Panelists provide an update on the 2020 presidential race, the role of foreign policy in the upcoming primaries, and the international challenges the Democratic presidential candidates will need to address if they are elected president.
WARNER: Well, it’s great to see such a big crowd here. I’m not—I’m not surprised, I have to say, not because of us but because of the topic.
This is one of, and the latest obviously, in the Council’s series called Election 2020. And the title is “Foreign Policy and the Democratic Primaries.” Certainly, the timing couldn’t be better, coming just, what, ten days after Trump ordered a drone strike that killed Iran’s top military leader and just hours before tonight’s final debate before the Iowa caucuses. So we have opportune timing.
We also have an opportune cast right here, panel of experts: political analyst Charlie Cook, editor and publisher of the Cook Political Report, also a columnist for National Journal; then immediately to my right is Margaret Talev—we’ve got two Margarets here—White House and politics editor of Axios.com; and of course, the CFR’s own Jim Lindsay, who is vice president and director of studies here at the Council.
We are going to broaden the topic slightly. And I’m calling it foreign affairs and the Democratic primaries, because after all it’s obvious from a look at recent history that it’s exceedingly rare that a single foreign policy issue or one or two issues actually determines the outcome of a campaign. Certainly, unless we are at far. Of course, we’ve been at war for twenty years, but I mean we’re in a hot war. But I do think that we can say that the voters’ overall confidence in a candidate, whether he or she is the incumbent president or a challenger, is shaped by their confidence that he or she can handle the job when the proverbial, you know, red phone rings at three a.m.
So, operating under that broader definition of the role of foreign affairs, Margaret, what impact have you seen so far from the killing of General Soleimani and the aftermath?
TALEV: Yeah. Thanks for the question. Thank you, everyone. It’s nice to be here.
Is this thing on? Can you guys hear me?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: No.
TALEV: OK, cool. (Laughter.)
LINDSAY: There we go.
TALEV: OK. So I would say a few things. The immediate impact has been to take attention away from impeachment on President Trump, to sort of redirect American voters’ focus. They’re both going on at the same time. We haven’t forgotten about it—obviously, there was big news today—but it changed the subject or at least added a second subject.
And the second impact was to some extent to redirect the debate inside the Democratic Party among those presidential candidates to foreign policy, where we really hadn’t been yet at all. Now, I still don’t think it’s the dominant theme that’s driving the election debate. Elizabeth Warren made sure of that yesterday. But we are now beginning to have, you know, coverage and discussions, and we may hear more onstage tonight among the candidates, about the differences between kind of the Joe Biden/Pete Buttigieg part of the primary versus the Warren/Sanders, and there’s a lot in the middle.
WARNER: And you’re talking about, what, whether they’re moderate or what? I mean, explain that divide.
TALEV: In terms of foreign policy? I mean, look, it’s everything from what’s your approach to U.S. military engagement in general; in the region in particular, what is your approach to Israel, which we know there are stark differences on; when you think about military engagement, what do you think is the right approach. There will be a renewed discussion about the war in Iraq and how did we get here. So any number—it’s really the waterfront: everything from interventionism versus isolationism to how you view the U.S.’s role in the world, how you look at military footprints, if you do think some form of presence or engagement is important.
WARNER: Now, Jim, what the president did in Iran is certainly completely at odds with his whole message in 2016.
LINDSAY: Well, yes and no. I mean, it is at odds in the sense that the president talked a lot about wanting to get into the Middle East, and one of the consequences of the decision is that we’re surging more troops into the Middle East. But President Trump was quite clear over the course of the campaign that he wanted to project strength and that he would be happy to go after terrorists, and I think the president made the argument—you could debate whether it’s true on the merits—but his argument was that by killing Soleimani he has restored deterrence and made war less likely rather than more likely.
WARNER: But, Charlie, when you think about the shifting, rather contradictory justifications for the action, what effect do you think that has?
COOK: Well, I’d back up. I don’t think most voters vote on issues, period. And to the extent they think about issues, they don’t think much about foreign policy, national security, or trade. And that to the extent that they are important—issues are important—it’s a lens that voters see things through. And that Ron Brownstein, your colleague, wrote two weeks ago for CNN.com that the question is, do voters see what the president did as decisive or impulsive? And does that—you know, as a—you know, it’s a lens to see that. And thing about all these issues, it’s do—you know, does someone seem like they know what they’re doing or are they totally in out of their head. That’s, to me, how issues affect things.
So as a substantive matter, I don’t think any of this stuff matters, any of it.
WARNER: But it is—
COOK: Trade has no—has had zero impact in this election so far, or I think will.
WARNER: But you’re saying, Charlie, that it is a sort of prism, or you call it a lens, through which the voters make judgments about the candidates’ fitness, leadership competence, honesty.
COOK: I think you could put 90 percent of them in this auditorium or the one in New York, it’s people that are members of the Council on Foreign Relations, people that would like to be members of the Council, and a few right-wing nuts. (Laughter.)
WARNER: Margaret, do you agree with this?
COOK: That’s the only people that this stuff matters.
WARNER: I agree that he is a honed political expert.
TALEV: To provocateur.
WARNER: He’s just a provocateur. What do you think? (Laughter.)
TALEV: No, I mean, but probably mostly right on this.
So I mean, here’s what I think. Like, the question is, does it just validate preexisting views, right?
TALEV: If you were already a supporter of President Trump’s, do you see his move on Iran as decisive and reflective of his strength? If you oppose President Trump, do you see this as a crazy, half-baked decision with long-term national security implications? That may be most of it. But they’re—but the part in the middle is what matters most, even if it’s seventy thousand votes spread out over a few states.
And so Axios has a partnership with a focus—an organization that does focus groups in swing states, and the two types of kind of crossover voters that we look at once a month and we go talk to are folks who voted for Romney in 2012 and then Hillary in 2016, or conversely Obama in 2012 and then Donald Trump in 2016. And that’s the screen. And what our most recent visit found—this is very early after the Soleimani strike—is that in general these swing voters are on balance supportive of President Trump’s action in Iran and see it as a—as a reflection of strength and willingness to be decisive. But two things: they—well, really one thing—they really don’t want another war. And the question mark dangling over all of this was, is that where this is going? Because if that’s where it’s going, we may rethink how we feel about this.
