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In this edition: The closing arguments in Iowa, an abortion rights campaign in Florida, and a talk w͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌ 
 
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January 5, 2024
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Americana

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David Weigel

Conservatism, ‘Chaos,’ and E. Jean Carroll: The GOP field makes its closing pitch in Iowa

Republican presidential candidate Florida Governor Ron DeSantis listens to a question from an audience member during a campaign event in Waukee, Iowa, U.S., January 3, 2024.
REUTERS/Cheney Orr

THE SCENE

Harvard’s president had resigned, and Ron DeSantis knew just what to do next. At a Wednesday morning stop outside Des Moines, he spent 60 seconds describing how a president could pressure accrediting agencies, unelected and obscure, to make colleges unwind diversity and inclusion programs.

“You will not get accredited if you’re doing discriminatory policies,” DeSantis said in Waukee. “You know, Trump was president for four years. Did he do anything to challenge the orthodoxies at these universities? Did he do anything to push back and reform? No.”

It was a new addition to DeSantis’s big theme, succeeding where Trump had failed. Finishing a border wall, smashing drug cartels, winning by a landslide — he had thought this through, and he would “get it done.” But before DeSantis left, one voter asked for clarification: What was he saying about “predators?”

“Accreditors, accreditors,” DeSantis said. “Ideological predators maybe, with the leftism — but, no. Accreditation.”

In the final days before the Jan. 15 caucuses, Donald Trump’s competitors in Iowa have honed their closing messages. For DeSantis, it’s that Trump is promising conservative wins that he failed to deliver as president — and might not know how to implement now. For Nikki Haley, it’s that “chaos follows” Trump, and she polls far better than him against Joe Biden. For Vivek Ramaswamy, it’s that the greatest president of his lifetime started an America First revolution that a newer, younger candidate can build on.

DeSantis has looked to raise doubts about Trump’s commitment to the conservative cause. He outright told a CNN town hall audience on Thursday that Trump was “not pro-life,” arguing the former president’s criticism of Florida’s strict six-week abortion ban showed a second Trump term would be less dependable on the issue than his first. He’s hit out at Haley for taking money from Democrats, and for a joke she told in New Hampshire, where she’s polling more competitively: “You know Iowa starts it. You know that you correct it.”

Trump’s closer is more succinct: He is beset by lawsuits and enemies because he’s going to win. As his rivals barnstormed Iowa this week, the former president posted more than 40 Truth Social items denouncing the “fraudulent” civil suit brought by E. Jean Carroll and making lurid personal attacks against her. A jury previously found Trump defamed Carroll and was liable for sexually abusing her; the upcoming trial concerns how much he should pay in damages in a related case.

DeSantis and Haley, battling for second place, have both tried daily to move on from Trump’s personal problems. They’ve consumed news cycles and attention that both would rather redirect to their agendas, and their narrow differences with the former president.

It has not been easy. At the CNN town hall on Thursday night, after Haley repeated a stock line about Trump’s headline-grabbing scandals — “chaos follows him” — moderator Erin Burnett whether he was causing the chaos, or was merely a “victim” of it. It’s a question all the candidates have struggled with because of its broader implications: If Trump is the innocent target of a vast conspiracy to abuse the legal system in order to stop him — his version of events — then it’s a lot harder to tell Republican voters they shouldn’t rally behind him in response.

“I mean, you see a lot of these cases they brought against him are political in nature,” said Haley. “And there’s no basis on it, and then you see some that he’s gonna have to answer for.”

She moved on to the contrasts she wanted in her closing message, that Trump had added $8 trillion to the national debt and that he was too friendly with dictators.

DAVID’S VIEW

DeSantis’s exchange in Waukee stood out to me because he’d been trying to do this sort of thing for nine months, contrasting his thought-out, detailed plans with Trump’s failure to execute.

