Impeachment Trial Could Be A "Disaster" For Senators In 2020 Race All six U.S. Senators still running for president are backing the House's impeachment inquiry. But now that the lawmakers may be getting what they want, many political operatives see it as a train wreck for their presidential campaigns. This episode: Congressional correspondent Susan Davis, political correspondent Asma Khalid, and political correspondent Scott Detrow. Email the show at nprpolitics@npr.org. Find and support your local public radio station at npr.org/stations.
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Impeachment Trial Could Be A "Disaster" For Senators In 2020 Race

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Impeachment Trial Could Be A "Disaster" For Senators In 2020 Race

Impeachment Trial Could Be A "Disaster" For Senators In 2020 Race

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STEVEN CHAPPELL: This is Steven Chappell. I am a college journalism instructor, and I, along with more than 1,600 other college student journalists and their advisors, are attending the National College Media convention in Washington, D.C., where the inimitable Nina Totenberg is about to grace us with her wit, knowledge and wisdom.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: This podcast was recorded at...

SUSAN DAVIS, HOST:

3:15 p.m. on Monday, November 4.

CHAPPELL: Things may have changed by the time you hear this. Keep up with all of NPR's political coverage on npr.org, on the NPR One app and on your local public radio station. All right, here's the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

DAVIS: I can think of no better word for Nina Totenberg than inimitable.

Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: I'm Scott Detrow. I cover the campaign.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: And I'm Asma Khalid. I also cover the campaign.

DAVIS: Another Democrat has exited the presidential race.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BYE BYE BYE")

NSYNC: (Singing) Bye bye bye. Bye bye.

DAVIS: Former Texas Congressman Beto O'Rourke ended his campaign on Friday after we taped the podcast. And he did it in the most Beto way possible.

DETROW: Yeah, in a Medium post.

DAVIS: (Laughter).

DETROW: Where else? He wrote that, it is clear to me now that this campaign does not have the means to move forward successfully - which, Asma, is something that we were talking about. Much more blunt than other candidates who had been trying to do last-minute fundraisers and things like that - he just said, we don't have it anymore.

KHALID: To me, it's sort of this amazing story of a - his meteoric rise. I mean, we all remember when he first entered the campaign. He raised, like, $6 million the first day - and then how quickly his fortunes faded.

DAVIS: He was also the vanity - you know, cover of Vanity Fair. He had come out of the 2018 campaign. He lost his Senate campaign to Ted Cruz but had been sort of one of the rock star candidates of the cycle. The rising star tag was on him and...

DETROW: But he was like the Icarus of the race, right?

DAVIS: Yeah.

DETROW: He flew high, big dramatic efference (ph) and then just tumbles. That $6 million on the first day - the last two quarters, the three-month periods that we measure campaign fundraising in - in neither of them did he raise as much money over a three-month period as he raised that very first day in the race.

DAVIS: OK, so we should note, though, yesterday marked the one-year point from Election Day 2020. And normally, we would probably be consumed with these one-year-out reporting stories. But the one story that Washington can't stop talking about is impeachment because if the House impeaches President Trump by the end of the year, which we increasingly believe they will do, that means it would trigger a Senate trial almost immediately. And that is a big deal in 2020 because as, Scott, you reported very clearly, there are six candidates running for president who will also be jurors in the trial of President Trump.

DETROW: Yeah, and maybe it's worth just running through all the remaining senators in the race in that 17 person...

DAVIS: Please.

DETROW: ...Field. So you've got Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders at the top of the polls. You've also got Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar and Cory Booker, who have been spending a lot of time in Iowa specifically, feel like they have the ground organization they need to get back in the race. And then you have Michael Bennet. He hasn't been on the debate stage for a while, but he's still running for president. Now, all these people want to see impeachment happen. They've been calling for it for a while. But they're about to get what they want most likely, and that is going to be a huge problem because an impeachment trial could last weeks. It could be six days a week, according to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. And if you are a U.S. senator, you are a juror in the impeachment trial. Your presence is mandatory. And that means you cannot campaign. You cannot go to Iowa in maybe the weeks leading up to the race, which is just a crazy notion that's clearly never happened before. So I made a lot of phone calls to strategists who ran campaigns that won Iowa in the past. And this is what Jason Johnson, who was Ted Cruz's chief strategist in 2016, said about all this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JASON JOHNSON: It would be a disaster, frankly, if we were facing that.

DAVIS: How does he really think? (Laughter).