WARNER: So it will be a question of how Trump’s opponent ultimately helps define what the import is of this? In other words, whether they can—whether he or she—I guess there is no longer a—no, there is—
TALEV: There is.
WARNER: Whether he or she can say this was so foolhardy that it can lead us to war.
TALEV: Yeah, to some extent it’s an opportunity for whoever his ultimate opponent is. And to some extent it’s reliant entirely on the president’s next steps, both from a policy perspective and from a rhetorical perspective, because we know already in polling on domestic issues and kind of broadly speaking that among groups that should—that President Trump wants to support him again there is a problem with women voters, there’s a problem with college-educated voters, and there is a drag—and it’s hard to measure the impact of the drag—there is a drag in terms of some of the rhetoric and the stylistic approaches. And to the extent that foreign policy becomes another way that that is measured, it could be important. But I—but I still think when you stack it up against healthcare, the economy—those are the two big ones, right—that this has not—neither Iran nor foreign policy in general, as long as it doesn’t flip a switch—
TALEV: —into war territory, that it is—doesn’t appear to be poised to be one of those key drivers.
WARNER: Not yet.
COOK: You know, forty years ago Iran was an issue, in 1980. And what did—what was the takeaway? President Trump—President Carter and the 444 days of the hostages, he was seen as weak and indecisive, and it just fed into—
COOK: But the thing is, that impression was already out there; it just reinforced something that was created on things that had nothing to do with foreign policy or national security. So I’ll stick with my guns. I don’t—I don’t think this is going to make much of a difference at all.
WARNER: Jim, explain for us or tell us a little bit more about what fault lines you think it’s exposed within the Democrats? Foreign policy in general, not just what just happened. But in particular, as dramatized by what just happened.
LINDSAY: You mean the strike against Soleimani?
WARNER: The strike, the aftermath, the explanations.
LINDSAY: Well, again, I agree with Charlie. I don’t think it’s going to move the needle. And I will note that it will largely depend upon events. If this sort of fades away, Trump may be decisive but it’ll be less relevant to people. I think it would only be a problem if it led to a war, and we’ll see how that all shakes out.
Just one other sort of point on what Charlie said a moment ago. If you look at every president going back to Jimmy Carter, with one exception I’ll get to in a moment every president first came to office by beating somebody who was more experienced on foreign policy.
LINDSAY: And I think that sort of sums up sort of how the public views foreign policy. And I’ll note the one exception was George H.W. Bush, who in my judgment had the most successful foreign policy presidency of any American president since Harry Truman, and he was also a one-term president. That is, having success of successfully ending the Cold War, reuniting Germany, winning the Gulf War at the end of the day didn’t count for that much with the American public that was more focused on the fact that the country had entered a very mild recession. And what was Bill Clinton’s campaign slogan?
WARNER: Yeah, beaten by a—yeah.
LINDSAY: “It’s the economy, stupid.”
WARNER: “It’s the economy, stupid.”
LINDSAY: So I think that’s important for sort of shaping it.
I’m not actually sure how much this recent strike has shaken up the Democratic race. I will note one of the early polls done by the Economist and YouGov showed something which is not surprising, that among Democrats, those concerned about foreign policy, that percentage went up about eight points—but still lower than people worried about electability, which still dominates among Democrats as the criterion they’re looking for. But if you look at—in that poll at those voters who said that foreign policy was now important to them, their sort of candidate choice looked just like people who didn’t say that foreign policy was important to them.
And it’s easy to understand why for voters foreign policy may not resonate. Number one, as Charlie pointed out, people in this room, we are high-information voters. We’re very interested. Most voters are low-information. They’re not engaged in these issues. So they may not even have the background to distinguish among candidates.
Second thing is that to the extent differences exist among the candidates—let’s take climate change, for example. On the Democratic side there are differences, but you would really have to be an expert to understand the nuances of the differences between Elizabeth Warren’s plan for handling climate change versus Joe Biden’s versus Bernie Sanders’. Likewise, the flip thing around is that candidates have a real incentive to want to blur differences where they think an issue might hurt them. And that’s what you see on trade, where it’s become sort of required among Democrats if you run for the White House, even if you believed in trade agreements up until the moment you declare, the moment you declare suddenly trade agreements are things that you have deep reservations about, they don’t address a variety of concerns.
So I think in that sense we really haven’t seen recent events exposing differences. But there are differences, and I think Margaret laid them out. Sort of I would clump them with Joe Biden and Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg sort of on the we’ll call it restorationist side of the foreign policy equation, and you have Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren who want a more transformational foreign policy. They at least say they would do a lot of things differently. I’m actually skeptical about their ability to do that because a lot of the things they want to do in foreign policy actually require the cooperation of Congress because their focus is much more on changing economic policies, where they’re going to have to bring two houses of Congress that are unlikely to be dominated by their fellow Democrats should they succeed in getting to the White House.
WARNER: So I’ll ask you doubters—I’ll invite Margaret to chime in too—if that’s the case, then why whenever there’s an event like the Soleimani strike do many of the candidates take it as a point of attack against either their opponents or in this case against Trump? I mean, if the voters don’t care, why are Sanders and Warren right now positioning themselves over this, and especially against Biden?
TALEV: One of the polls that’s out—I think this is a Politico and Morning Consult poll, but if I’m wrong I apologize—asked the question about who do you think is the leading voice on foreign policy.
WARNER: Yeah, that’s Morning Consult.
TALEV: And like a third of the voters think it’s Joe Biden. He’s got the top spot. And the second spot is Bernie Sanders. (Laughs.) But completely on the other side of the spectrum. Maybe that just accurately reflects what different segments of the American public want. Maybe it reflects name recognition. But why does Joe Biden occupy like a third and Pete Buttigieg occupies like less than 10 percent in the same poll.
