The Morning Dispatch: Donald Trump Is Having a Pretty Good Week

Plus, we need to talk about Iowa.

Happy Wednesday! If our predictions are correct (and we’d love it if they weren’t), you’ll be hearing a lot from cable news today about two moments from the State of the Union address last night: President Trump’s snubbing of Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s handshake, and Pelosi’s ripping up of Trump’s speech. Both happened. Both were childish. This is us acknowledging that they happened.

Now let’s move on to things that actually matter.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • Iowa Democratic Party chairman Troy Price apologized for the delay in reporting the results of Monday’s caucuses, blaming an app “coding error” for the chaos.

  • With 71 percent of precincts reporting late Tuesday night, Pete Buttigieg is holding onto a 1.6 point lead over Bernie Sanders in terms of state-delegate equivalents, 26.8 to 25.2 percent. Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, and Amy Klobuchar are at 18.4, 15.4, and 12.6 percent, respectively.

  • Nevada Democrats announced they will no longer use the same app during their caucuses later this month that caused so many problems in Iowa.

  • After Monday’s Iowa debacle, Mike Bloomberg authorized his presidential campaign to double its already astronomical ad spending and grow the campaign’s field staff to more than 2,000 people.

  • Tensions are high on the border shared by Turkey and Syria. Turkey accused Syrian forces of killing eight Turkish soldiers and military personnel, and in turn killed dozens of Syrian fighters to retaliate. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sided with Turkey, saying “we fully support Turkey’s justified self-defense actions in response.”

  • Rear Adm. Collin Green, commander of the Navy SEALs, will step down from his post in the wake of his clash with President Trump over the disciplining of Eddie Gallagher.

  • Two top leaders of the Democratic National Convention host committee were fired after allegations surfaced that they fostered a “toxic workplace.”

  • The Boston Red Sox traded former Most Valuable Player Mookie Betts and former Cy Young award winner David Price to the Los Angeles Dodgers for two younger prospects in a three-team deal.

A Good Speech, But Not A Conservative One

President Trump delivered the final State of the Union address of his first term last night, and he did a fine job of it. With the full Congress (minus a few boycotting Democrats) assembled to hear his remarks, Trump, who has a good sense of which speech to give when, came across as the best version of himself: punchy and showy, fiercely ready to dress down his opponents, but steering clear of petty personal attacks in favor of blunt critiques of the “radical left.” 

Trump’s sharpest denunciations were of progressive Democrats’ Medicare-for-All proposals—“there are those who want to take away your health care, take away your doctor, and abolish private insurance entirely”—and in particular the provisions that would insure illegal immigrants under a single-payer system.

“Over 130 legislators in this chamber have endorsed legislation that would bankrupt our nation by providing free taxpayer-funded health care to millions of illegal aliens, forcing taxpayers to subsidize free care for anyone in the world who unlawfully crosses our borders,” Trump said. “If forcing American taxpayers to provide unlimited free health care to illegal aliens sounds fair to you, then stand with the radical left. But if you believe that we should defend American patients and American seniors, then stand with me and pass legislation to prohibit free government health care for illegal aliens.”

But that broadside against single-payer health care was one of only a few overtures Trump made toward conservatism or limiting the size of government. Not once in his 78-minute speech did he mention the ballooning national debt, or the deficit that is projected to come in at more than $1 trillion in 2020. But he did tout plans that would add to them: an infrastructure package, a promise to “protect” existing entitlements, expeditions to the moon and to Mars. From Republican-turned-independent and noted Trump critic Rep. Justin Amash:

The rest of the address featured classic SOTU fare, including steady stream of false or misleading claims. Trump patted himself on the back for his first-term accomplishments, and—ever the TV producer—recognized several prominent Americans he had invited to the Capitol as a means of crafting the story of his administration. Charles McGee, a 100-year-old Tuskegee airman, sat in the chamber with his great-grandson Iain, an aspiring Space Force cadet. Janiyah Davis, a fourth-grader from Philadelphia, embodied the real-world consequences of school choice or lack thereof. Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and a military family was reunited live on air.

“America is the place where anything can happen. America is the place where anyone can rise,” Trump concluded, waxing poetic. “Our spirit is still young; the sun is still rising; God’s grace is still shining; and my fellow Americans, the best is yet to come.”

It was a strong performance.

The restraint won’t last, of course. As with each of Trump’s past SOTU addresses, he’s sure to resume his customary sharp-elbowed, grievance-oriented manner soon. But as the speech was going down, it was hard not to think that the evening underscored something important about Trump’s position in the early days of this election year: In many ways, he’s in a stronger political position than he’s been since the 2018 midterms, and maybe as strong as anytime since he was first elected.

Teflon Don’s State of the Union

A few months ago, things were looking a bit dire for the president. Daily revelations in the Ukraine affair riveted Washington, and a media that had watched in awe as scandal after scandal bounced off Donald Trump with limited effect wondered whether this was possibly the thing that would finally prove him vulnerable after all. As impeachment proceedings went forward and a whole pile of testimony from current and former White House officials showed that Trump’s narrative of what had taken place was incredibly spotty at best, some GOP defections began to seem like an actual possibility.

