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In this edition, Tim Scott’s tour through Iowa, Mike Pence’s crusade to privatize Social Security, a͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌ 
 
sunny Washington
thunderstorms Taipei
cloudy Des Moines
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February 23, 2023
semafor

Principals

Principals
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Steve Clemons
Steve Clemons

Senator Tim Scott, R-S.C. visited Des Moines to talk up his family’s “cotton to Congress” story, claiming his own success after centuries of discrimination proves that racism isn’t the main driving factor in people’s lives any more. Shelby Talcott has more from Iowa, where Scott isn’t the only politician using their biography to take on “woke” Democrats.

Also in 2024 news, Mike Pence is going there. Joseph Zeballos-Roig shares how the former VP is unambiguously demanding that Social Security and Medicare be on the table for long-term budget cuts, distancing himself even further from former President Trump, who says don’t touch them.

As Morgan Chalfant reports, plenty of Republicans and Democrats in Congress are going to Taiwan this month. For a year now, China has not violated America’s demands not to backstop Russia’s war machine in Ukraine with technology, supplies and services, even after Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan last summer. But there are concerns that could change, and the Congressional trips to Taiwan may be among the factors driving China and Russia to become stronger geostrategic partners.

PLUS: Jordan Weissmann has One Good Text with the Atlantic Council’s Ben Judah on Russia’s suspension of the New START Treaty.

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Priorities

White House: Biden told ABC News in an interview from Warsaw that Russia’s decision to suspend its participation in the New START nuclear arms treaty with the U.S. was irresponsible and a “big mistake,” but he cautioned that the U.S. has not detected any change in Russia’s nuclear posture.

Chuck Schumer: In a letter to Senate colleagues, the majority leader accused Kevin McCarthy of “needlessly exposing the Capitol complex to one of the worst security risks since 9/11” by deciding to release footage of the Capitol on Jan. 6 to Tucker Carlson.

Mitch McConnell: The minority leader continued his trip abroad in Israel, where he met with President Isaac Herzog.

Kevin McCarthy: Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C., one of the more moderate members of the caucus, suggested everyone should be able to review the Jan. 6 footage that the Speaker delivered to Carlson. “Not sure why both sides of the aisle wouldn’t want every minute of the J6 video footage unfiltered, not redacted, for all to access,” Mace tweeted, adding that “sunlight is the best medicine.”

Hakeem Jeffries: House Majority PAC, congressional Democrats’ main super PAC, plans to spend $45 million this cycle in New York to flip six Republican-held seats where voters backed Biden in 2020.

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Need to Know
Donald Trump in East Palestine, Ohio.
REUTERS/Alan Freed

The political brawl over the toxic train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio continued Wednesday, as Donald Trump paid a visit to the town. While there, he accused the Biden administration of “indifference and betrayal” in its response to the accident. The White House responded by slamming Trump for using the town’s residents as “props” and pointing out that, as president, he rolled back rail safety regulations that would have required some hazardous trains to use more modern brakes. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who has faced criticism from the GOP for not speaking up publicly about the accident more quickly, will visit East Palestine on Thursday.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont. said he’s definitely running for reelection — a relief to Democrats, since it’s unclear whether anyone other than the expletive-loving, seven-fingered farmer could hold his seat for the party.

Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump were subpoenaed by the Justice Department special counsel to testify before a grand jury about the former president’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election results, according to the New York Times, the latest sign of Jack Smith ramping up his work. Trump may try to prevent them from testifying by invoking executive privilege.

After getting an earful from Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Munich, China’s top diplomat Wang Yi received a much warmer welcome in Moscow, where he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The two pledged to strengthen ties between their two countries. The U.S. continues to warn China against providing weapons to Russia, and Biden administration officials are considering releasing the intelligence that led them to conclude Beijing is considering doing so, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The share of U.S. adults who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender held steady at 7.2% last year, after showing notable increases in prior years, according to new data from our partners at Gallup. When Gallup first measured this in 2012, the share of American adults identifying as LGBT was less than half the size it is now.

Morgan Chalfant and Jordan Weissmann

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Beltway Newsletters

Punchbowl News: House Judiciary Committee Republicans are holding a hearing at the southern border today without Democrats, who say they received short notice and plan to take their own border trip in March.

Playbook: Emily Kohr might have caused problems for the Fulton County district attorney, after she went on a brief but intense media tour following months as the foreperson on the special grand jury convened to investigate former President Trump and his allies’ efforts to overturn the 2020 results in Georgia.

The Early 202: Some Democrats worry that the political fight over East Palestine is indicative of the Democratic Party’s broader problem with white working-class voters in the midwest. “The feedback we’re hearing from the community, people in the community, is that nobody cared,” former Ohio Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan told the Washington Post.

Axios: Sen. J.D. Vance, R-Ohio told Axios that he felt kinship with the people of East Palestine, who he said “are the people who are going to be forgotten by the media unless certain voices make sure that their interests are at the forefront.”

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Shelby Talcott

Tim Scott says he’s the perfect Republican to defeat the race-obsessed left. He has competition.

Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C.
REUTERS/Allison Joyce

THE NEWS

DES MOINES, IA – On Wednesday afternoon, a few dozen students at Drake University braved near-freezing temperatures to come out and hear Sen. Tim Scott’s, R-S.C. talk about how America’s boundless promise enabled his success as a Black American — despite the liberals who call him “Uncle Tim” for saying so.