WARNER: But I mean, if it’s meaningless, why are they spending—
TALEV: I don’t think that it—
WARNER: See, I don’t think it’s meaningless either.
TALEV: I don’t think it is meaningless.
WARNER: Because I think it feeds into—I know I’m the moderator here, but I used to cover politics. (Laughter.) It feeds into often preconceptions now, based on experience, of certainly Donald Trump. But for Sanders, say, and Biden, you know, it does—he can—each one can heighten the differences, to his—in this case, his advantage.
TALEV: I do think, first of all, if you disagree with President Trump’s approach or you doubt the motivations for his approach, it’s a natural jumping-off point for a candidate.
But second of all, because we’re still in a primary contest, like, you define yourself before your opponents define you and you stake out the ground before somebody else claims the higher ground, right? So if you have a view on it and you—and you think it will benefit you to stake it out, you’re going to get out there and say what it is. And you’re going to use Twitter to try to get people talking about it because people are interested in the issue.
Now, who knows, like, you know, eight months from now or whatever maybe the—wait, how many month is the election? Ten months, whatever.
WARNER: Yes, still a long way.
TALEV: Nine or ten months. Next November, it may have nothing to do with what’s driving voters. But November’s not what matters right now. Like, February 3 is what matters right now. And then a week after that is what matters right now. And anything that is exposure, television time, you know, it’s just a matter of getting your message out.
COOK: But, you know, let’s say we attack some random country this morning. Why would a Democratic candidate speak out on this, criticize? Number one, challengers attack the incumbent, period. Two, that’s how you get on cable that day. If you’re talking about the disabled, you’re not going to get on CNN that day. You know, you have to talk about what’s in the news. And they’re trying to get on television.
WARNER: To continue that thread, let me just follow up with Charlie for a minute. OK, take Sanders or Warren, Sanders versus Biden on this. Why is he making a big deal of it? Each one is, and they have ads about it.
COOK: Biden—I mean, Bernie and Elizabeth Warren are competing for the progressives—35-40 percent. They want to make sure that Biden gets none of that. Now, that may sound counterintuitive to people, but you know early in this campaign you asked people that supported Joe Biden, who’s your second choice? And they would say, Bernie Sanders. You asked people who were for Bernie Sanders, who’s your second choice? They’d say Joe Biden. And the reason was that’s the other known quantity. And as my colleague Amy Walter wrote last week, they are the two brands. The brand identities that were there at the beginning of the race and, guess what, in most of those, you know, national stuff anyway, they’re number one and number two, you know, nationally still.
So it’s trying to hold on, but hold on, consolidate the liberal brand, the progressive brand. Now, I personally think that that’s got a ceiling on it of about 40 (percent), so that either Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders, I don’t think—I think they have a very hard time within the Democratic Party of getting over 40 (percent) with that. But they’re trying to—they’re trying to win their lane, and they’re trying to consolidate, and beat out the other one for that lane.
WARNER: For that lane. Good.
LINDSAY: Can I just jump in here?
LINDSAY: Because—one note: I lived in Iowa for twelve years. I’ve actually been a caucus goer and participated. And when I talk to my friends who still live there what they tell me right now is that the Iran strike was so last week. I mean, they have moved onto an entirely different issue now, which it gets to, I think, a lot of these things are ephemeral. And we tend, because we’re high-information voters, and we like to think about these things, we become consumed with them. But I think for most people life marches on. Now the big issue is, did Senator Sanders say that a woman could not become president? So that’s sort of the issue.
WARNER: Now are your friends talking about that?
LINDSAY: Well, most of them are—in Iowa—are wishing that the caucuses were over yesterday, because then they would no longer see an inundation of TV commercials on politics. They want to see, you know, commercials for cars, or food products. Anything but seeing the same commercial over again. But I want to go back. In the absence of an event that momentarily thrusts an issue onto the front pages of the news, voters going to the caucuses or going out to these campaign events aren’t talking about foreign policy. The Warren campaign did something fascinating. They actually counted the number of questions they were asked at town halls and other public venues. And they categorized them. What was the topic on? And by I guess late September of last year they had gotten about six hundred questions. And only about twenty-seven had anything to do with foreign policy, even though as we know foreign policy is a very big part of the job.
Now, you got to keep in mind, these are questions from people who are actively engaged in politics so much that they’re getting out of their house, they’re going to some church or country fair so they can engage with the candidate. So I think, to get back to the question you started this round with, candidates talk about these things because they’re reactive, they have to fill the space, because if they don’t say something then there’s a potential negative narrative that they’re either lost or have nothing to say. But I don’t think it’s necessarily what’s engaging individual voters who are out there.
COOK: But if Democratic voters or activists today—are they talking about whether Bernie did or did not say a woman could get elected? I would say absolutely yes.
WARNER: Super activists.
COOK: People who are watching this closely. That is an interesting thing. Do you believe her or not? Period. I think they are talking about it.
WARNER: But I think—go ahead.
TALEV: Her campaign is hoping—what her campaign is hoping is not—that it expands from just super activists to just regular voters who are trying to decide between one of the two and are still malleable.
WARNER: And maybe that women—you know, if you go back to the criticism—in fact, wasn’t there a lawsuit against Sanders from some of the women in the campaign, saying that they weren’t—this is the last campaign.
TALEV: Right, this is months, and months, and months.
WARNER: Ago, I know, Margaret.
TALEV: You know, we weren’t—we started out by saying that we were going to talk of all of foreign policy and not just Iran. And one thing that occurs to me is that as we talk about impeachment and whether Iran has moved the subject from impeachment, impeachment started out as a foreign policy issue, remember? But nobody’s talking about the Ukraine.
WARNER: Right, but it—my question really is, we may not think voters vote on foreign policy, but foreign affairs issues have much greater impact on the campaign, just in that way, than we normally will say.
COOK: I’ve only been doing this since 1972. I don’t think that’s true.
WARNER: So what would you say about the Ukraine issue? It had nothing to do with Ukraine?
