The Morning Dispatch: A Clunker of a Democratic Debate

Plus, Justin Amash asks: "Is there any better time to have a president who might be not from either party?"

Happy Wednesday! Yesterday, for the first time ever, all 11 Dispatch staff were in the same room at the same time. We traveled from distant lands—Tennessee, Ohio, northeastern D.C.—to be together and map out all the great things we plan to build in the coming months and years (plus lots of trust falls, three-legged races, and other team-building exercises).

Quick Hits: What You Need To Know

  • The House of Representatives will vote on sending the articles of impeachment to the Senate today.

  • At the same time, House Democrats continue to release new information related to President Trump and Rudy Giuliani’s campaign in Ukraine, including evidence suggesting that Giuliani associates were tracking the movements of then-ambassador Marie Yovanovitch early last year as their campaign to have her ousted ramped up.

  • The Senate is expected to pass a Democratic war powers resolution disapproving of further military action in Iran, which President Trump will likely veto.

  • France, Germany, and the United Kingdom accused Iran of failing to meet its commitments under the JCPOA (nuclear deal). 

  • Michael Flynn, President Trump’s former pick for national security adviser and one of the early casualties of the Russia investigation, is attempting to withdraw the guilty plea he entered on charges of lying to the FBI in late 2017. 

The Iowa Debate: Much Ado About Nothing 

No candidate from either party has gone on to win its party’s nomination after coming in fifth in the Iowa caucus. With six people on the stage last night and less than three weeks until caucus night, this means that last night’s debate was the last chance for the candidates to contrast their records on a national stage and change votes heading into Iowa. And, for at least two of the candidates debating last night, it might have been a last stop.

And yet this debate never had the feeling of a “do or die” moment for anyone on the stage. Elizabeth Warren is currently sitting in fourth place in Iowa but seemed distracted or just uninterested during the foreign policy questions in the first 30 minutes of the debate. Amy Klobuchar, more than any other candidate on that stage, has to outperform expectations in Iowa but fell back on talking points she had used at several previous debates, including James Madison’s height. And Tom Steyer, who has already spent $106 million, is below the 15 percent delegate threshold in every state and had difficulty articulating why he was on that stage. 

And what happened with the rumble in the progressive jungle? 

As we wrote yesterday, on Monday an anonymously sourced CNN story alleged that Bernie Sanders once told Warren that a woman couldn’t beat Donald Trump in 2020—an accusation seemingly designed to lend new credence to old accusations that Sanders is a misogynist incapable of expanding the Democrat Party’s double digit lead with women against Donald Trump. Bernie had categorically denied the story, so all eyes were on Warren to see whether she would insist on live TV that the exchange had really taken place.

When the question went to him, Sanders strongly repudiated the allegation once more: “As a matter of fact, I didn’t say it. Anybody who knows me knows that it’s incomprehensible that I think a woman cannot be president of the United States… In 2015, I deferred, in fact, to Senator Warren. There was a movement to draft Senator Warren to run for president. And you know what? I stayed back.”

The CNN moderators, oddly, did not ask Warren whether Bernie was lying. Instead, perhaps because CNN broke the original story that included the allegation, they proceeded as though it had already been proven that he was: “Senator Warren, what did you think when Sen. Sanders told you a woman could not win the election?”

“I disagreed,” Warren replied. 

The exchange set the tone for the evening. Missed opportunities and pulled punches. For Iowa voters just tuning into this race for the first time last night, they didn’t hear any candidate make a strong case to switch their votes. The debates don’t appear to have mattered much so far, but last night was an opportunity for a candidate to change that. Nobody on that stage seemed to want to. 

Is Justin Amash Running for President?

There are millions of moments, and billions of decisions, that will ultimately determine the next president and the next four years of the American experiment. But few will be as consequential as the decision now looming before a reserved, quirky, classical liberal from south central Michigan.

The 2016 presidential race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was decided by 77,744 votes, split between three states: Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Rep. Justin Amash received nearly three times as many that year (203,545) running to continue on as the representative of Michigan’s 3rd Congressional District. After winning re-election in 2018, however, Amash’s frustration with the GOP and its current leader led him to leave the party he’d called home for more than a decade. And with his new independence came calls for him to make good on his criticism of both political parties with a third-party run for president.

Amash hasn’t committed to a run. But he hasn’t ruled one out, either. And with the incredible volatility in American politics over the past two decades, marked by the record-low faith in Washington and the institutions of the federal government, taking such a leap seems less crazy today than it might have just a few years ago.

As Amash himself put it last week: “Is there any better time to have a president who might be not from either party?”

So, is he running? Maybe. Declan talked to the newly independent Michigan congressman last week seeking answers that question and many others. Be sure to check out the full piece here, but we’ve pulled out a few key snippets below.

  1. Amash is thinking about running for president.

Since his Independence Day declaration, Republicans and Democrats alike have watched Amash carefully for signs he’d be open to running for president. They’re unmistakable.

“I'll say what I've said before, I haven't ruled it out,” Amash said, the closest he came to sounding like a traditional politician. “But I'm running for Congress as an independent in my district. I'm very excited about that. I feel very good about that.”

He wants to be clear that he’s not abandoning his re-election bid—yet. “Just to be clear, I am running for office as an independent for, you know, my congressional seat. And I've filed for that, and you know, we're, we're doing what it takes to, to win that race.”

One more time. He begins to speak more cautiously.

“At some point you'll be at, we'll be at the point where I have to rule out, you know, running for president. And I'm not at that point yet. But, you know, we're probably getting closer to that point now. If you're going to run a campaign for president, you need enough time to run a strong campaign and you need enough time to win the campaign. I'm not running for president unless I believe I can win.”