But that possibility will close for good today. The majority of congressional Republicans are not admitting Trump did anything wrong at all, and Pelosi’s worst fears about impeaching the president seemingly have come to pass: According to the latest Gallup poll, Trump currently boasts the highest approval rating of his presidency at 49 percent, with his position having improved among both Republicans and independents since impeachment proceedings kicked off last fall. The economy remains strong, if not as strong as it could be without the trade war. And Trump goes into 2020 with a few signature wins on which to hang his hat, including both tax and criminal justice reform, a freshly restocked federal judiciary, considerable progress against ISIS, and the elimination of two of the world’s most powerful terrorists, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and Qassem Soleimani.

And as the Democratic caucuses in Iowa melted down in chaos Monday night, Trump wiped out his would-be primary challengers Joe Walsh and Bill Weld, who each managed to pick up only about 1 percent of the vote at the simultaneous Republican caucuses. Far from presenting any actual threat to Trump, Walsh and Weld now look like they will merely provide the president a foil he can use throughout the primary to focus his forces and keep them keen going into the general.

If there’s one thing we’ve learned from the Trump era so far, it’s that whatever’s happening today will more often than not seem completely irrelevant to our national politics in just a few short weeks, let alone months. But despite Trump’s many and obvious weaknesses, it’s clear that Democrats have their work cut out for them now more than ever as they endeavor toward taking back the White House this November. 

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A New Yorker and a Texan Debate Iowa

The Dispatch’s Sarah Isgur and Jonah Goldberg planned to run a piece on the site yesterday debating the Iowa caucuses’ biggest takeaways: Who received the biggest momentum boost, breaking down the exit polls, that kind of stuff. Well, s*!% happened, mistakes were made, etc.—now a (slightly different) piece is running today instead!

You can read the whole thing on the web here; we’ve excerpted a sample for you below.

Should Iowa Get to Go First?

Jonah: Even if I loved the primary system—as I used to—I would still favor getting rid of the Iowa caucuses. This was my position long before everyone started freaking out that it is too white. In fact, it was my position before anyone could have imagined that the Iowa Democratic party would outsource its digital vote-counting operation to the finest computer programmers the Amish community could spare. 

Sarah: Iowa is like the NBA’s one-and-done rule that all but requires players to spend a year playing college basketball before going into the NBA draft. Or, to mix metaphors, it’s like a closed circuit race track instead of a road race. Iowa forces candidates to compete on an equal playing field in a small(ish) state with a low-cost media market before going to the multi-state contests like Super Tuesday where money and name ID can easily win the day.

Does Biden’s Bad Showing Change His Electability in the General Election?

Jonah: My position on this is perhaps too clever by half, but I think a poor showing for Biden doesn’t hurt his electability too much. It does hurt his chances at getting the nomination. But it seems axiomatic to me that if he can recover well enough to actually win the nomination, losing the caucuses will be remembered as one of those character-building or campaign-toughening setbacks that every winning campaign goes through. The only problem: I think losing Iowa badly makes it harder for Biden to get the nomination. 

Sarah: Going into Iowa, Biden’s biggest argument was his electability against Donald Trump in the general election. The theory went that Biden was best situated to win over Obama-Trump voters in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin because he speaks their language and hasn’t embraced some of the more radical policy proposals of his opponents. But this week’s fourth-place (at least with 71 percent reporting) finish in Iowa just put a big, gaping hole in that argument. 

Worth Your Time

  • Now that you’re done reading our State of the Union coverage, we’ll let you in on a little secret: The State of the Union barely matters. In this piece for FiveThirtyEight, Nathaniel Rakich takes a trip through the data: The legislation presidents call for during the address is rarely sped along by it, it does practically nothing to shift their approval ratings, and it’s disproportionately the people who already support a president who tune in regardless. But hey—there aren’t any good reasons to watch The Masked Singer either, and that’s the most popular show in America these days. Go figure.

  • There is no shortage of behind-the-scenes Trump world tell-alls clogging the D.C. publishing world these days, but a book in that genre that has us excited anyway is dropping next week: Sinking in the Swamp, by Lachlan Markay and Asawin Suebsaeng of The Daily Beast. This excerpt, published in Vanity Fair, will give you a sense of it, with a trip down memory lane to the moment during the 2016 campaign when then-candidate Trump decided the time had come to try to put his birther past in the rearview mirror once and for all.

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Something Fun

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Toeing the Company Line

  • America has a competence problem, and David wrote about it in his latest French Press. “America will never be free of mistakes, and the more difficult and complex the job, the greater the likelihood of confusion and failure. But perhaps America’s political and journalistic class needs a bit of a course correction—instead of measuring virtue by ideas and intentions, let’s place a greater emphasis on execution and accountability.” Be sure to give the whole thing a read here.

  • Also from David: He has a piece on the website today about a federal court decision overturning the convictions of four people prosecuted for “violations of the regulations governing the Cabeza Prieta Wildlife Refuge” for leaving food and water out for migrants. The “case represents a classic application of” the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, he writes.

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Sarah Isgur (@whignewtons), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).