The Morning Dispatch: Where the Democrats Stand

Plus, how compromised is William Barr, really?

Happy Monday! We’ll try to keep today’s Morning Dispatch brief so you can spend as much time as possible soberly reflecting on ... the presidents.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • Former FBI official Andrew McCabe will not be charged with lying to investigators, the Trump administration’s Department of Justice announced on Friday. 

  • Attorney General William Barr assigned an outside prosecutor to look into the charges against Michael Flynn, President Trump’s former national security adviser.

  • Bill de Blasio—mayor of New York and former presidential candidate—endorsed Bernie Sanders for the Democratic nomination.

It’s Nevada Week!

With Iowa and New Hampshire in the rear-view mirror, we’re now in the first small breather of the primary season for the Democratic presidential candidates. The eleven-day hiatus between New Hampshire last Tuesday and Nevada this Saturday is the longest stretch between primaries the candidates will enjoy until mid-April. With the candidates busy stumping in Nevada, peering ahead to South Carolina, and bracing for the madness of Super Tuesday—now just two weeks away!—today is a good opportunity to take a quick look at how each of the major remaining contenders is faring.

Bernie Sanders

There’s not much to say about Bernie Sanders that hasn’t been said already: At this point, he’s the undeniable frontrunner, with a core movement of dedicated supporters who aren’t glancing twice at other candidates, two primary wins under his belt (going by the popular vote, anyway), and thanks to the collapse of Joe Biden, a newfound first-place showing in the national polls.

It’s been frequently observed that, while Sanders captured the most voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, the so-called moderates of the race—Pete Buttigieg, Joe Biden, and Amy Klobuchar—netted a far greater share between them. This has led many to speculate that, once the moderates coalesce behind a single candidate, that candidate will beat Sanders handily.

But Sanders got one piece of reassuring news on that front this weekend, in the form of a Yahoo News/YouGov poll of likely Democratic voters. The poll found that, in a series of hypothetical head-to-head matchups between Sanders and the other top Democratic contenders, Sanders had the edge against each. A single poll isn’t dispositive, of course. But it should serve as a warning to his challengers that just sitting back and waiting for the voters to come to them might not be the best strategy for dealing with him.

Pete Buttigieg

For a 38-year-old former mayor, Pete Buttigieg has put himself in an incredibly strong spot coming out of New Hampshire—a spot where his fans can, with some justification, look up at where we called Sanders the frontrunner and get a bee in their bonnet about it. Buttigieg is, after all, the race’s current delegate leader, thanks to a few lucky bounces in Iowa. His strong showings in the first two states have given a boost to poll numbers that had been sagging since last November. And he raked in some enemy-of-my-enemy energy from Democrats over the weekend, after radio host Rush Limbaugh insisted that “America’s still not ready to elect a gay guy kissing his husband on the debate stage president.”

Pete’s main trouble remains that he’s entirely reliant on momentum. He remains far behind Sanders, Biden, and even Michael Bloomberg in national polling and still has not managed to move the needle with black voters; he’s counting on late-breaking voters seeing his earlier wins and moving his way. If a few of those tougher states—like Nevada and South Carolina—end up as hard losses, it’s hard to see where he goes to get his mojo back.

Amy Klobuchar

Much of the same could be said of Amy Klobuchar, who’s in an odd spot right now: Riding a surge of momentum out of New Hampshire, having raised a hefty $12 million since last week, but staring at a number of states where she’s had little time to campaign and seen little movement so far in the polls. Klobuchar’s New Hampshire success came largely on the back of an extremely strong performance in that week’s Democratic debate; exit polling showed that 7 in 10 who voted for her had decided to do so in the days immediately before the primary. She’ll need to repeat that performance at this Wednesday’s debate in Nevada to have a shot. But that could be complicated by a gaffe Klobuchar made campaigning in Nevada over the weekend: During a Telemundo interview, Klobuchar, who served on the Senate Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on border security and immigration, was unable to recall the president of Mexico’s name. (If anyone asks: it’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador.) Klobuchar has taken repeated shots at Buttigieg’s experience in previous debates; he may try to return the favor in Nevada.

Elizabeth Warren

After spending much of 2019 trying to race Bernie Sanders to the left, Elizabeth Warren has pivoted in recent months to focus on a message of party unity. That message landed her third in Iowa and fourth in New Hampshire. The trouble appears to be that Warren, by trying to straddle both wings, has ended up alienating both: “all of the Bernie people think she’s a neoliberal shill and all of the centrists think she’s a raging Maoist,” one analyst told NBC News.

The latest poll in notoriously difficult-to-poll Nevada has her in third behind Sanders and Biden; any finish higher than Buttigieg and Klobuchar would at least stem the bleeding. But things are looking grim for the senator who just six months ago seemed to be emerging as a consensus frontrunner.

Joe Biden

The best thing that can be said about Joe Biden’s month is that at least he’s made it to Nevada. The original theory of the Biden campaign was that these next states—Nevada to South Carolina and on through Super Tuesday—would push him to a commanding delegate lead on the strength of his support among minority voters throughout the South.

But that theory didn’t reckon with a few things: One, how anemic Biden’s showing would be in Iowa and New Hampshire, and two, how dramatically the entrance of Michael Bloomberg into the race would eat into Biden’s support in national polls.

Biden has been forced to implement a slightly more aggressive strategy in Nevada. In a Sunday interview on Meet the Press, Biden scolded Sanders for not reining in his supporters after members of Nevada’s powerful Culinary Union complained they’d suffered abuse from Sanders loyalists on social media. “He may not be responsible for it, but he has some accountability,” Biden said. “You know me well enough to know if any of my supporters did that, I’d disown them. Flat disown them. The stuff that was said online. The way they threatened those two women who are leaders in that Culinary Union. It is outrageous.”