The Harvard imbroglio was a perfect hook for him. Not only had he gotten rid of lifetime tenure in Florida, and sued the Biden administration to weaken accrediting agencies — Chris Rufo, the conservative hero of the Harvard story, was one of the conservatives he’d put in charge of transforming Florida’s New College.

“Trump did fight, and I give him credit for that,” DeSantis said later in the event. “But he didn’t win enough.”

There are three basic critiques of Trump from each candidate here — that Trump failed to deliver (DeSantis), that Trump made a few gigantic errors (Haley), and that Trump created a blueprint for someone younger, with “fresh legs,” to execute (Ramaswamy.)

None of them talk about Trump as much as Chris Christie. He isn’t seriously competing in Iowa; his New Hampshire town halls sometimes start with commentary on fresh Trump posts and gaffes, made while the former New Jersey governor was en route.

For everyone else, the Trump issue is something to bring up as a contrast, then move on from quickly. And in Iowa, Haley is the only candidate not running consistently to Trump’s right, and the only one breaking with him on support for funding Ukraine’s defense against Russia. Her audiences sometimes gasp when she talks about Vladimir Putin raising the country’s draft age to 65. DeSantis may be the first candidate to tell them about college accreditation and why conservatives should care about it; Haley is often the first to get into detail about the current phase of the war.

Trump, returning this weekend to start closing out his Iowa campaign, doesn’t need new hooks. His pitch is a combination of nostalgia for the four years before Joe Biden’s presidency, condemnation of the negative stories that the media runs about him, and frequent invocation of his indictments and legal problems.

“They’re willing to violate the US constitution at levels never seen before in order to win this election,” Trump said in a pre-Christmas trip to Waterloo, his last swing through Iowa. “They’re weaponizing law enforcement for high level election interference because we’re beating them so badly in the polls.”

NOTABLE

  • In the Washington Post, Caroline Kitchener, Josh Dawsey and Hannah Knowles talk to anti-abortion leaders who’ve given up demanding specific promises from Trump, because they trust him to deliver and appoint the right personnel.
  • In the Des Moines Register, Virginia Barreda looks at how the straggling candidates are closing things out: “Asa Hutchinson says he plans to ‘beat’ expectations and wants to outperform Vivek Ramaswamy.”
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State of Play

Florida. Abortion rights supporters in Florida were confident that they’d put an amendment on the 2024 ballot, after securing more than the 891,876 signatures they’d need by the start of next month. On Friday morning, Floridians Protecting Freedom announced that they’d surpassed the threshold for a measure that would protect abortion rights before the 24th week of pregnancy, and wipe out the six-week ban signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis next year. Their next hurdle: Attorney Gen. Ashley Moody, who has asked the state’s conservative supreme court to keep the measure off the ballot over how it defines terms like “healthcare.”

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Ads
Medium Buying/X

Nikki Haley for President, “Amazing Opportunity.” New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu endorsed Haley on Dec. 12, instantly becoming her top surrogate — omnipresent in his own state, flying into Iowa to help her there. He makes her basic pitch in his own words, with one quick mention of her fiscal responsibility, then a focus on her electability, and finally Haley as part of a “new generation of conservative leadership who can help leave behind the chaos and the drama of the past.”

Donald J. Trump for President 2024, “Strength.” This is the first ad from the official Trump campaign that goes after Haley, part of a growing buy in New Hampshire markets. (MAGA Inc, the pro-Trump super PAC, hit Haley over a never-passed South Carolina gas tax last month.) The focus is immigration — a 2015 interview in which Haley criticized Trump’s border wall promise, and Haley’s initial, negative reaction to Trump’s Muslim travel ban.

DCCC, “Handpicked.” The first TV spot in the race to replace George Santos comes from national Democrats, who don’t mention Santos at all. It applies the committees’ favorite, focus-grouped label, “MAGA Republicans,” calling GOP nominee Mazi Pilip their “handpicked” nominee who’d vote for a Republican budget, withs cuts to Social Security, “law enforcement jobs,” and veteran benefits.

