The Morning Dispatch: Back to Square One with North Korea

Plus: Are Obamacare’s days numbered? And some notable squabbles in last night’s debate.

Happy Friday! Congress is out, on holiday recess until January 7. All sorts of wacky adventures await their return, but for now we all get a blessed few moments to relax.

Quick Hits: What You Need To Know

The Trump-Kim Bromance Is Over

Nearly three years into President Trump and Kim Jong-un’s hot and cold relationship—one replete with “very beautiful letters,” “alone time,” a mutual bashing of Joe Biden, and more PDA than a middle-school romance—the pair seems to be entering a rough patch.

Late last week, North Korea announced “another crucial test was successfully conducted” that would bolster the country’s “reliable strategic nuclear deterrent.” Earlier this month, a North Korean vice minister of foreign affairs called nuclear negotiations with the United States a “foolish trick,” and—before threatening us with an ominous “Christmas present”—said the DPRK has “heard more than enough” and “no one will lend an ear to the U.S. any longer.”

“We're no further along than we were 18 months ago,” says Bruce Klingner, a former top CIA official covering North Korea and current senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation. “Or, you could argue, five years ago, 10 years ago, 20 years ago.”

While there’s plenty to criticize in the DPRK policies of all recent American administrations, Klingner told us North Korea itself remains the biggest impediment to change. “The common denominator as to why we haven’t made any progress on denuclearization is Pyongyang's behavior.”

But Trump has consistently overhyped his June 2018 summit with Kim in Singapore, Klingner said, which resulted in an agreement “that was weaker on denuclearization than what we got in 2005.” 

And since then? “We've had not only Trump, but also [Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo and other U.S officials claiming Kim had agreed to things, which, clearly, he has not.”

The president has signaled a subscription to Richard Nixon’s “madman theory,” in which the 37th president attempted to use perceived instability and recklessness to his advantage in dealings with adversaries. (Nixon allegedly told his Chief of Staff H.R. Haldemann, “I want the North Vietnamese to believe I've reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war.”) “Fire and fury. Total annihilation. ‘My button is bigger than yours’ and ‘my button works.’ Remember that?” Trump asked reporters earlier this year. “And people said, ‘Trump is crazy.’ And you know what it ended up being? A very good relationship.”

But has that “very good relationship” gotten us anywhere? Some have argued for years that getting the U.S. president and North Korean leader in a room together would allow the two sides to break through the decades-long logjam. “Well, okay, we tested the hypothesis,” Klingner said, “and it was, you know: No.”

But the effects of Trump’s unpredictability reverberate far beyond Pyongyang. When he unilaterally canceled military exercises with South Korea, he did so to the surprise of not only South Korea itself, but other allies in the region and even the Defense Department. “Really, the U.S. has two policies,” Klingner noted, having spoken with U.S. officials. “We have the Trump administration policy, and we have President Trump's policy.”

“The administration policy is what is being worked on and implemented on a day-to-day basis. And then it can all of a sudden, to their great surprise, change 180 degrees given a tweet or a comment.”

The result? South Korea and Japan are seriously questioning the viability of their alliances with the United States. “Being highly critical and insulting to your allies is not a good idea,” Klingner argued, referencing Trump administration accusations of free-riding and threatening to withdraw military support. “Like spouses, [allies] remember when you say stupid, hurtful things. You can't just come home at the end of the day and say ‘we're good, right?’”

Should we be worried?

Klingner expects North Korea to make a move—testing anything from a medium to intermediate range missile (most likely) to a nuke or ICBM (for maximum shock value)—in the coming weeks. “They're going to go up the escalation ladder. Whether it's on Christmas day for this 'Christmas present,' or the end of year, or sometime in January, that we don't know.”

The bigger question, in his mind, is how the United States will respond. The two biggest proponents of “fire and fury”—former national security advisers H.R. McMaster and John Bolton—have been banished from the administration, and Trump is keen to strike a deal he can celebrate. Klingner’s preferred approach: “Leave the door open for diplomacy, work towards a good agreement, actually fully enforce your own laws—as well as UN resolutions. ... Reciprocate North Korea's end-of-year deadline with one of your own, announcing you're going to stop your own self-imposed restraint on military exercises and enforcing our laws.”

“We're in a long-term Cold War,” he said.

Obamacare Is On Life Support

On Wednesday, the 5th Circuit struck down Obamacare’s individual mandate as unconstitutional, sending the case—brought by more than a dozen states with Republican governors or attorneys general—back to the lower court to determine whether the entire law must be swept into the dustbin as a result.