COOK: I think that had to do with did the president try to work with someone to screw an opponent. To me, that’s not a foreign policy issue.
WARNER: Well, then you have a very narrow view.
COOK: That’s a character—no, that is—that is attacking President Trump on a character issue.
WARNER: On his character, right.
COOK: On a character issue.
TALEV: You know, one of the most important—OK, I’m still going to say health care is almost everything. But one of the—one of the issues that inside the Democratic primary voters care a lot about is climate change. I think you could also debate whether or not that’s a foreign policy issue from the perspective of a candidate like Michael Bloomberg, who’s led an international initiative to try to, like, duct tape back together Paris, no matter what U.S. foreign policy is, would argue it is a foreign policy issue. But domestically that’s not really the way it plays out. We don’t talk about climate change very much in the political lens through the context of multilateral agreements, and relationships with other countries, and China’s emissions, and stuff. We talk about it like are the costs—are energy costs going to go up? Is the government going to tell me what I have to do? Or is—or on the other side is the government doing enough to protect the environment? I think you could argue it’s a foreign policy also, but I think we see it as a domestic issue.
LINDSAY: Margaret, if I just—could I just get a quick point here, because we’ve been in this conversation focusing on how foreign affairs or foreign policy might affect voter choice. But that’s only part of the election equation. It’s also really the question of turnout, because different elections bring different people to the campaign. Now, I—Charlie may know more than I. I haven’t seen any studies to suggest that foreign affairs has some ability to bring people to the polls who otherwise wouldn’t have voted. But I wouldn’t rule it out as a possibility. And again, I think in this election in 2020, it’s going to be a lot less about persuading people to change parties as it is going to be about getting people to decide to actually go and cast a vote.
COOK: I’m not sure I’d go with that. I think we—if we don’t see the highest voter turnout in American history we will come very close to beating those records that were set in 1940 and 1960. I mean, think about this. 2014, we had the lowest midterm election turnout since 1942, OK? The lowest. 2016 comes along, we have an absolutely average turnout. It was at the same level as the three previous presidential elections. 2018 comes along, we have the highest voter turnout since 1904. Now, you don’t have the lowest turnout in close to eighty years to the highest turnout in over a hundred years—you don’t—that doesn’t happen accidentally. You look at polling today, it shows—there are two different findings.
One group of polls find this is the highest level of turnout—I mean, excuse me—the highest level of interest in any election as long as they’ve been polling. And the other group is, it’s the longest until you got to the last two or three weeks. That’s the disparity. So we’re looking at enormous levels of interest, huge turnout, both sides highly motivated. So I think turnout will actually not mean a whole lot, because I think the turnout’s going to be real high across the board.
TALEV: But you’re saying that it’s a referendum on President Trump and not any of these other issues, including foreign policy?
COOK: Well, first of all, I do think it’s mostly going to be a referendum on Donald Trump, on President Trump. But the thing is, even if it’s not, let’s just say it’s a choice between Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren. I don’t think that’s going to happen. But the thing is, it’ll be about the two of them. But I think we’re going to have a massive, massive turnout.
LINDSAY: I’m not sure I’m following. Maybe we’re talking glass half full, glass half empty. It would seem to me for Democrats in particular, if you’re hoping to win places like Michigan, you have to increase your turnout, because turnout was down back in 2016.
COOK: You know, my reaction is two things. Number one, did anyone expect Hillary Clinton to pull the kind of African American vote out that the first African American nominee in American history did? No. Including her campaign. So would you expect the kind of turnout out of, say, Detroit, OK? Number one. Number two, do you think if there had been a Democratic campaign, for all intents and purposes, in Michigan and Wisconsin, that maybe the kids would have been pulled out in Lansing, Ann Arbor, Madison? But they weren’t, because there practically was no Clinton campaign in those two states.
So, yeah, that was turnout, but it was turnout because it was a mechanical thing that was going on. I mean, I think the biggest thing is you had—you had a bunch of people that were really excited and into either Donald Trump or hated Hillary Clinton. Then you had another group of people over here that were never in a million years going to vote for Donald Trump, but they really weren’t terribly happy about voting for Hillary Clinton. But they were going to do it. They were going to hold their noses and do it. And then the last month before the campaign, particularly after the Billy Bush Access Hollywood, the election looked over. There was no way Donald Trump could win. There was no way Hillary Clinton could lose. So that anybody that felt ambivalent about Hillary Clinton, anybody that really didn’t want to vote for her, if you wanted to pick up a gallon of milk on the way home, pick up your dry cleaning instead of voting, you wanted to go home and play catch with your kid instead of voting, you did. And look what happened.
LINDSAY: So but in 2020 to win in Michigan you’re going to have to get those kids in Ann Arbor or East Lansing to turn out. And you think they’re going to.
COOK: Well, I mean, I think there will be campaigns (there, in addition to ?) Wisconsin. I think—yeah. But the thing is, it was more—it was more of a technical campaign thing. But, you know, and I think Donald Trump is going to pull out a higher turnout, pro and con.
WARNER: Which goes back to the point about it may be the highest turnout in decades and decades. Now, briefly we’re going to go to questions from the members in about three minutes, so be thinking about your questions.
Do we put trade—do we think that trade and all that whole basket of issues, and the plight of, you know, skilled but high school educated workers—does that play any kind of—one, do we consider that a foreign issue, or is it strictly an economic one?
TALEV: You know what Charlie thinks. (Laughs.)
COOK: I’ll say it’s not an issue. It’s just not, whether it’s domestic, foreign, whatever you want to call it. Let me tell you about a cattle farmer from North Florida I was talking to at a farm group a year or so ago. I asked him, are you worried about tariffs? He said, yes, I’m really worried about tariffs. And the next thing out of the man’s mouth was: But you know, I think everything the president’s doing is what he believes is in the national interest, and I support him 100 percent. And the thing is, the fact is, is that when we grew up learning that Americans vote their pocketbook, when James Carville in ’92 said it’s the economy stupid, that was absolutely true. It is not true anymore. It’s culture. It’s tribalism. It’s hyper-partisanship. It’s Donald Trump is speaking for me in small-town rural America. He’s speaking to me, a working-class guy that we’re getting screwed by the elites and the people in the East Coast and West Coast and stuff like that. So, no, I don’t think it’s an issue at all. I’m not seeing one shred of polling that shows that trade has made the slightly influence on President Trump.