DETROW: I mean, and David Axelrod, who helped run Barack Obama's 2008 campaign, which won Iowa, said something pretty similar. He said this a worst-case scenario. I mean, to not have your candidate in a state, especially a state like Iowa - the one thing I keep thinking about is that Kamala Harris got a ton of grief from canceling a campaign event early this spring in Iowa. And it was one of the reasons that she felt like she had to kind of scramble back and prove to Iowa that she cared about it. She canceled those campaign events to vote for disaster relief funding for Iowa...

DAVIS: (Laughter).

DETROW: ...And still got trouble. So I mean, that is the level to which Iowa caucus goers expect you to be there. And suddenly, these candidates aren't going to be there.

KHALID: I will say at this point, you know, I just was in Iowa for a whole bunch of days, and I don't think I heard a single voter one time bring up impeachment of their own accord. And I'm not saying that it doesn't matter. I will just say that there are a whole other bunch of issues that voters are really concerned about right now. And impeachment, for them, is maybe not necessarily, like, at the top of the list of priorities. And that's certainly something that we might hear from some of the other candidates who are on the ground a bunch - say, like, Pete Buttigieg, who has been having kind of a moment in Iowa. And I think for a candidate like both Pete but also Joe Biden, it gives them the opportunity to just be fresh and face it. They're the ones who are going to be front and center constantly. And you think about it also - like, all of the local newspapers, all of the local press in Iowa, they're going to be covering who's out there retailing - retail campaigning. And if it's not Elizabeth Warren, I would argue it's just less press coverage for her over someone like a Pete Buttigieg or a Joe Biden.

DAVIS: So how are the candidates - do you guys get any sense that they're starting to sort of strategize on what they're going to do here or how they're going to handle this?

DETROW: There's not a clear answer. And I talked to a lot of campaigns, and I think the best that they can come up with is - obviously, you'll have your volunteers, your staff on the ground still organizing. A lot of these campaigns will be running ads starting soon. We're already seeing, you know, Sanders and Buttigieg running ads and Biden running ads as well. But there's no substitute for the candidate being there. And I think what you're just going to see is being there as much as possible between now and when a Senate trial would actually start, which is, of course, an unknown date. And to that point of Buttigieg and maybe Biden having an advantage, several of the campaign staff that I talked to for senators said, well, look. This will be the top story in the country, in the world. They're going to be in the center of things. And even if they can't speak during the trial, they can go and talk to reporters in the Capitol and be on cable news, weighing in each night. And I think that's the case. But like Asma said, they're going to be talking about impeachment. They're not going to be talking about health care. They're not going to be talking about how they're going to rebuild the economy, climate change - the host of issues that people are actually going to be deciding on in Iowa and other early states.

DAVIS: All right, let's leave it there. We're going to take a quick break. And when we get back, we're going to talk about how the Democratic primary fight is getting a little intense.

And we're back. And on Friday, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren outlined her plan to pay for Medicare for All. On Friday's episode, we went super deep on the policy, so you can check it out there. But over the weekend in Iowa, we saw the politics of Medicare for All play out in the Democratic primary starting on Friday night in Iowa at the Liberty and Justice Dinner, one of the big, major, must-attend events for the candidates.

Asma, you were there. What was it like?

KHALID: So, Sue, this is this huge Democratic event. To my understanding, it was the biggest event to date that the Democratic Party in Iowa has had, the biggest one we're going to see leading up to the caucuses. And it was really a chance for the candidates to show off their organizational muscle, and so we really saw big presences from both South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and also Elizabeth Warren.

And what was interesting is, you know, a lot of the candidates were very polite on stage, so nobody, like, really had any name-calling. Nobody called out a specific candidate, but there were these really clear indirect jabs that candidates made. And I would say, you know, one of the moments that this was very clear to me was when we heard Joe Biden talk about health care. You know, Elizabeth Warren had put out her Medicare for All pay-for plan earlier that day. He didn't name her once, but he made it very clear who he was referring to when he talked about health care.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOE BIDEN: Folks, there will be no increase in taxes for the middle class - none, none, none.

DAVIS: Medicare for All - Scott, I mean, it seems like that is the main dividing line politically in the Democratic field right now, where you have Warren and Bernie Sanders on one end of this Medicare for All proposal and Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg on the, essentially, let's just improve Obamacare argument.

DETROW: Yeah, and it's something we've talked about for a year on this podcast, that they've talked about in debate after debate. And I think that's for two big reasons. First of all, it's the issue that voters care about the most, right? And that's one big reason, but secondly, it's become this proxy for how you would govern. What kind of president would you be? Would you blow up the system and rebuild the system a way that you want to see? Would you work within the constraints of what exists already to try to make it better?