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Polls

There are two sorts of presidential candidates right now: Those who are universally known and mostly disliked, and those who are not as well known but mostly disliked. YouGov’s numbers depart from a run of polls that showed Haley running much better against Biden than Trump or DeSantis, largely because two in five independents don’t know who she is. She polls better with Democrats than either other GOP candidate, but polls worse with independents. The X-factor: What those independents and Republicans might think if she defies expectations and gets a one-on-one race with Trump.

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2024

White House. Andy Levin isn’t running for president. The former Michigan congressman, who lost a 2022 primary after pro-Israel groups spent millions to beat him, told Semafor this week that he’d gotten calls, “some from people I only sort of knew or didn’t really know,” urging him to heed a writer for the left-wing magazine In These Times and challenge President Biden.

“They’re worried about young people,” Levin, 63, said of the callers. “They’re worried about Arab American and Muslim voters. People see a fracturing of the whole progressive, Democratic world over Gaza, like what happened over Vietnam 50 years ago.”

The Dec. 21 magazine column, by Gabriel Winant, warned that Biden had closed off his path to re-election by supporting Israel’s war in Gaza with few conditions. That had driven down his numbers with young voters and inspired an “Abandon Biden” campaign, organized by Muslim Democrats — whose support for Biden, according to polls last month, had cratered. Winant urged Levin to start “campaigning against AIPAC and for the renewal of democracy in this country,” but the Michigan Democrat wouldn’t do it, and hoped that the administration could be moved by other means.

“We need to get out of the business of dictating outcomes,” said Levin. “There is no military solution to this problem. The only solution is for Israelis and Palestinians to learn to live together on that land.”

House. Missouri Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer announced his retirement on Thursday, becoming the 17th Republican to exit the House, and the 12th to leave politics entirely. Donald Trump carried his 3rd Congressional District, which connects the exurbs of St. Louis to the state capital in Jefferson City, by 26 points, and Democrats haven’t seriously contested it since it was re-drawn in 2012 to replace a swing seat.

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Q&A
Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa., speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill on Thursday, Sept 07, 2023, in Washington, DC.
Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

One year ago, Pennsylvania Sen. John Fetterman was getting sworn into office, battling the depression that he would soon enter treatment for, and being castigated by conservatives as a left-wing radical. He’s entering the presidential election year in a very different place: Condemned by left-leaning Democrats, including some who worked to elect him, for supporting Israel’s war in Gaza without conditions and drawing strange new respect from conservatives for his stances on Israel, immigration, and corruption. Fetterman talked with Americana last week about what’s going to happen in his swing state this year, and whether he’s really changed since 2016, when he caught progressives’ attention as an active, unexpected supporter of Bernie Sanders.

Americana: How do you see 2024 playing out in Pennsylvania?

John Fetterman: It’s going to be competitive, assuming that Trump is the nominee. Back in 2016, I was one of the rare Democrats that was warning, hey, we’re in trouble. Now, with Dave McCormick — the guy from Connecticut — I believe Bob Casey’s going to be in good shape. Maybe McCormick has billionaire friends that are going to dump money into his super PAC to carpet-bomb Casey, but that won’t work. He’s Mr. Pennsylvania. He’s not the kind of Democrat that makes Republicans angry, and McCormick isn’t the kind of guy who makes people say: Boy, I can’t wait to get a sign of his in my yard!

Americana: Let’s turn to Israel. What was your reaction to the open letter from former campaign staffers urging you to support a ceasefire? “You can’t be a champion of forgotten communities if you cheerlead this war.”

John Fetterman: Let’s just put that in perspective. That’s a small number of staff compared to the size of the campaign. And I really don’t put any value on an opinion that people won’t attach their names to. It doesn’t mean anything.

Americana: What’s the root of your own support for Israel? In 2022, you told Jewish Insider you’d “lean in” and support it, and you always had.