Quick refresher: One of the most popular aspects of Obamacare was that, broadly speaking, it guaranteed health insurance coverage to any individual, regardless of any preexisting conditions. But by itself, that promise would have flooded the exchange with sicker people who are the most expensive to insure. The answer: an individual mandate that would balance out the “risk pool” by requiring all adults—read: young, healthy people—to buy health insurance. This mandate was then backed up with a penalty enforced by the IRS. 

The Supreme Court upheld the mandate back in 2012 in a 5-4 vote; Chief Justice John Roberts famously construed it as a “tax” because Congress has limited enumerated powers in Article I, and he didn’t believe that forcing someone to buy a commercial product fell under the Commerce Clause. But in 2017, the Republican-led Tax Cuts and Jobs Act reduced the penalty for violating the individual mandate to zero dollars, raising the question: Is the individual mandate still a tax?

Seventeen states joined Texas in arguing the individual mandate could no longer be sustained as a tax without a penalty. The 5th Circuit ruled that it couldn’t be sustained, but the question remains whether the mandate is “severable” from the rest of ACA or whether it means the whole bill is unconstitutional.

The Trump Department of Justice refused to defend the individual mandate, but initially argued that only two other provisions had to fall with it. On appeal, however, government lawyers changed their tune, maintaining the mandate couldn’t be separated from the rest of the law. If the mandate was unconstitutional, the whole thing had to go.

Sixteen states, the District of Columbia, and the House of Representatives voluntarily joined the suit to defend the constitutionality of the mandate, claiming it was entirely severable from every other provision of the law. They also contended, not without reason, that the entire case was a political ploy to bring down the ACA. The plaintiffs, they argued, lacked standing to launch the case. There was no more “injury,” the mandate was essentially gone. 

But the 5th Circuit, in its 2-1 decision, punted on the severability question. Bottom line? Barring something dramatic, this case will not be decided until well after the 2020 election, meaning both sides can (and will!) continue to use Obamacare as a political battering ram for at least one more cycle. 

The Most Interesting Democratic Debate Yet

The first five Democratic primary debates were largely tedious, unfocused affairs, with too many candidates to be really clarifying for viewers and most candidates too worried about keeping things positive to create many interesting moments of contrast.

Last night’s debate didn’t have that problem, in part because Tim Alberta of Politico was an excellent moderator. Most of the seven who qualified came in ready to brawl, and the result was the most interesting debate we’ve seen from these candidates yet. Here’s a quick rundown of the events that created the most sparks:

  • Warren vs. Buttigieg on billionaires and taxes.

After escaping the November debate mostly unchallenged, Pete Buttigieg was sure to be the focus of attention this time around, having shown his rapid ascent in the polls was no momentary bubble. Since much of that newfound support came at Elizabeth Warren’s expense, it was unsurprising that she was the one to pull the knife on him on a familiar issue: big-dollar campaign donations. Warren brought up a recent Buttigieg fundraiser “that was held in a wine cave full of crystals and served $900-a-bottle wine.”

“Billionaires in wine caves should not pick the next president of the United States,” she said.

Buttigieg responded by pointing out that Warren herself had relied on big-dollar donations in past campaigns. In a nifty rhetorical turnaround, he used that fact to argue not that you’re just as bad as us, but that we’re just as good as you!

“Your presidential campaign right now, as we speak, is funded in part by money you transferred,” he said, “having raised it at those exact same big-ticket fundraisers you now denounce. Did it corrupt you, Senator? Of course not.”

Buttigieg was somewhat less congenial when it came to the issue of Warren’s signature wealth tax—2 percent annually on megamillionaires, 6 percent on billionaires. After Warren waved off economists’ concerns that such a wealth tax would cause the economy to stagnate, Buttigieg chided that politicians should stick to “promises that we can keep.”

  • Bernie vs. Biden on health care.

Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden got into a heated exchange over the issue that has dominated the debates so far: Medicare for All. After Bernie gave his standard spiel—no more profiteering in the health care industry, no more co-pays and deductibles, no more byzantine array of networks and private plans—Biden dismissed the plan: “I don’t think it is realistic.”

After Biden plumped his own Obamacare expansion plan, Sanders bristled: “Under Joe’s plan, essentially, we retain the status quo”—prompting a denial from, of all people, Amy Klobuchar.

When Sanders was finished, Biden had one more incredulous comment:

“It costs $30 trillion! Let’s get that straight: $30 trillion over 10 years,” he protested. “The idea that you’re going to be able to save that person making $60,000 [money] on Medicare for All is absolutely preposterous. 16 percent of the American public is on Medicare now, and everybody has a tax taken out of their paycheck now. Tell me—you’re going to add 84 percent more, and there’s not going to be higher taxes?”