And even though a public option would be an unprecedented, huge thing that's never happened before, that's still the working within the system model, and that's where Pete Buttigieg is. That's where Joe Biden is. Then you've got Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren saying, no. Nobody likes health care. It's bad for everybody. It's too expensive. We need to just start over again.

DAVIS: And Warren - at the dinner, she didn't, again, name Biden or Buttigieg explicitly, but she also seemed to come out with, like, really sharp elbows, attacking people who say that her plans aren't realistic.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ELIZABETH WARREN: I'm not running some consultant-driven campaign with some vague ideas that are designed not to offend anyone. I'm running a campaign based on a lifetime of fighting for working families.

DAVIS: I mean, that consultant-driven campaign line - that's a clear shot at Buttigieg, isn't it?

KHALID: Yeah, I would say so. I mean, and I've covered Elizabeth Warren quite a bit this campaign season. I don't recall her sort of venturing in so clearly, I would say, with even indirect jabs, as we heard at this dinner. So that was kind of an unusual move, but yeah. I think anyone who kind of is in the know in Democratic politics knew clearly who she was referring to, and I would say it was Pete Buttigieg.

DAVIS: Let's size up the state of the race right now. I mean, based off of these vibes, it does feel like the sense in the primary is that Warren and Buttigieg are the ones that are enjoying all of the rising energy in Iowa.

DETROW: The rising energy, for sure. Bernie Sanders continues to be in the mix, continues to be the No. 2 candidate in almost every poll. But the question all along is that Elizabeth Warren has seen growth and growth and growth in her numbers. Bernie Sanders has been very consistent - higher than almost every other candidate - but hasn't seen that growth into the 30%-type range where Warren is right now, along with Biden.

DAVIS: You bring up Bernie Sanders, and that brings up another moment on the campaign trail this weekend that really stood out to me. And it was a Bernie Sanders rally in Minnesota, and the crowd there started yelling a very familiar chant.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Lock him up. Lock him up.

DAVIS: If you can't hear it clearly, it was the crowd chanting, lock him up. We should note that Sanders did not encourage the crowd to say this. He did not participate in it. He didn't shut it down, either. This also happened, Scott, at the World Series Game 5 where President Trump showed up and the crowd sort of spontaneously started shouting, lock him up.

DETROW: He was - yeah, I was there. There were a lot more boos in the stadium. The boos were near-universal at Nationals Park. The lock him up came in pockets. But, you know, this is an ongoing - maybe less at the World Series and more at Bernie Sanders-type rallies and other candidates' rallies. I've been - I've seen lock him up-type chants pop up a few different times in various Democratic settings. They're quickly shushed. They're quickly quieted down.

But it gets to a real tension that you see in the current political world where Donald Trump has really gone way outside the norms, viciously attacks opponents, viciously questions all sorts of things about him in a way that you never saw mainstream candidates do before. And there's an ongoing question about how Democrats will respond to that next year. Do you take the high road, or do you fight back in this - on the same terms that Trump uses?

You know, I was at an Elizabeth Warren event last week in New Hampshire, and a woman pointedly asked her during the Q&A period, what are you going to do when he calls you Pocahontas? Are you going to fight back, or are you going to take it? And I talked to this woman afterwards, and she was really dissatisfied with Warren's answer, which boiled down to, I'm going to take the high road. She said, look. Hillary Clinton took the high road. It didn't work for Democrats.

So I think this is a question that campaigns will have of - how do you respond to chants like that? And the Democratic rank and file will have of - you know, how do we want to sound? How do we want to act?

DAVIS: Well, it is, to me, like, such about the effect on our politics that Trump has had because when he used lock her up as the chant or it became the chain of his campaign rally, it was at the convention in 2016. Democrats really condemned it, I mean, from voters to party leaders. They said it was wrong. It was inappropriate to talk that way at campaign rallies. He should have done more to shut it down. And I do think you see now that the Democratic primary fight is sort of also distinguished by, like, a really angry electorate.

All right. We're going to leave it there, but before we go, we want to let you know today the House Intelligence Committee began to release the transcripts from the closed-door depositions in the ongoing impeachment inquiry. They started today with two former State Department officials, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch and Michael McKinley, who advised Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. More transcripts are going to be coming out this week, and we're going to break them all down for you very soon on the podcast. Until then, you can read the transcripts for yourself at npr.org and find our most up-to-date coverage on your local station.

I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.

DETROW: I'm Scott Detrow. I cover the campaign.

KHALID: And I'm Asma Khalid. I also cover the campaign.

DAVIS: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

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