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The Morning Dispatch: Pelosi Denounces Bipartisan COVID Relief Proposal
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The Morning Dispatch: Pelosi Denounces Bipartisan COVID Relief Proposal

Plus, the divergent strategies of the Biden and Trump campaigns.

Happy Wednesday! Thanks to all of you who tuned in to last night’s Dispatch Live. It was among our most well-attended sessions yet! If you weren’t able to join us, you can watch a replay here. And good news: We’ll be doing a Dispatch Live immediately after each of the upcoming debates. Stay tuned for details.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • The United States confirmed 50,920 new cases of COVID-19 yesterday per the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Dashboard, with 13.3 percent of the 384,020 tests reported coming back positive. An additional 1,298 deaths were attributed to the virus on Tuesday, bringing the pandemic’s American death toll to 195,765.

  • Hurricane Sally strengthened as it came ashore overnight along the Gulf Coast, bringing high winds and flooding. The Associated Press reported early this morning that more than 300,000 homes and businesses were without power across Alabama and Florida. Meanwhile, Hurricane Teddy, several days away from possible landfall, also gained strength as it moved toward the U.S., with forecasters predicting it could become a Category 4 hurricane by Thursday.

  • The White House hosted a signing ceremony on Tuesday normalizing diplomatic relations between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain. President Trump hailed the agreements as “the dawn of a new Middle East.”

  • The city of Louisville settled its wrongful death civil lawsuit with the family of Breonna Taylor, agreeing to pay the family $12 million dollars and commit to certain police reforms like enhanced search warrant oversight.

  • Potentially illegal disclosures of classified information in former National Security Adviser John Bolton’s book are being investigated by a federal grand jury. A federal judge rejected the Justice Department’s attempt to block the book’s publication earlier this summer, but said Bolton could have violated nondisclosure agreements. Bolton denies publishing any classified information. 

Can the Problem Solvers Caucus Solve a Problem?

Since the Senate Republicans’ latest COVID relief package was blocked by Democrats (and Sen. Rand Paul) last week, negotiations between the two sides have come to a standstill. And, really, they were on fumes well before last week’s vote.

But Washington’s political gridlock doesn’t render the problems a potential relief package would try to ameliorate any less urgent. The unemployment rate continues to hover around 8 percent, state and local governments across the country are facing dramatic budget shortfalls, and millions of families are struggling to balance work, childcare, and virtual schooling. So yesterday, a small bipartisan group of lawmakers tried to restart talks between the White House and House leadership.

The Problem Solvers Caucus (PSC)—a group of 50 House members (25 from each party) fighting against a world where “partisan politics is too often prioritized over governing”—released on Tuesday its “March to Common Ground” COVID-19 relief package framework, hoping to “encourage negotiators to get back to the table.”

The framework—which is detailed, but not an actual piece of legislation—unsurprisingly settles in between the most recent Democratic and Republican proposals. It’s overall price tag ranges from $1.3 to $2 trillion—depending on the course of the virus and timing of a vaccine—and includes an additional round of stimulus checks, boosted unemployment insurance capped at 100 percent wage replacement, additional money for Paycheck Protection Program loans, money to equip K-12 schools for their new reality, enhanced liability protections, and half a trillion for state and local governments. The structure was endorsed by at least 75 percent of the PSC, and features real compromise between the two “sides.”

White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows called the framework “very thoughtful,” adding it “certainly merits consideration” despite including “some priorities … that are inconsistent with the White House’s initial proposal.”

But Speaker Nancy Pelosi doesn’t appear to be budging much. “A skinny deal is not a deal,” she reportedly said on a call with Democratic members. “It is a Republican bill.”

An official joint statement from Democratic House Chairs later in the day was slightly more magnanimous. “While we appreciate every attempt at providing critical relief to American families, the Problem Solvers Caucus’ proposal falls short of what is needed to save lives and boost the economy,” it read.

But Rep. Tom Reed of New York, the Republican co-chair of the PSC, remains optimistic. “The biggest statement I did hear from Pelosi is that she indicated to the Caucus and told their members … that she’s going to stay here in D.C. until a COVID deal is done,” he told The Dispatch in an interview. “That’s a good sign. That means exactly what we were asking: Go in the room, and stay in the room.”

“We recognize we’re not negotiating this final deal,” Reed conceded. “But hopefully this can be a product that people can work from.”

