominate many a news cycle in the next month or so. (Z)

Senate Is Likely to Pass War Powers Resolution

In case the Senate was not already causing Donald Trump enough pique with its upcoming impeachment trial, they are also ready to poke him in the eye on Iran. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) has been trying to round up some GOP votes in support of a resolution affirming Congress' power to declare war against Iran (or anyone else), and now he says he's got them. Sens. Mike Lee (R-UT) and Rand Paul (R-KY) were already on board, and Susan Collins and Sen. Todd Young (R-IN) signed up on Tuesday.

This is an entirely symbolic maneuver, very much like the similar resolution passed by the House last week. As you may recall, the Constitution already makes clear that Congress has the sole power to declare war. Still, this is a way for Congress to do something to assert themselves (albeit not much of something), and it isn't subject to a presidential veto. It's also a little interesting, at least, that a few Republicans are ready to break ranks on this, as the President prepares for a trial where he's really depending on GOP unity. (Z)

Trump to Divert another $7.2 Billion for Wall Construction

Very little Mexican border wall (well, Mexican border fence) has been constructed yet, which means two things: (1) there's still, apparently, a "national emergency" at the border, and (2) more money will, apparently, help solve the problem. So, according to a report from The Washington Post, Donald Trump is planning to reroute another $7.2 billion to the project, thus quintupling by fiat the budget that Congress set less than a month ago. The additional funds would come from the same places as last time, namely impounded funds from drug dealers and money taken from planned military construction projects.

Continuing a theme that runs through several posts today, this situation puts many of the GOP senators between a rock and a hard place. On one hand, they fear recriminations from both voters and from the President if they oppose him. On the other hand, cancelling (or delaying) those construction projects often takes money right out of the pockets of their constituents. Undoubtedly, Congressional Democrats will continue their habit of passing resolutions every six months that would end the "emergency," some Republicans will sign on, and Trump will veto them. (Z)

Cook Says the Senate Is Now in Play

Charlie Cook, of the Cook Political Report, is known best for his assessments of House and Senate races, where he combines polling information, some other "secret sauce" math, and a bit of gut feel in order to make his non-partisan judgments. He tends to move cautiously, so as not to be unduly influenced by short-term developments, but now—for the first time in four years—he believes the Senate is in play, and could flip to the Democrats in November.

The reason for this assessment is the rather large number of GOP-held seats that Cook now thinks are potentially vulnerable. He currently has three Republican-held seats in the "Toss Up" column (AZ, CO, ME), two in the "Lean R" column (KS, NC), and five in the "Likely R" column (IA, KY, MS, and both GA seats). That's a total of ten that are in play, on some level, compared to just four for the Democrats—one "Toss Up" (AL), one "Lean D" (MI), and two "Likely D" (MN and NM). As a reminder, the Democrats need to gain a net total of three seats and the White House, or four seats without the White House.

At the moment, Cook gives the Democrats a 33% chance to retake the upper chamber, which is way higher than it would have been a year ago. He also says that it's really going to come down to the presidential contest, and which party's candidate has longer coattails. The tricky matters coming up in the Senate, most obviously the impeachment trial, but also things like border wall funding, will undoubtedly affect the odds as well. (Z)

Trump Getting Set to Reduce Water Protections

Perhaps the lessons of the Flint, MI water crisis have been forgotten. After all, that was way back in...well, actually it's still not completely over. In any case, as in Flint, dirty water most commonly tends to be a problem for poor people, people of color, and poor people of color. None of those demographics are exactly the wheelhouse of the Republican Party, which is also not known (these days) for its commitment to environmentalism. So, it comes as no surprise that the Trump administration is about to roll back protections for America's streams and wetlands. Business concerns who want to dump their crud in the local watering hole will soon be able to have at it.

With all of that said, the purpose of noting this rather disheartening news is not to draw attention to the Trump administration's abysmal environmental record, or to remind everyone that pretty much every decision is undertaken with the philosophy of "let's please the President's supporters, and everyone else can shove it." No, it's to point out that the Trump White House is unusually adept at the use of the old political trick of sneaking problematic stuff by while the public's attention is elsewhere. The impeachment trial (see above) is going to be all-engrossing for many weeks. Keep an eye on the back pages during that time, to see what the administration tries to sneak in under the radar. (Z)

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
Jan14 Iran Plot Thickens
Jan14 Burisma Hacked by the Russians
Jan14 Get Ready for the Blue Mud to Fly
Jan14 Seventh Democratic Debate Is Tonight
Jan14 Baby, It's Cold Outside?
Jan14 Booker Is Out
Jan14 Chafee Is In
Jan13 Questions about Impeachment Still Linger
Jan13 House Could Add New Articles of Impeachment after Trial Begins
Jan13 Sanders Leads in New Iowa Poll
Jan13 Bernie Takes the Gloves Off
Jan13 Biden Has a Wide Lead among Black Voters
Jan13 Bloomberg Might Spend a Billion Dollars on the Election
Jan13 Election Systems Are More Vulnerable than Previously Believed
Jan13 Tree Falls in Forest; No One Hears It
Jan12 Sunday Mailbag
Jan11 Saturday Q&A
Jan10 Iran Drama Has Not Yet Subsided...
Jan10 ...Nor Has Impeachment Drama
Jan10 A Brokered Convention?
Jan10 The Hawk-Why? State
Jan10 Steyer Makes the Cut
Jan10 Trump Goes 0-for-2 This Week in New York Defamation Lawsuits
Jan10 Loeffler Takes Her Seat
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?