2020 Democrats Divided In Their Response To Iran Conflict President Trump's decision to kill a top Iranian general has split the Democratic field along familiar ideological lines.

It remains to be seen how much the issue will ultimately matter to primary voters, something that will depend in part on whether the conflict between the United States and Iran continues to escalate.

This episode: congressional correspondent Susan Davis, campaign correspondent Scott Detrow, and National Political Correspondent Don Gonyea.

Subscribe to the NPR Politics Podcast here.
Email the show at nprpolitics@npr.org.
Join the NPR Politics Podcast Facebook Group.
Subscribe to the NPR Politics Newsletter.
Find and support your local public radio station.
NPR logo

2020 Democrats Divided In Their Response To Iran Conflict

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/794336499/794342365" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
2020 Democrats Divided In Their Response To Iran Conflict

2020 Democrats Divided In Their Response To Iran Conflict

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/794336499/794342365" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

PETER: Hi. This is Peter from Pompton Lakes, N.J., and I just walked out of my last final of the semester at Ramapo College.

PETE: And this is also Pete. We're about to head out to lunch and celebrate Pete's last final and my last day as head custodian at Lennox Elementary School after 33 years of working for the school district. I guess you can call us two Petes on the pod.

PETER: This podcast was recorded at...


2:38 p.m. on Tuesday, January 7.

PETER: Things may have changed by the time you hear this.

PETER AND PETE: OK. Here's the show.


SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Do "Pete And Pete" references still fly?

DAVIS: I don't know, but it's a shame Domenico isn't on the pod today because that guy loves a pun.

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

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

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: And I'm Don Gonyea, national political correspondent.

DAVIS: Don, it is good to hear your voice in the podcast.

GONYEA: It's good to be here. Thank you.

DAVIS: So we're all in different locations today. I'm up in the Capitol, and you guys are out on the road. Tell us where you're at. Don, where are you?

GONYEA: I am in Des Moines. I should warn you, there's railroad tracks about 10 feet from my hotel room window, so we may get some sound effects.

DAVIS: As I always say, little-known fact - in January of a presidential election year, if you live in Iowa and say Don Gonyea's name three times, he appears.

GONYEA: If you click your heels out there, yes (laughter).

DETROW: And I am coming to you from NPR's New York bureau, where often, many celebrities are interviewed. So Sue, let me say something. If you play a clip of me back to me, I'm taking my headphones off, storming out, and the podcast is over. But I am in New York because Joe Biden gave a speech here today laying out his argument against Donald Trump's decision to strike Qassem Soleimani and making a broader argument about the Trump administration's foreign policy.

DAVIS: What's the argument that he's making?

DETROW: It's a couple different things, and it all ties back to what Biden's been saying all along on the campaign trail. And that's probably why he's the Democratic candidate most eager to keep talking about Iran. He's arguing that, first of all, the escalating tension and what could come next after this killing of a top member of Iran's administration really can all be tied back to Trump's decision to walk away from the nuclear deal, the hallmark of the Obama administration's foreign policy where Iran agreed to put off developing nuclear weapons. He also says that this comes back to a key theme that he always talks about - Donald Trump making erratic decisions, making irresponsible decisions and really running foreign policy by tweet.


JOE BIDEN: Mr. President, you have to explain your decision and your strategy to the American people. That's your job as president, Mr. President - not dear leader, not supreme leader. Democracy runs on accountability, and nowhere is it more important than the power to make war and bring peace.

DAVIS: Yeah. Biden is obviously not the only Democratic candidate trying to seize this moment. Don, you've been hearing from a lot of the other frontrunner candidates for the Democratic nomination. Sort of - what are they saying in contrast to what Trump did?

GONYEA: I was at a Bernie Sanders event over the weekend, and it's interesting. It was a health care event, and they did stay on topic for most of it, but the last question was about his reaction to the events in Iraq involving Iran. And Bernie Sanders started his answer with a little history. He went all the way back to 2003 and the Iraq War.


BERNIE SANDERS: And when I was in Congress, I not only voted against the war in Iraq; I helped lead the opposition to the war in Iraq.