LINDSAY: Would you say that was true in 2016 as well?
COOK: I have rarely—I think the last thing I saw trade really be an issue was Dick Gephardt back in—was that four or—when the hell was that?
COOK: ’88, I’m sorry.
LINDSAY: Ultimate Iowa.
WARNER: Yeah. That’s when they, yeah, duked it out in Iowa, and John Kerry walked in, right? I mean, Howard Dean and—anyway.
Let me ask you all just for predictions about tonight and how the candidates up there will handle foreign issues, foreign policy, foreign affairs, international matters, not just beating up on Trump. That’s a kind of wimp out. So how are they going to—are they going to bother to differentiate themselves from one another? And if so, how?
TALEV: Am I going first?
WARNER: Yeah, you’re going first.
TALEV: I think, like, the kind of conventional wisdom elephant in the room thing is going to be the Sanders-Warren gender issue. And so to the—I think one big question is how much oxygen is going to be for anything else. But so far the moderators in these debates have done a pretty good job of trying to include a diversity of issues. On Iran, I think it’s possible that this turns into a discussion—to going beyond Trump, where I think a lot of it will start out with a criticism of Trump, or questioning Trump’s ability to steer the situation, or whatever. But beyond there, there is the potential for broader discussion on did you support the Iraq War, the continuum of U.S. engagement that has ostensibly led us to this moment, and some of these broader discussions about military footprints or what you think the right long-term direction is. And I think if the conversation goes there, we’ll see a pretty clear delineation of the options.
WARNER: Yeah. As we discussed.
TALEV: And I think Steyer is also not someone who we’ve heard that much about foreign policy on. This might be an opportunity to learn a little bit more. But for the most part, like, we essentially—we essentially know the fault lines between the two contingents of Democratic primary candidates in terms of—I think foreign policy is too broad a term—but in terms of military presence and engagement in the region. And I think it’s an opportunity to discuss that.
LINDSAY: My expectation is that the debate will be more manageable tonight because it’s down to six, as opposed to the ten or so we had. But that’s still a pretty ungainly amount to have a—certainly a sustained conversation. I think it’s likely that the moderators will follow the tack that previous event moderators have, which is you ask different questions of different candidates. So you may ask Joe Biden about North Korea, and then you go to Bernie—I would assume that Senator Sanders is going to remind us once again that Joe Biden voted for the war in Iraq. I would imagine that Vice President Biden would again talk about how he has a great deal of experience in foreign affairs, and he was there making major decisions. I’m sure he will invoke President Obama. I assume Pete Buttigieg will say that experience is no substitute for judgement. And the conversation will continue on—
WARNER: But he’s been there on the ground when those decisions were made about where he was.
LINDSAY: Right. And he’s felt it. And I think—we have already seen this debate before, I guess I would say.
COOK: I agree with everything you said, but I would make one more addition. The December debate had the lowest ratings of any debate last year. My prediction for tonight is this one will either be lower, or about the same. Basically the trend line has been the more debates we have, the less—fewer people watched it. Because they were curious about these candidates. And as it goes on, their curiosity’s gone down because they’ve started forming opinions. So—and if you decided you wanted to do—if you forget to watch tonight, or if you decided you had something else to do—paint your toenails or something—you could probably read an article tomorrow morning and you probably wouldn’t have missed a damn thing. And if the whole thing blew up, you could see at 7:00 on one of the three news shows the next morning.
LINDSAY: And it’s not clear that those moments matter. Because if you go back to the first debate, one of the debates was the moment that Senator Harris had, attacking Vice President Biden. And she’s no longer in the race.
COOK: And you could have seen that the next morning on Good Morning America, the Today Show, CBS.
WARNER: Then, Charlie, then that’s true about any debate. It’s obvious.
COOK: Right. That’s my point. I don’t think debates are important. (Laughter.)
LINDSAY: Are we done here now, Charlie?
WARNER: I’m still asking you about the debate.
COOK: Well, I mean, the thing is I sat—I mean, the number-one thing on people’s voting is what party do you belong to, OK? And if you don’t belong—if you don’t consider yourself a Democrat or Republican, it’s which party do you lean to. And the percentage of people that don’t lean either—or, wait. Ninety percent of people that call themselves Democrats vote Democratic down the line. Ninety percent of the people who vote—say they are Republican vote Republican. Eighty percent of the people who say they are independent, but they lean this way, vote that way. So you only have between 6 and 11 percent in the middle. And it’s not at all clear that all of them vote anyway. Or, it’s pretty clear that a lot of them don’t vote. But they’re the pure independents. And they are the low-information voters. They are the least likely people around to watch the debate.
WARNER: On that note, I’m going to go to questions from our members here. So you all know the ground rules. Someone’s already got his hand up. That’s smart. Please state your name, your affiliation, very briefly. Ask a question, make sure it’s a question not a peroration, not a statement. I’m going to go to this gentleman right there.
Q: Hi. Andrew Shapiro with Beacon Global Strategies.
For Charlie Cook. You were talking about how this was going to be the highest turnout election in a generation.
COOK: I said either in history or not but go ahead.
Q: Right. In history. (Laughs.) In history. But—and how, you know, get out the vote efforts aren’t as important. But for Trump’s, you know, path is a narrow electoral college path. And so, you know, how does that—in those three states that we talked about, maybe Arizona—you know, how does his message and these issues play to those voters in those particular states, where you want to activate them? Because I think, you know, the conventional wisdom is that he’s probably not going to win the popular vote again, but that his path is an electoral college repeat of what he did before.