Pelosi did indeed commit to “stay here [in D.C.] until we have a bill,” telling Democrats they should be prepared to return to Washington to vote on a deal if one is reached. But in order for that to happen, the speaker is likely going to have to come down from her $2.2 trillion-plus ask, which she has thus far refused to do. And this hardball tactic is starting to wear even on members of her own caucus, who are hearing from constituents the effects of congressional inaction.

“They are rejecting a bold bipartisan measure outright and insinuating things are not in there when they actually are and just continuing to kick the can down the road over and over and over again,” freshman Democratic Rep. Max Rose told CNN. “It’s ridiculous, man. … It made me disappointed to be a Democrat.”

We asked Reed if he thought a deal would’ve been reached by now if we were in September 2019 rather than September 2020. “Obviously to me personally, I think there’s been too much politics and too many people weighing politics given that an election is right around the corner,” he said. “And they’ve made the determination that maybe they should use this COVID-19 situation for a political point of view and a piece of leverage and that’s driving where they’re at in regards to negotiations.”

Reed said interpersonal relationships and mutual trust was what allowed the PSC to come together on its proposal over the past six to eight weeks, despite plenty of disagreements. “We’ve spent the time and made the investment to get to know each other on both sides of the aisle,” he said. “It’s not like we’re going to sing kumbaya in Washington, D.C., ever, it’s just the nature of the beast. But out of the 435, we need more people that are willing to invest the time to get to know each other personally, get to know their families, get to know their children, and really take the time of listening to the other side, so that when these moments happen— when the country needs us in Congress to, no kidding, get something done for the American people—when a crisis hits, we come at it from a position of trust and being committed to the country first, rather than trying to use these moments of crisis to achieve a political win.”

“Just because there’s a Democratic member talking to you doesn’t mean they’re an evil person,” he continued. “Doesn’t mean they’re out to screw you. Doesn’t mean they’re out to look to politically stab you in the back. They’re just an individual that has a different point of view, has a different ideology, potentially.”

On the Road Again

With Election Day fast approaching and early voting already underway, the Trump and Biden campaigns are both hard at work ramping up their “get out the vote” operations. But when it comes to turning out their voters during an extraordinary time of pandemic, the two campaigns are rolling out diametrically different strategies.

Over in the Trump camp, the turnout operation is acting like COVID never came along to disrupt anybody’s plans in the first place. From top to bottom, the campaign is working to pack as many Republicans into arenas and ring as many doorbells as possible between now and November 3, relying on traditional campaigning tactics to keep base enthusiasm high.

At the top of the ticket, that means Trump’s signature barnburner rallies. The president has recently resumed the freewheeling, ad-libbed speeches in front of adoring fans that have long been his trademark, rallying in Las Vegas over the weekend before thousands of supporters. When possible, the Trump campaign has scheduled these events for mammoth outdoor spaces like airport hangars, in keeping with pandemic science showing that COVID is substantially less contagious outdoors than inside. But the campaign has also signaled that it would rather rally indoors than not at all; over the weekend, Trump’s Vegas rally took place before an indoor crowd of thousands at a manufacturing plant, despite Nevada’s regulations (and his own administration’s guidelines) limiting indoor gatherings.

“If the governor comes after you, which he shouldn’t be doing, I’ll be with you all the way,” he told the audience.

Meanwhile, Trump’s ground game is in full swing, with the campaign saying it’s been knocking on 1 million doors a week over the past month.

The Biden camp, meanwhile, is betting that a break with tradition will help them during these unprecedented times. Their volunteers are focusing instead on phone, text, and online interactions with their target voters, gambling that during a time of pandemic they’ll be rewarded for respecting disease guidelines and keeping things distanced.

Door-knocking “doesn’t really matter,” Biden’s campaign manager Jen O’Malley Dillon told Politico yesterday. “Fundamentally, knocking on a door and not reaching anyone doesn’t get you much except leaving a piece of lit behind—you might as well send a piece of mail.” O’Malley Dillon said the campaign has nonetheless reached millions of targeted voters using alternative methods.

(Not all Democratic candidates, of course, have the name-recognition luxury that Joe Biden enjoys: Many down-ballot blue candidates are still running their own door-knocking operations.)

Like Trump, Biden has recently begun to travel again, too—to Wisconsin and Michigan and Florida in recent weeks. But his events so far have been small and heavily restricted, primarily consisting of roundtable discussions on single issues with a handful of voters apiece to get his message across. Meanwhile, the Biden campaign has continued to lash Trump as an unserious shot-caller against the threat of the coronavirus.