John Fetterman: It’s the same for anyone who is aware of the history there. What happened on Oct. 7 — that was a true black swan kind of situation. Torturing, raping, mutilating women and girls, and recording all of this. Where does that come from? It’s not about proportionality. They shot their best shot that day, and they would have killed more if they had the ability to do that. I don’t imagine how you could expect anybody to negotiate with an organization that has done that. If you believe in peace, and in a two-state solution, you have to destroy Hamas, and you have to support Israel.

Americana: You also said at the time you were passionately opposed to BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) — this is before Oct. 7. Why?

John Fetterman: Because Israel is really a beacon of the kind of values, the American values and progressive ideals, that you want to see. In that region, it’s our strongest ally, and we have a very special kind of relationship. I don’t understand how anybody could vote against the Iron Dome, or want to harm Israeli businesses or the nation or anything. I’ll never understand that. Calling them “colonizers” — like, where does this come from? It must be TikTok or some kind of obscure classroom talk. As an alum of Harvard — look, I graduated 25 years ago, and of course it was always a little pinko. But now, I don’t recognize it.

Americana: A lot of the questions about your views here start with supporting Sanders in 2016, and saying your Senate bid was a “progressive movement.”

John Fetterman: Back in 2015 and 2016, there were things Bernie was working on that were considered kind of extreme. Like we should have a $15 an hour minimum wage, health care is a basic, fundamental human right, marijuana should be legal. But that whole label has just been hijacked to such a weird, extreme place.

The thing is, though — I was surprised that when I said I wasn’t a progressive, that it made news. I’ve been saying that for years. Even before the [2022] primary, I did an interview where I said that. Those earlier progressive kinds of beliefs have now become political boilerplate. What really is a progressive now? With respect to Israel, that’s just not something that I identify as anymore.

Americana: You’d also said you might be the “last man standing here on supporting Israel without conditions.” Do you expect more Democrats to turn against the war and call for a ceasefire?

John Fetterman: More and more of my colleagues are calling for it. It’s so strange. Why aren’t you calling for Hamas to surrender? If Hamas surrendered, and turned over their guns, all the killing and all the misery would.

Americana: So, not tightening conditions to change policy, or to put pressure on Netanyahu.

John Fetterman: I could never support any leader of Israel that doesn’t support a two-state solution, of course. But in the middle of this war right now, I don’t have conditions on the aid, and I don’t expect that is going to change.

Americana: You said that it’s not “xenophobic” to want a secure border. How does your own family’s experience with immigration — with Gisele coming to America as a migrant, only later getting citizenship — shape your thinking here?

John Fetterman: I have a bright red line. My wife was a dreamer. Of course I would never vote to allow them to be put into harm’s way. Can’t we have a secure border, and deal with dreamers, and make them all legitimate and stop punishing immigrants that were brought here as children? On enforcement, I’m not saying let’s start rounding everybody up and do a gigantic, massive deportation. I’m saying, can we have a comprehensive solution for a secure border, and can we also finally address immigration? It’s just hard to have a conversation or negotiation if you start throwing around the term “xenophobic.”

Americana: You told Politico that you took Twitter off your phone. When?

John Fetterman: I kind of did a postmortem in November. I knew it was never going to be a productive pursuit, and certainly not going to support my mental health, wading through that sewer. I’m still behind all my tweets, but I don’t actually have the ability on my phone to create them. I don’t want or need that in my life. I can send you the screenshot, if you’d like, where someone told me “I’m rooting for the next blood clot.”

It was like: Hey, the far right and far left are able to come together on Twitter! They’re both wishing that I die! What have I ever said or done where somebody would want a father of three young children to die?

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Next
  • 10 days until the Iowa Republican caucuses
  • 18 days until the New Hampshire primary
  • 29 days until the South Carolina Democratic primary
  • 39 days until the special election to replace George Santos
  • 52 days until the South Carolina Republican primary
  • 304 days until the 2024 presidential election
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