COOK: You know, for the first two years of the administration a question was nagging at the back of my mind: If President Trump were trying to lose reelection, what would he be doing differently? (Laughter.) And but more recently, I’ve started thinking, well, maybe there’s either method to the madness, or maybe this is a strategy of necessity rather than a choice. That I think they’ve looked—I think President Trump and his campaign people have looked at swing voters, looked at independent soft Republicans, soft Democrats. They’ve looked at these people and said: You know what? We could spend our entire budget and most of these people are going to vote against us. Now, we could do it anyway or we could figure out some other way to win. And I think what they’ve done is they’ve looked over and said: There are certain kinds of people that like President Trump. They tend to be small-town rural. They tend to be less than a four-year college degree. Not necessarily all these things, but all of these things, but—except for white. That there’s a certain type.
But all those people are not registered to vote. And some of those kind of people, you know, don’t vote much. So what we need to do is find the kinds of people that are just like the people that do like us, get them—get them registered, get them out to vote, sort of organically grow his base because the swing voters are not going to go for him. They’re just not. And you know, are there people with a year of junior college that like President Trump that have never voted in their lives that are forty years old? Yeah, they are. And you could find them. And so that, I think, is what they’re—what they’re focused no doing, is getting that out. So is it get out the vote? Yeah, but it’s a very targeted thing.
WARNER: I wanted—we have so many hands up. Actually, I’m going to right here, and then, sir, to you. Then I’ll go to the sides here.
Q: Yeah. As a New Yorker, I’m super enthusiastic about Michael Bloomberg and wondered what you think, in light of all these comments about the Democratic candidates in the primary, what do you think his chances are? What you think his best strategy would be? How it changes the race.
COOK: I want to go last. (Laughter.)
WARNER: Well, yeah.
COOK: Or, I’ll go. I’ll go. (Laughter.) That was hard.
I think there is a—I think Vice President Biden—if I had to say who do I think is going to be the nominee, I’d say 50 percent chance it’s Joe Biden. And who would be second likelihood? I think it might be Bloomberg. And here’s my theory. And I realize this is—you know, nobody in this town believes this. But right now Vice President Biden’s campaign, I think it would not be fair to say that it’s broke, but pretty damn close. And he’s never been a particularly good fundraiser. And the fact is that anybody who’s campaign is predicated on a $2,800 max contribution, and raising money at $500, $1,000, up to $2,800 a pop, they’re getting swamped by the people that are raising line—the ideologues that are raising online through ActBlue. The scale of what Bernie Sanders is doing dwarfs what any conventional candidate trying to raise money the way they’ve always done it.
And so could you have—right now we’ve had four different candidates in first place at some point in Iowa, four different ones in New Hampshire at some point. You could have two, three people win—split up Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina very, very easily. Is there a chance—you know, and to me, you know, in the past you had to win, place, or show in Iowa, then win or place in New Hampshire. You had to do both. Now, the thing is, why do these candidates spend so much time in four states that have 4 percent of the pledged delegates? Why do they do that? They do that for publicity. They do it to get press attention, to build name recognition, and to raise money off of that so that they can compete in the other forty-six states with 96 percent of the pledged delegates.
Now, let’s say you had a campaign where the sign for finance department has an eight by ten picture of Michael Bloomberg. And there’s no office behind it. The thing about it is, he is trying a different model that nobody’s ever done before. That’s absolutely right. But the thing is, the odds are that however comes out, survives Iowa, New Hampshire, whose name is not Bernie Sanders, is going to be broke. The chances of them being able to raise money on March 3, Super Tuesday, with fourteen states up, including small states like California, and Texas, and North Carolina. You know, small states like that. They’re going to be competing—that is a $100 million night. Which one of these not named Bernie—first of all, I don’t think Bernie Sanders can raise that.
But which one not named Bernie Sanders could be remotely competitive, even if Biden comes in first or second in Iowa, or—you know, first, second, third, first second. Yeah, he’s still not likely to be able to compete at that level. So if you’re doing saturation-level advertising for nine consecutive weeks going into Super Tuesday, and competing in congressional districts for the three to nine, usually six or seven, delegates in each one, and you’re going into a—you’re trying to win delegates in congressional districts that you haven’t stepped foot in, that you haven’t aired any television—and you’re up against where Bloomberg’s been there for nine weeks, with, what, they just passed a thousand staff members?
I think that—I’m not predicting that Michael Bloomberg will be the nominee, but I tell you what: I think there’s a pretty—there’s a fair chance that if it’s not Joe Biden, it’s a hell of a lot more likely to be him than anybody else. And so in my column this morning in National Journal I said: There’s an 85 percent chance that you’re going to have a white male Democratic nominee. For all the talk about, well, the debate tonight’s all white. Well, you know, this is a Darwinian process. But the point is, Biden, Bloomberg, Buttigieg, Bernie. It’s—or, put it differently. What are the chances of Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar combined of getting the nomination? What, 20 percent, tops?
WARNER: Charlie, I hate to interrupt you, but do you—either of you want to take a bite at the apple on Bloomberg, or shall I go to someone else?
TALEV: I would just say quickly that—(background noise)—bless you. One thing that is interesting—like, it’s been written so far that he’s committed to spending a billion dollars in the race. It looks to me like it’s going to be way more than that. The question is this: If you were a candidate and literally the sky was the limit, there was literally no limit, how would you run your campaign? And that is the experiment that we’re about to see unfold. So whether or not his long-shot strategy that involves 15 percent and a brokered convention and all that other stuff—whether or not that works, two things are true. Number one, there is a possibility of absolutely shaking up a decades-long system of the ordering, and the urgency, and the pecking order of the primaries.
And number two, he is creating an infrastructure that he is committing to the fact that will survive, whether or not his own candidacy does. And that could be very important for whoever the eventual nominee is. But as a corollary, it could give him some goodwill with Democrats who are currently undecided. Democrats that I talk to, whether or not they started out being interested in Bloomberg, or liking him, or thinking that they liked him, have reacted positively to that commitment, to the idea—to sort of the altruistic idea that you’re going to create an infrastructure in a state like Michigan or Alabama, and that if you are not the guy running that you will still continue, essentially to run it as an independent expenditure, because I think that’s what you have to do. You cannot gift it to a different nominee. That you are going to continue to financially support and strategically support an effort dedicated to having anyone beat Trump, is an idea for Democrats that seems to appeal to many Democrats. And that’s kind of an interesting sub-tactic that I see playing out here.
