Feb. 25

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Trump Administration Fears Coronavirus

On Saturday, we answered a question about whether coronavirus would affect Donald Trump's reelection chances, and said we did not think so. On Sunday, we ran letters from readers who disagreed, and said that while the disease itself might not hurt Trump politically, the effects of the disease (e.g., economic instability) certainly could. As it turns out, the readers were right.

Publicly, the President has pooh-poohed the threat posed by the coronavirus. Of course, he's also pooh-poohed the threat posed by global warming, gun violence, and North Korea, so such declarations should be taken with a fistful of salt. And behind the scenes, it turns out that the administration is indeed frightened of the economic havoc that could be wreaked in the next 3-6 months, possibly cooling the U.S. economy and depriving Trump 2020 of badly needed votes. "The biggest current threat to the president's reelection is this thing getting out of control and creating a health and economic impact," said one former Trump administration insider.

Consequently, Team Trump has requested $2.5 billion in funds from Congress to help fight the coronavirus. However, the request comes with two caveats, both of them unpalatable to Democrats. The first is that for about half of the money, Trump wants to raid other budgets, such as the cash already set aside to fight Ebola. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) & Co. don't particularly want to be put in the position of guessing which diseases are deadliest, and want any coronavirus funding to be newly appropriated. The second issue is that the request sent to the House asks them to sign off on the administration's desire to move money around, at its discretion, in the federal budget. That, of course, would mean giving tacit approval to the technique being used by the administration to fund the border wall, and so could set a precedent that comes back to haunt Democrats down the line. Add it up, and the stage could be set for yet another game of chicken, with each side claiming the other doesn't care how many Americans die.

Meanwhile, as the folks in Washington argue among themselves, the economic turmoil that the White House fears may already be coming to pass. The Dow Jones Index dropped by 1,000 points on Monday, its worst day in two years. According to analysts, the reason is global fears about coronavirus, and the impact it will have on both the planet's citizens, and on the production of goods. If that weren't grim enough, several virologists declared on Monday that the world is close to a "tipping point," and that pandemic status could be just around the corner. So, we officially withdraw our assertion that coronavirus won't be Trump's Hurricane Katrina. That outcome now seems well within the realm of possibility. (Z)

Nevada Results Are Final...

After a mere three days, which is lightning-fast by the standards of some caucus states, the results from the Nevada caucuses are complete. Here are the numbers, with County Convention Delegates (CCDs) won, percentage of CCDs won, and DNC delegates won:

Candidate CCDs Pct. DNC
Bernie Sanders 6,788 46.8% 24
Joe Biden 2,927 20.2% 9
Pete Buttigieg 2,073 14.3% 3
Elizabeth Warren 1,406 9.7% 0
Tom Steyer 682 4.7% 0
Amy Klobuchar 603 4.2% 0
Tulsi Gabbard 4 0.0% 0

As expected, little changed from the results reported on Saturday night. It remains a smashing victory for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), while Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, and maybe Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) got enough good news to justify keeping up the good fight. For the others, the situation is pretty grim. In particular, if they performed this poorly in Nevada, how can they possibly make a dent in the two most important Super Tuesday states: the demographically similar Texas and California?

The other result here, beyond giving a boost to Sanders and a kick in the rear to most or all of the other candidates, was to put another nail in the caucus coffin. On Tuesday, chair of the Nevada Democratic Party William McCurdy II acknowledged that even the best-planned caucuses are really hard to pull off, and that the barrier for participation is so high that they tend to exclude people from the process. So, he says the time has come for a "serious conversation" about the "limitations" of caucuses. Chair of the Iowa Democratic Party Troy Price might have been asked for his comment, but he was already forced to resign due to the train wreck that took place in the Hawkeye State. There are still caucuses scheduled in American Samoa, North Dakota, Wyoming, Guam, Virgin Islands, and then that will be it for this year, and maybe forever. And North Dakota has a "firehouse caucus," which is actually a primary election run by the Democratic Party rather than the state of North Dakota, so it is called a "caucus," but it really isn't. (Z)

...And Now It's South Carolina's Turn

With Nevada in the books, all eyes are on South Carolina, at least for the next four days. Heading into the first contest where a sizable number of black voters will cast ballots, there have been three new polls in the last two days, from NBC News/Marist, PPP, and CBS News/YouGov. Here's how they have it:

Candidate NBC PPP CBS Average
Joe Biden 27% 36% 28% 30.3%
Bernie Sanders 23% 21% 23% 22.3%
Tom Steyer 15% 7% 18% 13.3%
Elizabeth Warren 8% 8% 12% 9.3%
Pete Buttigieg 9% 7% 10% 8.7%
Amy Klobuchar 5% 3% 4% 4.0%
Tulsi Gabbard 3% 6% 1% 3.3%

It certainly appears that, for all his struggles, Joe Biden's South Carolina firewall is basically going to hold and he's going to get his first primary victory of this cycle...and of his career, for that matter. The big question appears to be: How much will he win by? If NBC and CBS have the right of it, then it will be a fairly narrow win over Bernie Sanders, and probably won't do much to blunt the Vermont Senator's momentum. On the other hand, if PPP has the right of it, then Biden will trounce everyone, the narratives that Sanders cannot win conservative and/or heavily black states will come roaring back to life, and Super Tuesday will get a whole lot more interesting. If we were placing bets, two polls are better than one, and the PPP poll has that wonky Tulsi Gabbard result, which certainly doesn't inspire confidence in their model. Put another way, expect a close finish until given evidence to the contrary.

The other big question, outside the likely top two finishers, is if any of the other candidates has a "throw in the towel" number. Most obviously, Tom Steyer has spent millions on commercials, and has campaigned endlessly in the Palmetto State for six weeks. Does a sub-20% result convince him he's not viable? Sub-15%? Sub-10%? Undoubtedly, he and the others will be very tempted to hang on until Super Tuesday regardless of their result, since it's only three days and, hey, why not? But there will also be enormous pressure on the South Carolina also-rans to bail out, so their voters can flock to the banners of more successful candidates. In particular, the DNC is certainly going to amp up the pressure on Sen. Amy Klobuchar (DFL-MN).

Presumably, there will be more polls before voters cast their ballots on Saturday, though it will be tough to squeeze them in post-debate but pre-election. So, if there is any sort of game-changer in tonight's debate, we may be in the dark as to its impact until the vote totals are reported Saturday night. (Z)

But First, a Debate

And speaking of the debate, tonight's matchup—the tenth of the cycle—is not only the last debate before South Carolina votes, it is also the last one before Super Tuesday. And so, if any flailing candidate is going to throw caution to the wind and try to make a move, it's pretty much now or never.

In contrast to last week's debate, which featured a lean and mean six candidates, there will be seven candidates on stage tonight, as Tom Steyer makes his triumphant return (and, likely, his final bow). However, he is not the billionaire that everyone will be watching. Mike Bloomberg badly botched the last debate, and if he's going to right the ship, he needs to do way, way better than he did in Nevada. On one hand, he now knows what his weaknesses are, and he's had a week to prepare his counter-moves. On the other hand, he should have known what his weaknesses were before the Nevada debate, since everyone else on the planet knew them, and he wasn't prepared. Will another week really make a difference? Although, that said, he's agreed to waive at least some of the NDAs his lawyers negotiated with harassed women, so maybe he won't fumble that issue quite so badly this time.

The other candidate that people will be watching, of course, is Bernie Sanders. When it comes to these debates, he has a pretty high floor and a pretty low ceiling, and so he will undoubtedly deliver his usual solid performance. The real question is whether his fellow candidates will take off the gloves and hit him with all they've got. Actually, we know that Bloomberg is going to do that, since he did it last time, and he has de facto announced that he's going to do it again. It is likely that Pete Buttigieg will also take some potshots at Sanders, in hopes of asserting himself as the anti-Bernie candidate of choice. As to the others, Joe Biden is usually very cautious, Elizabeth Warren prefers to hit the centrists (especially Bloomberg), Amy Klobuchar is not likely to steal votes from Sanders no matter what she says or does, and Steyer is generally off in his own world with his plaid tie and semi-vacant stare. So, our guess is that the Vermont Senator takes withering fire from only two podiums.

Since it's South Carolina, and since the Congressional Black Caucus Institute is co-hosting (along with CBS News), the "local interest" questions will be directed toward black voters. Polls reveal that the things they most want to hear about are systemic racism and combating violent crime. The latter issue means that, interestingly, black folks are less angry about Mike Bloomberg's stop and frisk policy than white folks think they should be. This could certainly make things interesting when the subject inevitably comes up tonight.