  • Klobuchar vs. Buttigieg on experience.

Warren wasn’t the only candidate to go hard after Buttigieg Thursday night. Amy Klobuchar has been quietly building steam in Iowa, but will need to leach some Buttigieg supporters to really break into the top tier. Accordingly, she hammered him on the one issue where she undeniably has a major edge: political seasoning.

“When we were in the last debate, Mayor, you basically mocked the hundred years of experience on this stage. … I just think you should respect our experience, when you look at how you evaluate someone who can get things done,” she told him. When Buttigieg protested that his experience had come in the military, she didn’t cede the point: “That’s not what this is about. This is about choosing a president.”

Klobuchar, who has made her consistent competitiveness in tough races a focal point of her campaign, had one final barb for Buttigieg’s unsuccessful bid to become Indiana’s state treasurer: “If you had won in Indiana, that would be one thing. You tried and you lost by 20 points.” 

Worth Your Time

  • As smartphone use has gone from common to ubiquitous to pretty much mandatory, the edge has seemingly come off some of our unease about the incredible latitude private companies have to collect and monetize vast swaths of data about our daily lives. So here’s a story to get you scurrying off the grid again: a bombshell leak of sensitive tracking data to the New York Times that underscores just how ludicrously powerful that tracking is.

  • Insufficiently unsettled? Now, if you’ve got the stomach for it, read this depressing account of what the digital 2010s did to all of our collective brains, courtesy of Buzzfeed News’s Joseph Bernstein.

  • Christianity Today, the evangelical magazine founded by Billy Graham, called for President Trump’s removal from office in an editorial yesterday, just as they did with Bill Clinton 20 years ago. “Whether Mr. Trump should be removed from office by the Senate or by popular vote next election—that is a matter of prudential judgment. That he should be removed, we believe, is not a matter of partisan loyalties but loyalty to the Creator of the Ten Commandments.” Agree or disagree, it’s worth a read.

  • Okay, now for a pick-me-up: Over at National Review Online, Jay Nordlinger is conducting an interview series with one of the most interesting politicians we’ve all pretty much forgotten about: Mitch Daniels, the popular former governor of Indiana who, instead of pursuing the expected White House bid in 2012, stepped out of politics to take over as president of Purdue University. “I’m gonna run out the string of jobs here sometime, and I hope to finish never having been bored.” 

Presented Without Comment

Something Fun

We were tickled that so many of you were as thrilled to hear about The Far Side’s triumphant return to the internet as we are. Thanks for sending along some of your personal greatest hits. After a few days’ review, we Morning Dispatchers submit this strip as our collective favorite and editorial mantra.

Toeing the Company Line

  • David’s pumped out two French Presses this week; the first made an argument that impeachment was necessary and turned a critical eye at Bernie Sanders’ embrace of anti-Semites as campaign surrogates; the second dives deeper into the aforementioned Obamacare decision and a religious liberty case taken up by the Supreme Court.

  • National Review’s Jim Geraghty graced The Remnant with his presence on Wednesday, talking impeachment and the Democratic primary, but most importantly, Star Wars. Give it a listen here!

Let Us Know

Thursday’s Democratic debate closed with moderators asking the candidates, “in the spirit of Christmas,” to name “a candidate from whom you would ask forgiveness, or a candidate to whom you would like to give a gift.” It was a wacky attempt to take candidates off-message, and it failed: Candidates more or less defaulted to apologizing for being too passionate or offering to give America the gift of their latest book (available wherever fine books are sold!). 

Here at The Morning Dispatch, however, we’re of the belief that that question didn’t go far enough—indeed, true debate wackiness has never been tried. Which of the following keep-you-on-your-toes questions would you like to see at the next debate?

  • “There’s been a lot of backslapping on the stage tonight. In your view, which of your fellow candidates poses the greatest and most terrifying danger to our nation?” 

  • “Each of you turn to the candidate on your left. If that candidate were a baked good, what baked good would they be and why?”

  • “As you all know, one group that will play a pivotal role in this primary is the nation’s Wine Moms. With them in mind, please describe your enneagram, your Myers-Briggs profile, and how as president you would use your mindfulness of each to strengthen our nation.”

Reporting by Declan Garvey, Andrew Egger, Sarah Isgur, and Steve Hayes.

Handout photograph of Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump inside the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating the South and North Korea on June 30, 2019 in Panmunjom, South Korea by Dong-A Ilbo via Getty Images/Getty Images.