GONYEA: So he's contrasting himself, obviously, to Joe Biden, who was a senator back then and did vote to authorize the war. Back - again, the vote was in 2002. Bernie Sanders stresses that war should be the very last resort, not the first resort. He then accuses President Trump of basically being an agitator instead of the kind of person who can bring nations together to try to find solutions to these problems in the region.

DETROW: Yeah, and that's the real flipside to Joe Biden, you know, just like Hillary Clinton did four years ago, running on, I'm the guy with the long track record of foreign policy - right? - because within that long track record, there's a lot of decisions that maybe didn't turn out the right way. There's that notable criticism from Robert Gates, who was the Republican who served as defense secretary for the first few years of the Obama administration, who once said that Joe Biden was wrong on every big foreign policy decision of his career. I think the Iraq War vote comes to mind in the wake of this strike. There was also people flagging some earlier speeches where Joe Biden said that in the situation room, he urged Barack Obama not to take out Osama bin Laden, not to go forward with that raid in Pakistan, which was, of course, a wildly successful Obama administration decision.

So, you know, a long career comes with pros and cons, but as a whole, Biden seems very comfortable to be running as the guy with a long track record in a field where there's not a deep foreign policy bench from a lot of the other Democratic candidates.

DAVIS: You know, in so many ways, Biden and Sanders have represented the ideological wings of the Democratic Party, and this seems like one more example of the stark contrast between the two of them and their philosophical worldviews.

DETROW: Yeah, and it's been interesting to me that both of them have been so eager to make that contrast, thinking that Democratic voters are going to side with them. You have Joe Biden, who wants to be careful but wants to be an interventionalist, right? He has been involved, you know - pushing for aggressive diplomacy, pushing for targeted military actions at times in Afghanistan and places like that. And you have Bernie Sanders, which had much more broad strokes. We need to disengage from the Middle East. What are we doing there ratcheting up tensions with Iran to begin with?

DAVIS: I also thought that Elizabeth Warren had sort of a provocative reaction to all of this in comments in which she suggested that President Trump may have done this to distract from the fact that an impeachment trial is about to begin in the Senate as sort of, you know, quote, unquote, "wag the dog" tactic in which a president makes the decision to redirect the conversation, which is a pretty provocative attack against a sitting president to suggest that would be his motivation.

GONYEA: Her messages are twofold with Trump. Yes, the timing - we've known about Soleimani for a long, long, long time, she says. Why wasn't this done a month ago? Why wasn't it done in a month? Why is it done right in the week when, potentially, a trial - an impeachment trial - is about to start in the Senate? Her other main point is that President Trump is just not a trustworthy source of any information on anything related to this, so she uses it to drive that home as well.

DETROW: And that's something I think you're hearing from a lot of the field. And just to round this out, Pete Buttigieg, the former South Bend mayor, has really kind of been mirroring - not mirroring, but saying things a lot similar to what we're hearing from Joe Biden and really also tying all of this back into the fact that he is a veteran who served in Afghanistan.


PETE BUTTIGIEG: And having known what it's like to be in the inside of one of those airplanes, you need to be able to trust that everybody up your chain of command has thought through what's ahead. And we're just not seeing a lot of indications of that.

DETROW: He's saying the Trump administration just hasn't give any indication at any point in time that there is a clear long-term strategy here.

DAVIS: Do we have any sense of whether this is an issue that these candidates are going to be able to sort of take some swings at each other at on the debate stage next week in Iowa?

GONYEA: I think we assume that they will. It will be perhaps a little more pointed than what we've seen over the past couple of days. You know, we see Senator Sanders again highlighting his positions in the past and how they're different from former Vice President Biden's. But I think there is plenty of room for it to get a bit more pointed on the debate stage.

DAVIS: OK. Well, let's take a quick break. And when we come back, we'll talk about how this issue's playing with voters.

And we're back. And this is something that I think is really interesting because foreign policy hasn't really been a central focus of the presidential race so far, neither in the Democratic primary or with the president, right? It's been about health care. It's been about so many other issues. And that might be changing as we - as voters actually begin to start casting some ballots.