The show gets underway at 8:00 p.m. ET, with another five-headed moderator: Margaret Brennan, Major Garrett, Gayle King, Norah O'Donnell, and Bill Whitaker. That list is 40% black (King and Whitaker), though one could argue that it ought to be 60% black given the demographics of South Carolina Democrats. The broadcast will be carried on CBS and BET. (Z)

Sanders Gives Florida Democrats Conniptions

Bernie Sanders is, as you may have heard, a Democratic Socialist. That's in the same ZIP code as communists (though probably not the same block). Still, there's enough overlap that the Vermont Senator has at least a few warm feelings about former Cuban leader and one-time revolutionary Fidel Castro. And he decided to share them during an appearance on "60 Minutes" Sunday night, reaffirming his past (somewhat) pro-Castro stance, and declaring:

We're very opposed to the authoritarian nature of Cuba but you know, it's unfair to simply say everything is bad. You know? When Fidel Castro came into office, you know what he did? He had a massive literacy program. Is that a bad thing? Even though Fidel Castro did it?

In a vacuum, that may well be a fair point. But to most Cuban Americans, giving any credit to Castro is like telling Jews about the good things Adolf Hitler did, or Persian Americans about the "pros" of the Ayatollah, or Irish folks about the good side of the British Empire.

There are, of course, a lot of Cuban voters in Florida. And Florida, of course, is a big and valuable state that is about as evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans as is possible. Nearly every recent, major election there has been decided by a fraction of a percent. So, potentially giving away tens of thousands of votes by poking Cuban folks in the eye is not generally considered sound political strategy. And after Sanders' interview aired, Florida Democrats were not shy about sharing their dismay. "Donald Trump wins Florida if Bernie is our nominee," said state Rep. Javier Fernandez (D), for example. Not helping things is that Castro is not the only Latin American revolutionary/strongman Sanders has complimented; Nicaraguan folks are none-too-thrilled about his past praise of Castro ally Daniel Ortega, while Venezuelans are upset that he was unwilling to call Nicolás Maduro a dictator. As a result, the Vermont Senator's approval rating with Latino voters in Florida is six points underwater, which is exactly where Donald Trump's rating stands with those voters.

Obviously, there is still time for Sanders to mend some bridges, but he's going to have to take clear and unequivocal stands against Castro, et al. Whether he is willing to do so, or if he would feel that represented a sellout of his "brand" is something only he knows. (Z)

The Hill Closes the Henhouse After the Fox Already Had His Way

The Hill was founded by right-leaning folks, and has right-leaning ownership, but was generally reliable as a source of political news for many years. Eventually, however, they got into the business of running extremely dubious op-eds from folks like Jonathan Turley, Sharyl Attkisson, and John Solomon. Obviously, nobody objects to pieces that reflect a strongly partisan point of view, but many of the pieces from these folks involved gross acts of dishonesty, including conspiratorial thinking, fabricated evidence, substantial misrepresentation of quotes, statistics, and other evidence, and unrevealed conflicts of interest. Allowing those folks to ride roughshod over the truth raised questions about the site's editorial judgment in general.

Eventually, Solomon got caught with his hand in the propaganda cookie jar one time too many, and was compelled to depart The Hill for greener (well, redder) pastures. And now, the site has conducted a "review" of Solomon's work that "revealed" several things, among them that Solomon misrepresented some of his sources, wrote op-eds so that they looked like reporting, often obscured key details that weakened his arguments, and unfairly smeared government employees, most obviously former ambassador to Ukraine Masha Yovanovitch. At the end of the linked piece, The Hill's editors suggest that they have learned many valuable lessons about how naughty they've been, and how they won't let something like this happen again.

Perhaps that sounds like a satisfactory resolution. From where we sit, however, it is both dishonest and disingenuous. It was obvious from reading Solomon's pieces that he was spinning works heavy on fiction; one need only read the comments section of any of his articles to be clear on this point. And yet, the site not only ran piece after piece, they also allowed him to write much lengthier articles than other op-ed contributors, and to identify himself as an "award-winning journalist." He also had a title, namely executive vice president for digital video. Imagine reading a piece by Hill contributor John Smith, and then imagine reading the same piece by Hill executive vice president for digital video John Smith. Which one carries more weight?

Our view is that The Hill deliberately looked the other way, because Solomon's columns got clicks and page views. Invariably, when he posted a new piece, right-wing types flooded the site and kept the piece in the site's list of "top articles" for days. By acting like they just now realized that something was awry, The Hill is just trying to have its cake and eat it, too. And that is why going forward we will be more careful about using them as a primary source of material. (Z)

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