“He had all this information, yet he held rallies, he suggested that to wear a mask is a sign of weakness as opposed to a sign of strength,” vice-presidential candidate Kamala Harris said at a recent event in Florida. “This is the president of the United States.”

Revenge is a Dish Best Served Cold

Eight months after #HardRevenge trended on Iranian Twitter in response to the American strike on Gen. Qassem Suleimani, new intelligence reports allegedly reveal concerted efforts by forces within Tehran to assassinate Lana Marks, the American ambassador to South Africa. Politico broke news of the plot Monday, but U.S. officials have been on alert for possible retaliatory action by the Iranian government since Suleimani’s killing in January of this year. As we enter the final stages of a contentious election, increased tensions with Iran could color President Trump’s foreign policy in the crucial weeks leading up to November.

The only apparent retaliatory action Iran has taken thus far is a January ballistic missile attack on U.S. bases in Iraq. The offensive didn’t result in any American deaths, but inflicted brain injuries on dozens of American troops. Now, Iran is reverting back to its record of clandestine attacks abroad, reportedly taking aim at an American soft target in Ambassador Marks.

According to Michael Rubin, who specializes in Iranian policy at the American Enterprise Institute, leadership in Tehran has a long history of conducting covert strikes on foreign officials. “They aren’t a state sponsor of terrorism with global reach for nothing,” he told The Dispatch. “Outside the Middle East, Iranian or Iranian-backed cells have carried out bombings or assassinations in Paris, Berlin, Vienna, Tbilisi, Baku, and Bangkok.”

“A decade ago, an Iranian cell plotted to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington, DC,” he continued. “The 1997 Berlin court verdict in the Mykonos Cafe assassinations found that the Iranian leadership effectively had a kill committee consisting of the president, intelligence minister, head of the Revolutionary Guards, and Supreme Leader.”

Marks—who has been in foreign service for less than a year—was seemingly chosen as a target for her personal ties to President Trump, who Iranians see as most responsible for Suleimani’s death. Back in January of this year, #TerroristTrump trended alongside #HardRevenge as regime-friendly Iranians took to Twitter to promise retaliation against the American president.

But Marks’ location in South Africa may have also served a strategic end for Tehran. “Iran has networks throughout Africa. They might also believe that South Africa would offer certain advantages. Maybe they thought the United States had let their guard down there. Maybe they thought South African security was lax,” Rubin said. “Just as importantly, South Africa is corrupt enough that perhaps they thought that they could get away with it after the fact.”

In avoiding an outright military attack on the United States and its allies, the Iranian government would maintain some semblance of plausible deniability and prevent the further escalation of a conflict it’s unlikely to win. But to Alex Vatanka, head of Middle East Institute’s Iran program, even covert action against an American diplomat seems like an unlikely step by Tehran—particularly months before a possible change in U.S. leadership.

“The Iranians, from what I can tell, are extremely careful not to give reason for the Trump White House to seek anything that looks like a conflict,” he said. “They’re really sitting back and biding their time. They’re hoping for a Trump defeat and the return of the United States back to the nuclear deal of 2016.”

Trump, for his part, tweeted this week that “any attack by Iran, in any form, against the United States will be met with an attack on Iran that will be 1,000 times greater in magnitude!”

Vatanka concedes the possibility of rogue elements operating within the Iranian government to plot a strike against America, but he thinks that Marks is an improbable target. South Africa—and particularly its black governing elite—maintains a healthy relationship with Tehran. “In terms of location, South Africa is a particularly bad place for Iran to want to launch an operation like this. The Islamic Republic has actually had good ties with South Africa going back to the days of the ANC and Mandela,” Vatanka said. 

If elements within Iran were planning an assassination attempt on Amb. Marks, the intelligence community’s discovery and subsequent leak to the media has likely tempered their ambition. “Iran likes easy targets and the fact that we have called them out on the plot means neither they nor the South Africans have any plausible deniability,” Rubin said. “Still, when it comes to Iran, I’d still suggest an American diplomat is far safer in Beirut than in Bangkok or Brasilia. They will try to hit us where we least expect it.”