Michael Bloomberg

Bloomberg’s upward trajectory to third in the RealClearPolitics polling average is mirrored almost perfectly by Biden’s plummet. If he sticks around to win some delegates and keep up his momentum, his candidacy will be fodder for political scientists to study for generations.

The former NYC mayor said in January that he was willing to spend up to $1 billion of his $62 billion fortune to beat Trump. So far, according to Kantar/CMAG, which tracks political ad spending, Bloomberg has spent more than $400 million just on ads so far.

The DNC has changed its debate rules so that Bloomberg, who is not accepting donations, has a chance to appear onstage. As of late Sunday, it was uncertain whether he would make the cut for this week’s Nevada debate. At least one of his opponents would like to see him there. “I am also an advocate for him coming on the debate stage,” Amy Klobuchar said. “I know that I'm not going to be able to beat him on the airwaves, but I can beat him on the debate stage.” 

Can Barr Walk the Tightrope? 

Over at the site today, Jack Goldsmith has a good look back at some of the things Attorney General William Barr has done right over the first year of his tenure—and of the ways in which he has made the business of the Justice Department harder for both himself and his subordinates by failing to silo it off fully from the president’s partisan rhetoric and attempted interference: 

Barr acted within his authority to change the sentencing recommendation from a prescribed sentence to merely no formal recommendation at all, and the judge in the case, Amy Berman Jackson, has complete discretion to do whatever she wants. It may well be that Jackson will impose a sentence of less than seven to nine years; even the career prosecutors noted factors cutting against their recommendation. But the actions by Trump and Barr put her in an exceedingly awkward position that is hardly helpful to Stone. The main point is that the matter remains in the judge’s hands and the fair administration of justice will not be impacted. 

And yet Barr’s actions and non-actions since his confirmation as attorney general a year ago have increasingly contributed to the perception that the Justice Department is making politicized decisions.

...

[T]the attorney general of the United States—the person charged with ensuring that the department does its work (in Barr’s words) “with integrity”—should not be slinging partisan mud. And he especially should not be doing so when the president has for more than three years soiled the department with unprecedented attacks and interventions. Such rhetoric from the attorney general, especially in the Trump presidency, makes it impossible for at least half the country to have faith in any of Barr’s decisions, especially controversial ones related to investigations of the president’s friends or enemies.

Worth Your Time

  • Two smart analyses on Bloomberg’s candidacy from The New York Times: First, Ross Douthat argues Bloomberg profiles as a more dangerous version of Donald Trump. “Trump jokes about running for a third term; Bloomberg actually managed it, bulldozing through the necessary legal changes. Trump tries to bully the F.B.I. and undermine civil liberties; Bloomberg ran New York as a miniature surveillance state.”  Next, Charlie Warzel writes that Bloomberg is “hacking our attention,” employing Trumpian tactics to ensure—through good press or bad—his name remains top-of-mind. “What the Bloomberg campaign seems to have bought into is that, when you lean into the potent combination of content creation and shamelessness, any reaction it provokes is a good reaction. This strategy provides a certain amount of freedom to a candidate when you don’t care what people think of you—as long as they’re thinking of you.”

  • In The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf dives into the campus free speech wars, and reports on some disturbing findings. “Roughly 92 percent of conservatives said they would be friends with a liberal, and just 3 percent said that they would not have a liberal friend. Among liberals, however, almost a quarter said they would not have a conservative friend.”

  • Jack Goldsmith, who wrote a piece on William Barr for the site last week and the aforementioned piece today, published a touching obituary in Lawfare of his stepfather—Charles Lenton O’Brien—a former associate of Jimmy Hoffa who Goldsmith believes has been wrongly maligned as having a role in the death of the Teamsters Union leader. “Chuckie’s life was full of tragedy and disappointment. But he had an enormously big heart, and everyone who knew him loved him despite his foibles. He was funny, often hilarious; he was generous to a fault; he was a talker; and he was friendly with everyone. And despite setback after setback over the decades, and despite a great deal of anger, frustration and disappointment, he had an upbeat, even cheerful presence.” Goldsmith has written an an entire book laying out the often jaw-dropping details of the story of his life with Chuckie, called “In Hoffa’s Shadow.” It is very much “worth your time.” Our condolences to Jack.

Presented Without Comment

Something Fun

Santana is not dead, but if he were, this Pete Buttigieg “cover” of “Black Magic Woman” would have him spinning in his grave.

Toeing the Company Line

  • David’s Sunday French Press asks the question on many Christians’ minds right about now: How should they vote? David introduces his two-pronged test—which he deployed with Bill Clinton back in the ‘90s and he continues to judge Trump by today—and makes a case against the lesser-of-two-evils approach to voting. “One does not cure cultural moral cancer with more cancer,” he writes. “We preserve nothing. Instead, we hasten the decay.” Give the whole piece a read here

  • Jonah’s latest G-File unpacks “the mess the Democrats are in” and the perils of Bernie Sanders’ litany of “mass grassroots movements.” Check it out here

  • Declan’s latest Dispatch Fact Check took a look at the conspiracy floating around the internet (and Trump’s Twitter feed) that Sen. Mitt Romney’s impeachment vote was swayed by a former campaign aide’s seat on Burisma’s board of directors. There’s no evidence this is the case.

  • Jonah was joined by National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar on The Remnant podcast to engage in some rank punditry around the 2020 election. Download, rate, and subscribe here!

Let Us Know

In honor of the holiday, pass along your favorite tidbits of presidential trivia. We’re talking “Millard Fillmore married his teacher”-levels of obscurity. Our favorites will be featured in tomorrow’s TMD.

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

Photograph of Bernie Sanders by Alex Wong/Getty Images.