WARNER: It’s the same message that Tom Steyer’s trying to give. Also, now the gentleman here in the middle table. In the middle of the middle.
Q: Thank you very much.
WARNER: You’ve had your hand up for—
Q: John Gizzi, White House correspondent for Newsmax.
And simple question. Getting back to the topic of this outstanding panel, which was foreign policy, I note with interest Tony Blinken is increasingly on television talk shows and referred to as the inevitable secretary of state under President Biden. Who else could be secretary of state, say, under a President Sanders? (Laughter.)
WARNER: Till you said Sanders then I was—
COOK: See, I won’t buy the premise, so. (Laughter.)
TALEV: I’m honestly stumped. I don’t know. Do you have any thoughts?
WARNER: I guess it’s a rhetorical question.
Somebody else? Let me go to the back. That’s right. I’ll go right here and then I’ll go to the back.
Q: Thank you. My name is Nomah Ouogu (ph) from The World Bank Group.
I have a question. I want to bring back to this issue of, like, message received. Election’s not just—not really about foreign policy, and most voters are low-information voters. So if we just bring it to a basic issue of America’s image abroad, because when we think American that’s identity. And that identity works within a global context. Do people care—so when we think about, for example, the NATO summit in the U.K., and the notion that there were leaders laughing at our president, does something like that move the needle as to what it means to be American? And does that affect how people vote for who is presidential enough to represent America within the global context? Thanks.
WARNER: I would have to point out, but I’ll go to one of my panelists, that Joe Biden must think so, because he spent some of his rare money on a big ad like that, not only online but then when it put viral putting it on TV. But does anyone want to take that question?
LINDSAY: I’ll just quickly respond to how people react here in the United States is going to depend upon what they think of President Trump. People who dislike President Trump will seize upon this as yet another in a long list, from their view, of reasons why he should be defeated in November. People I know who are fans of President Trump look at that and see it to say more about the lack of class of other leaders in other countries in saying anything about America or its role in the world. I mean, facts are given meaning by the interpretations that people have of them. And those interpretations reflect their worldviews. And I don’t think that’s going to change.
COOK: I think to the extent that—I mean, I go back to Ron Brownstein’s is he decisive or is he impulsive? That’s the extent of it. But the short answer is no. But the thing is, for the first time in American history this—electability, I think, is going to be the first, second, and third things that Democrats are going to look at. And once you get outside the 35-40 percent, you’re in the progressive lane. For the rest of it, it’s just electability. And if you look at why is Joe Biden at the top of national polls? And the short answer is, they think he could win. Now, if it gets to the point where they don’t think he can win, or that somebody else could do as well or better, then poor Joe—and I love Joe Biden—but that would be a bad—that wouldn’t be a good day.
WARNER: Yes, right over here, sir. And I promise to call on the back. So get your questions ready.
Q: Charlie Stevenson. I teach at SAIS.
WARNER: Oh, of course, Charlie.
Q: The panel has been saying basically that people now vote their amygdala rather than their pocketbook and foreign policy doesn’t matter very much. But given these dynamics that you’re describing, especially the idea of a major turnout, how do you think that will affect the outcome in congressional races? What’s the link, if any, between the presidential dynamics right now and possible congressional outcomes?
COOK: Well, we see people split their tickets less than ever before. You know, 92 percent of every member of the House is in a district that their party carried in the last election because they’re inherently Democrat or Republican. 2016, every single—for the first time since we started the direct election of U.S. senators in 1914, every single Senate seat—Senate race went exactly the same way that state was going that night in the presidential race. Never happened before. 2018, 79 percent of all the Senate races went exactly the way that state had gone two years earlier.
And the thing is, people just aren’t splitting their tickets. And it’s not—and I’m not talking coat tails. They swing—they’re either locked in or they swing. And they swing because of who they’re mad at or who they’re not mad at. But, no, I don’t think it’ll make—I mean, down ballot. But if President Trump is winning, there is a zero percent chance of the U.S. Senate going Democratic. If President Trump is losing—if God told me he was going to lose, I would tell you the Senate’s 50/50. So not knowing whether he’s going to win or lose, I’d say one in three of the Senate flipping. But it’s all—you know, it’s all interrelated. But it’s not—it’s not—it’s not—it’s not coat tails. You will never hear me use that term.
LINDSAY: Just a qualifier on that. I think that’s the most likely outcome. But I think if you have a contested Democratic convention, if you have real deep divisions sown in the party by the virtue of how things played out, you could end up having Democrats at war with one another, rather than contesting with Trump. But then I could see you actually having a pretty downside experience with Democrats.
COOK: Well, let’s play—let’s play—let’s play that out. If that—if what you’re describing happens, what you’re saying is Democrats will probably lose the presidential, right? Now if Democrats were losing the presidential race, how do you think—do you think Democrats would be beating Martha McSally that night in Arizona, or Cory Gardner in Colorado, or Susan Collins in Maine, or—
LINDSAY: No. No. I think it would be really bad. My argument it would be a bad night from Democrats across the board if they have a—someone at the top of the ticket who is unpopular with a substantial portion of the party.
COOK: Yeah, but that’s not different from what I’ve—you know—
WARNER: Margaret, did you want to get in on this?
TALEV: But I think Charlie has identified the question that keeps Mitch McConnel up at night, to the extent that Mitch McConnell stays up late. I don’t know if he does or not. (Laughter.) But this is a real question, right, because you’ve got maybe like four seats, right? How much can you really play with here? And the question is, if Republicans fall in love with a Democratic presidential nominee, maybe it’s possible that what you’re saying gets upended and they go to the polls anyway to vote for their Republican senator, and vote for some barely crossover moderate Democratic nominee. But it’s more likely, right, that if Republicans just stay home, they don’t like any of the choices, they don’t want to punch a ticket for President Trump again, that really hurts Senate, GOP in Congress, doesn’t it?