Worth Your Time

  • BuzzFeed’s Ruby Cramer is one of the best reporters out there on the Bernie Sanders beat. She has a piece this week diving deep into the working relationship between Sanders and Joe Biden, and how “the future of Sanders’s movement — the rage against the establishment, the ‘political revolution’ and his role in it — seems suddenly transformed in the Time of Biden.” As Cramer writes, “if there has been a discussion on the left about whether this election was a time to be tough on Biden, or to put aside that debate and focus on defeating Trump, Sanders seemed to land on the latter,” noting the Vermont senators’ cordial relationship with the former vice president. But they’re not best buddies, as some have argued. “We don’t go out together,” Bernie’s wife Jane said. “We don’t get dinner together. We work together, all of us, whether it’s Jill and me, or Joe and Bernie.”

  • New York Times columnist Ross Douthat—as usual—has a provocative and engaging piece out, in which he asks whether it’s really the GOP that’s working with an antiquated racial framework. “The liberal narrative increasingly assumes a bifurcated America, with four centuries of white privilege on one side and the history of slavery and segregation as the defining minority experience on the other,” he writes. But he continues: “That is not the America that exists today. Not just the scale but the sheer diversity of post-1968 immigration has made our racial categories more complex, and in the process substantially changed what it means to have a debate about whiteness or racial redress or desegregation.” On issues ranging from school desegregation to political identity to the Jewish vote, Douthat questions whether the increasingly doctrinaire liberal race paradigm actually comports with reality. A diversifying America is much more up-for-grabs politically than liberals assume, he argues, and Republicans may capitalize in unexpected ways.

  • Comedian and filmmaker Judd Apatow sat down with MSNBC’s Ari Melber for a wide-ranging conversation on his career, working with some of the best actors in the business, and the best piece of advice he’s ever received. But one portion of the interview is particularly worth your time. “A lot of these giant corporate entities have business with countries around the world, Saudi Arabia or China, and they’re just not going to criticize them,” Apatow said. “They’re not going to let their shows criticize them, or they’re not going to air documentaries that go deep into truthful areas, because they just make so much money. … They have just completely shut down critical content about human rights in abuses in China … China has bought our silence with their money.”

  • And finally, The Economist has an article exploring the possible decline of the tank as a critical component of modern armies. The development of better drones and missiles, as well as sensor technology that can outwit radar, have made tanks increasingly vulnerable in the Middle Eastern theater. “America’s Marine Corps, which has more tanks than most European nations, said in March that it planned to scrap them, to focus on countering China in the Pacific,” they write. Many NATO forces are considering pivoting away from tanks as a cornerstone of their armed forces as well. Tank-protection systems needed to keep the vehicles battlefield-worthy are prohibitively expensive for many countries, but, the article notes, tanks can still play a critical role in potential conflicts in Eastern Europe and Taiwan.

Something Fun

Baby Yoda is here to save us from the election season.

Presented Without Comment

Also Presented Without Comment

Also Also Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • Yesterday we linked to a review of Ron Bailey and Marian Tupy’s book on human progress, today they’re guests on The Remnant! Check out their conversation with Jonah on why things aren’t as bad as they seem.

  • Scott Lincicome’s second Capitolism newsletter unpacked the CDC eviction moratorium—diving into its dubious constitutionality and even worse policy implications. “The CDC eviction moratorium has it all: Good intentions, urgency, poor design, a small group of (potential) winners and a much, much larger group of direct (intended) and indirect (unintended) losers—including some (many) of the aforementioned winners.”

  • Summer fellow Nate Hochman is living in Hood River, Oregon, with his family and doing the fall semester of his senior year online. Over the weekend, his family evacuated to Idaho because of the fires. He shares his experience and addresses the debate over whether climate change or forest management is more to blame for the crisis out west.

  • Gary Schmitt and Michael Mazza argue that it’s time to end America’s strategy of “strategic ambiguity” on Taiwan, the current state “in which Taipei could not be sure the United States would come to its defense, and Beijing could not be sure the United States wouldn’t.” They lay out concrete steps—Pentagon assistance, bilateral training, and perhaps even American missiles—that would help Taiwan counter the threat from China.

Let Us Know

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If you voted for Evan McMullin or Gary Johnson in 2016—and we know that some of you definitely did—Declan would love to hear from you for a piece he’s working on. Shoot him a note at declan@thedispatch.com.

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Charlotte Lawson (@charlotteUVA), Audrey Fahlberg (@FahlOutBerg), James P. Sutton (@jamespsuttonsf), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).

Photograph by Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call/Getty Images.

Correction, September 16, 2020: An earlier version of this newsletter misquoted MEI expert Alex Vatanka as referring to the “Iran nuclear deal of 2016.” The accord in fact took effect in 2015.

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The Dispatch Staff