If Amash doesn’t like the questions, he has no one but himself to blame. He’s long played coy with the idea, repeatedly, as he mentioned, refusing to rule out the possibility. When asked to describe the ideal Libertarian party presidential candidate at Students for Liberty’s LibertyCon last spring, he said that candidate would be wearing Air Jordans—coincidentally the shoes he had on at the time. 

Republican strategist Karl Rove, on the likely impact of an Amash run. “It's unclear whether or not Amash will specifically split the anti-Trump vote or whether he will have the ability to draw away people who might otherwise be inclined to vote for Trump. I think it's more likely that he would split the anti-Trump vote.”

  1. Amash took the Trumpification of the House Freedom Caucus hard.

On May 20, 2019, the bloc, now boasting more than 30 members, unanimously condemned their co-founder when Amash determined—after the release of the Mueller Report—that President Trump had “engaged in impeachable conduct.” Three-and-a-half weeks later, Amash quit the group of limited-government stalwarts he helped create.

They “sanctioned him for coming out in favor of impeachment in the same week that like, they increased the debt by another trillion dollars or something,” Welch said, referring to a two-year budget deal that was floated at the time, but ultimately never came to fruition. “It's like, what is the use of this group?”

“As soon as you had a Republican president, and especially one who is fairly charismatic and entertaining and can rally a lot of people,” Amash said, choosing his words very carefully, “Republicans totally mailed it in. They said, ‘Look, we're just going to go with this guy on everything.’ And when I started to see even my House Freedom Caucus colleagues do that, it was really disheartening.”

“This is a group that had formed,” he continued, “for the purpose of standing on principle, standing up for the American people, doing what was right, ensuring that all voices were heard. And now, the group had moved more toward Trump cheerleading and that's not why the group was formed. And that was really tough.”

  1. Amash loved … John Boehner?

Okay, he didn’t really love the former GOP speaker. But Amash says he has a newfound appreciation for him.

“I think John Boehner is the best speaker that we've had since I've been here,” said Amash. “And I say that as someone who tried to oust him from the speakership!”

And:

“Boehner would swear at me, he would curse me, he would criticize me in public,” Amash recounted with a grin, almost fondly. “But he also, in some sense, would listen. He didn't dismiss you totally. You could engage with him. You could have some back and forth. He might swear at you, but then also allow you to have an amendment vote.”

Amendment votes might just be—aside from his family, the Detroit Pistons, and Friedrich Hayek—Amash’s favorite thing. He grew notorious in his first few years in Congress for his attempts to attach riders to larger bills aimed at curtailing what he calls “the surveillance state,” prioritizing the deficit, and limiting the executive branch’s war powers. Most of them failed to gain majority support, but several passed. In the Michigan legislature, Amash once noticed a missing comma in a piece of legislation; he introduced an amendment to remedy the crisis. That one passed, too.

Worth Your Time

  • On Monday, Major League Baseball handed down its penalties against the Houston Astros after an investigation found they cheated by stealing signs via video during their World Series-winning 2017 season. The year-long suspension of the Astros’ GM and manager and heavy draft pick confiscations showed MLB is willing to come down hard on teams that countenance cheating—or so it seemed. This deeply reported piece from ESPN’s Jeff Passan may convince you otherwise, showing how lightly the league treaded around Astros owner Jim Crane, who comes out the other side with a World Series ring in his pocket, painstakingly exonerated by MLB, smelling like a rose. 

  • With the impeachment trial finally beginning in earnest, no one knows exactly how it will unfold. But Lawfare’s Benjamin Wittes and Quinta Jurecic have a pretty good prediction: By design, it’ll be a boring affair, for the simple reason that the Republican Party has grown perfectly predictable. “There is no real doubt about how Trump will respond to the events of the trial,” they write in The Atlantic. “Trump will react to impeachment precisely as one expects him to react, and the Republican Party will act as though his reactions, just like his abuses of power toward Ukraine, are normal.”

  • It’s early, but the plight of former Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn might just be the most insane story of 2020. Arrested in Japan on charges of white collar crime in 2018, Ghosn recently orchestrated an escape, smuggling himself out of Japan and into Lebanon in a box. Read Matthew Campbell’s excellent reporting in Bloomberg on how it all went down.

Presented Without Comment

Something Fun

Nathaniel Rateliff released the title track of his upcoming solo album last Friday, and one of your Morning Dispatchers has probably listened to it at least 30 times since then. 

Check out “And It’s Still Alright” below.

Toeing the Company Line

  • In Tuesday’s edition of the French Press, David took a look at a thorny truth for Bernie Sanders’ progressive fans: the socialist senator has no real plan to deal with the congressional GOP obstructing his ambitious policy agenda. And hell hath no fury like a utopian thwarted. Give it a read here.

  • Vital Interests, The Dispatch’s newest addition to the newsletter ranks, is debuting later today. Tom Joscelyn, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, will be writing weekly about foreign policy, national security, and the threats we face. Be sure to subscribe to get it in your inbox here.

Let Us Know

Apparently other teams around baseball think the Houston Astros—who lost their manager, general manager, four draft picks, and $5 million—got off easy in the aftermath of their sign-stealing scandal. What additional punishments should Major League Baseball have levied against the cheaters?

  • They aren’t allowed to use signs at all—the catcher will have no idea what the pitcher is throwing, and base coaches can’t tell runners what to do.

  • They have to ship Rookie of the Year Yordan Alvarez and perennial MVP candidate Alex Bregman to the Cubs. Why the Cubs? Because this is our newsletter and we get to make the rules, that’s why.

  • Every single Astros player suspended for 30 games—they’ll have to host tryouts in Houston to field a JV team through the entire month of April. 

  • They can only use wiffle ball bats for the 2020 season.

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