COOK: But that’s not contrary to what I said.
TALEV: No, no, I’m not—
COOK: Yeah. Yeah.
TALEV: I’m actually not disagreeing with you. So—
COOK: I mean, the thing is, the Senate’s going to be determined by the suburbs.
WARNER: Actually, let me go to the back.
COOK: OK, let me stop.
WARNER: OK. I’m going to go to the back. If anyone—or are you all now asleep back there? I’m sorry. Any questions from the back? All right. Jane. Jane Harman.
Q: Jane Harman, Wilson Center, recovering politician. (Laughter.)
So we haven’t talked about any potentially catastrophic events that could happen between now and the election, such as another major terrorist attack—major, 9/11 style attack, which maybe not that but close enough. Or massive Russia disinformation campaign, clearly identified but massive. Really creating doubt in many states about whether the election was fair, and who voted, and all that. If those things happen, especially given the fact that we have acting everybody in the Homeland Department and so on, how does that affect the election?
WARNER: Great question.
LINDSAY: Well, I think the second scenario you laid out really affects how people interpret the legitimacy of the election after it takes place. Though, I will note on the disinformation front, the problem isn’t simply the Russians. You have other state actors that are most likely going to emulate it. But also, there are a lot of Americans who participated in the disinformation game for either ideological reasons or because they could make money doing so. So there’s a lot so of going on there. I think on the terrorist side, that question, a lot would depend upon what happened, how it happened, how close to the election, who is seen as being responsible for it. Is it clear, for example, that the administration failed in some way, or failed with its immediate response? So there’s a lot of factors that would play it out.
But going back to this issue of whether doubts are raised about the legitimacy of the vote totals, if you were asking me to sort of wild card that could really unsettle American politics, I think it’s exactly that. And you don’t actually need to have anyone penetrate electoral roles or to change the vote if people believe, perhaps because of disinformation, that somehow a vote count wasn’t actually accurate. And that would matter obviously the most. If you have a very close election, I mean, imagine a state in which it holds the balance of the Electoral College. You’re about, you know, less than 1 percent margin. And there are questions raised about whether the votes were accurately tallied. That would be, I think, a problem that would have a very long shelf life, which is why I would hope that we, as a country, would have taken much greater steps to ensure our election security.
Which isn’t simply a matter of how votes are counted, though that’s a big part of it. But it’s making sure, for example, that on the day of the election people show up to vote they’re actually still registered, and you don’t all of a sudden, you know, have the potential where people disappear from the rolls because of interference. Or, conversely, stories spread that people weren’t allowed to vote because of those things. So I think that’s a big problem.
WARNER: Well, Jim, what about, though, Jane Harman was also referring to is massive just disinformation campaigns on Facebook and some of the other platforms, that this time voters are more aware of, but probably not as aware of as they would be a month after the election.
LINDSAY: I think we have the challenge—and this gets back to sort of Charlie’s notion—of sort of how that would affect who turns out and how they vote. And it’s really sort of hard to say a priori. I will note that if you look at 2016, it is pretty clear that the Russian interfered or meddled, engaged in a massive disinformation campaign. Seventeen members of the U.S. intelligence community came to a unanimous conclusion on that score. When I talked to a number of my friends and relatives that voted for President Trump, they think that’s just a lot of bunk, it’s a lot of complaining by Democrats to excuse the fact that they thought they were going to win and ended up losing. Which gets us back to the fact that people tend not to approach information in isolation. They bring a whole set of perceptions and assumptions in which they interpret the meaning of that information. So if it would be repeated again and it played out the same way, you would have Republicans, I would imagine, pooh-poohing it, saying it’s the talk of sore losers, and Democrats turning an even brighter shade of red, even if that’s not a party appropriate color.
TALEV: Yeah. I was just going to say we—at Axios, we’ve tried to identify kind of what are the most important lasting issues for 2020 to follow. And misinformation is one of those half a dozen issues that we think is one of the most important. You’re starting to see social media companies lay out their rules of the road for 2020. There’s going to be a lot of dissection of those. But, like, Jane, I think it is actually one of the essential questions. And the question is, yes, American voters are more aware of it than they were in 2016, but has that awareness grown as fast as the sophistication, and intensity, and number of countries that are going to try to play into this space now? And will we—if it’s a problem, will it be a problem beforehand? Or will it explode as a problem after the fact, if the legitimacy of the election in terms of either half’s supporters, comes into question? I think that’s the great unknown, one of the big pressing kind of futuristic questions that we’re going to have to grapple with.
WARNER: Charlie, you have the last word.
COOK: Yeah, but to Jane’s broader point, if there is a 9/11 kind of event, if there is a black swan event, well, of course that changes everything . But, you know, when you’re doing your calculations you can’t plug in a black swan event, by definition. So you know, something like that happens, and all bets are off. I mean, but I do remember, though, the morning of 9/11. I was doing a—I was doing a speech in Michigan. And someone comes in during the Q&A and says: You know, planes hit the World Trade Center. Or, now, what impact would a terrorist attack—a major terrorist attack have on this—on what you’ve said. And I said, well, generally speaking whenever there’s a major catastrophe, or if there’s an attack on the United States there’s a rally around the flag. And then after that, it simply depends on, you know, how that president—what the circumstances were, and how that president handles it.
And that’s exactly what happened. I mean, eventually things revert to type. But in that case, it was a year or so before things got back to normal. But I also—but I do think, though, that we’re in such a much more partisan, hyper-partisan political environment that I think the shelf-life of a rally around the flag might be shorter, for either a Democratic or a Republican president, than might have been the case in 2001.
LINDSAY: There certainly wasn’t one over the Soleimani killing.
COOK: Right. Right, right.
WARNER: No. No.
On that note, Jane’s question, we’re going to end it there. Thank you all very much. Thanks for coming. And thanks to the panelists. (Applause.)