GONYEA: It starts to feel a lot like the post-Iraq War campaigns of 2004 and 2008. Those two were all about the Iraq War and essentially became a referendum on the war. I remember Senator Barack Obama and Senator Hillary Clinton in 2007 in Iowa. I was probably in this exact same hotel back then. And they were just slugging it out over this issue. And again, Hillary Clinton had voted for the Iraq War authorization. Barack Obama was able to say that he had opposed the war from the beginning. He, of course, was not in Congress at the time so didn't have to cast a vote. So he got a pass on that one. But that divide between the two of them became the thing throughout the year.

DAVIS: Yeah. It's like foreign policy doesn't matter until it does, and then it matters a lot.

GONYEA: That's right.

DETROW: Though even then, I would say there's been three or four moments over the past year - and we should note the campaign is more than a year old at this point, you know, with less than a month to go in Iowa - where we thought, OK, maybe this is the time where foreign policy really takes center stage. And often, the issues have just faded back into the background, and it's become about health care and big-picture governing policies and the things we've been talking about so much. And I think, obviously, what will distinguish whether this fades or keeps going is what this possible retaliation that we keep hearing about looks like and if it does materialize.

DAVIS: Right. And if it doesn't, does the issue kind of fade from the memory?

GONYEA: And in 2008 and 2004, we did not have a candidate - an incumbent like President Trump who had the ability to just change the subject with something and suck up all of the oxygen. Now, he may have a harder time doing that with this particular issue, but we have to keep an eye on that, obviously.

DAVIS: It's also hard to say because we haven't seen any polling about how voters feel about president's decision to take out Soleimani. But also, it's possible this could benefit Trump, right? I mean, Americans also tend to like decisive, clear leadership from the president on matters of national security. What we don't know yet is if the public sees what he did as one of those moments.

GONYEA: And that will play out in the general election more. In the primaries, it does really feel like Democrats are of a certain mind on this. They're, at best, suspicious. In even more cases, they're getting very angry and worked up about it.

DETROW: I mean, I do think that there's a - you've already seen the Republican response to this Democratic criticism of saying, why are Democrats sad that this person who has directed hundreds and hundreds of bomb attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq - why are they sad that he's dead? - you know, just boiling it down to that bumper sticker-type issue.

But again, going back to what we were talking about the first part of this podcast, this does play into so many of the big themes Democrats have talked about - the way that President Trump makes decisions, the way that he's alienated allies across the world - that I think it is something that, especially for Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg, maybe, you continue to hear about worked into those messages they were already focusing on.

DAVIS: And it also serves to remind the country that we're still very much engaged in the Middle East, and we don't know yet if the country's going to think that's a good or bad thing.

GONYEA: Something that's been interesting to watch from here, from Iowa, is the learning curve that voters are going through on this, right? I mean, they're - they have plenty of anxiety about what this may mean. A lot of them have plenty of anger about what has happened and how the president carried this out. But a week ago, the average voter didn't know who General Soleimani was. They just didn't know that name.

So over the weekend, you know, I went to a Bernie Sanders event, and the topic didn't come up until the very last question. The next day, Sunday, an Elizabeth Warren event - the topic didn't come up at all. She finally commented on it in a scrum she did with reporters. By the time we got to Sunday night, a Biden event out in Davenport, I'm riding up the elevator with a bunch of people going to the rally. And everybody's kind of nervously standing there, quiet, like you do in a crowded elevator, until one elderly gentleman says aloud - a little dark humor - everybody ready to go to war?

You know, so you can feel it kind of creeping into their consciousness. And my guess is, you know, within another week, it will be one of the top-tier issues for people that they're ready to talk and ask about.

DAVIS: All right. That's a wrap for today. There's also been a little bit of news out of Capitol Hill, where Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says he has the votes to move forward on a resolution to begin the Senate impeachment trial, back on track to maybe have that wrapped up by the end of the month.

We'll be back tomorrow in your feeds. Until then, please send us your time stamps. If you've already sent us one in the past that we didn't use, please go ahead and send it again, or send a new one to nprpolitics@npr.org. As long as it wasn't for a specific date that's already passed, like your birthday or Christmas, we could probably use it again. We get a ton of emails, and we want to get to as many of your submissions as we possibly can.

I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.

DETROW: And if it was your birthday, happy birthday.

DAVIS: (Laughter).

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

GONYEA: And I'm Don Gonyea. I cover national politics.

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


Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.