Donald Trump is one weird dude, and he makes everything related to him—including the race to beat him—exceptionally strange. But the likelihood of war with Iran adds a whole new twist on the Democratic primary fight, one that goes straight to the heart of the matter in terms of who our candidate should be in 2020.
Ironically, Trump decided to go to war during what is normally the quietest, calmest time of the year, the celebration of the birth of a man whose followers call him the Prince of Peace.
But before we get to Trump blowing up what remained of stability in our foreign policy and starting what some analysts believe could turn into World War III, I want to discuss what was happening in the presidential race before Trump's 2020 New Year's blast.
On December 31st, Elizabeth Warren gave one of the best speeches I have ever heard a presidential candidate make. Her speech in Boston, on the anniversary of her announcement of her presidential bid, framed this race perfectly. She opened talking about the huge stakes of the 2020 election, and the profoundly important issues we have to wrestle with, anchoring the speech in the big issues our country has had to face at critical moments in our history:
"Those moments in American history define us. And at each one of them, if our leaders had approached the moment thinking small, we would not have made it through. Americans do big things. That’s who we are. And our best moments as a country have been when we see a challenge clearly and we mobilize to meet it head on."
And she ended it with this reflection on what the 2020 race is about:
I believe that when future generations of Americans look back on this time, they will celebrate us for choosing hope over fear, courage over timidity, dreams over cynicism. I believe they will see that we fought to build an America of our best values—an America that works for everyone."
Elizabeth Warren didn't know while she was giving this profoundly important speech that just two days later, Donald Trump was going to bring us to the brink of another major Middle East war. In some ways, though, Trump's speech reminds us that Warren's message about refusing to accept the world the way it is, and instead imagining what could and should be, fits this moment perfectly. And the cautious, wavering reaction from Biden, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, and other Democrats tied to the foreign policy establishment is the ultimate reminder of the stakes in this battle.
I remember all too well talking to Democratic leaders and their staff people in 2002 during the debate over authorizing the war in Iraq: they were afraid of the political repercussions of being against the war if all went well, and were convinced if they just agreed with Bush on the war, they could debate other issues with him. What resulted was strong bipartisan support for one of the most disastrous wars in American history. For the Democrats who supported the war, the decision was a disaster politically as well: progressive turnout in 2002 was dampened and Democrats had a bad year; John Kerry's 2004 candidacy was haunted by his support for the war, and he lost to Bush; Hillary Clinton lost the 2008 primary fight to Obama in great part because of her support of the war and Obama's opposition to it.
Keep in mind that openly assassinating a leader of a sovereign power is an overt act of war, and that war with Iran would be worse, far worse, than the war with Iraq, which rivals Vietnam as the most costly and terrible foreign policy disasters in American history. That Biden, Buttigieg, and Klobuchar would be too cautious to immediately condemn such a ghastly mistake is a very bad sign. It appears that the establishment wing of the Democratic Party has learned nothing from the Iraq War nightmare.
Based on a few days in Iowa over the holiday break, I can tell you this: the only certainty is the complete unpredictability of the race with 4 weeks left to go. I went to a Warren town hall in Clarinda. 250 people showed up, which is astounding for a small town in Southwest Iowa, the most Republican part of the state, during the Christmas season. The undecided folks I talked to there were trying to decide between Bernie, Buttigieg, and Warren, or between Yang and Warren. The owner of my favorite restaurant in Des Moines (a great Greek place called the Olympic Flame, which has been there for at least 35 years) was trying to decide between Warren and Biden. Everyone is talking about Klobuchar rising but no one I talked to was for her, or could identify any tangible evidence to verify this momentum.
The bottom line is the intense unpredictability of this race, and the fact that while in pundits’ minds it's between Biden and Buttigieg in the moderate lane, or Warren and Bernie in the progressive lane, in real voters' minds, they are still thinking about multiple candidates from multiple lanes. Added to this unpredictability is that the state party is instituting a new "two ballot" reporting system, where they are hoping to get results both from the time when people walk in the door and from the final delegate count, the traditional way the results are reported. This could result in two different winners being called and mass confusion all around about how things actually came out.
So per usual: things are very unpredictable in Iowa. But Trump's drone attack has added a huge new element to this debate: are Democrats going to support caution and uncertainty about Trump's war, or are they going to say "No, let's not go down the path we went down in Iraq."
The stakes have just gotten even higher than the sky high place they already were: wild times ahead.