“This is personal,” Scott said. “These people who call themselves progressive are attacking every rung of the ladder that helped me climb. I was the teenager whose spirit would have been crushed by a culture obsessed with identity politics and racial strife.”

That same evening, Scott spoke to a packed room at the Republican Party of Polk County’s Lincoln Dinner, receiving a polite standing ovation after giving another speech that also focused heavily on anti-wokeness.

“If you wanted to see the blueprint for ruining America, you’d have to make sure that in K-12 you have more indoctrination than education,” Scott said. “ If you want to ruin America, you’d have to make sure the kids spend more time on CRT than they do ABC.”

SHELBY’S VIEW

Race is at the center of Scott’s pitch, and he leaned heavily into his story of coming from a poor Black family that successfully went “from cotton to Congress.”

It’s this success — America’s collective ability to move past discrimination, and Americans’ individual ability to overcome adversity — that the country should celebrate, Scott argues, rather than wallowing in pessimistic talk of systemic racism.

“I am living proof that our Founders were geniuses we should celebrate, not cancel … that we are, indeed, a land of opportunity, not a land of oppression,” he said in his afternoon speech.

But in this cycle, that’s not necessarily going to make Scott — who is largely viewed to be considering a presidential run — stand out should he decide to jump into the race, even in his own home state. Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who was also in Iowa the day before, is running on her biography as a “brown girl growing up in a black-and-white world” whose rise from a humble immigrant family proves “America is not a racist country.” And entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, who entered the race on Tuesday, is running on his recent “anti-woke” activism, which emphasizes patriotism and rugged individualism over claims of victimhood.

Scott has some unique assets, though. His rhetoric puts a strong emphasis on faith and optimism and he has a record he’s proud of that he sees connecting to these themes, especially tax cuts for “opportunity zones” to draw businesses to underdeveloped areas. And while he’s occasionally criticized Donald Trump for straying into bigotry (as well as Joe Biden), he’s largely avoided antagonizing either side in the GOP’s ongoing civil war over how to handle the former president.

Instead he’s stuck to leading by example with years of positive un-Trumpy speeches in front of conservative audiences, where they have often been well-received. His latest remarks were similar, albeit with an especially high number of barbs pointed at the left.

Ryan Frederick, a 20-year old Republican studying politics and secondary education at Drake University, told Semafor Scott’s “positive” message that stressed “we’re not going to start hating our enemies” stood out to him in the 2024 field.

“I think that right now, the Republican Party’s at kind of a fork in the road, with Trump and DeSantis pushing in one way, where they’re really welcoming in a lot of white supremacists, and a lot of really divisive speech,” he said. “And I think that Sen. Scott takes it in a very different direction, where he’s willing to push back against some of those things.”

All of the potential voters I spoke with throughout the day rejected the idea that they’d vote for Scott — or any minority candidate, for that matter — based primarily on their skin color or ethnic background.

At the same time, they loved to hear him pushing back on “woke” rhetoric. 41-year-old Nathaniel Gavronsky, who described Scott as his “second favorite person in the entirety of the U.S. government” (behind Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst), told me that fellow Americans shouldn’t “tell people that because of the way they look or where they’re from that they have no chance of success.”

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2024

Mike Pence grabs the third rail with both hands

Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

The Republican conflict around entitlement programs is heating up — and former Vice President Mike Pence might be on a collision course with his old boss.

Pence has been talking about offering younger Americans private savings accounts financed with payroll taxes within Social Security, though not adjusting benefits for those within 20 or 25 years of retirement age.

“It’s an idea I believe whose time will come,” Pence said in a CNBC interview on Wednesday where he pitched overhauling the program.

Pence’s enthusiastic embrace of major changes to Social Security comes just as former president Donald Trump is making opposition to entitlement cuts central to his campaign. In recent weeks, Trump has come out swinging against his conservative rivals Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley for previously endorsing changes to Social Security and Medicare to rein in the national debt.

Pence’s view might be a hard sell to Republican lawmakers, who largely avoided talk of Social Security privatization even at the peak of the tea party era. Many fear getting burned after President George W. Bush failed to enact a similar plan for “private accounts” in 2005 that went over poorly with voters.

“I think that there’s a class of Republicans that’s a little older than I am that is obsessed with the idea of privatizing Social Security,” Sen. J.D. Vance, R-Ohio, who has endorsed Trump, told Semafor last week. “It’s a terrible idea, and I think it suggests more about Mike Pence’s political wisdom that he’s floating it in 2023 than it says about the American people’s appetite to reform Social Security.”

There’s skepticism outside the MAGA wing as well. Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La. is leading a bipartisan gang exploring ways to revamp Social Security, including a sovereign wealth fund to help finance future retirement benefits. But he told Semafor last week that swapping out benefits for personal investment accounts should not be on the table.

“I think that the previous proposals which have placed the risk for poor performance on the individual beneficiary are considered too politically risky,” Cassidy said. “W. attempted to do that and it flamed.”

DeSantis and Haley have emphasized other issues this election cycle and it’s still an open question how they’ll handle entitlements. Neither campaign responded to a request for comment.

Pence, though, is making clear he will not back down from a debate on the national debt. “This is about leadership not politics,” a Pence advisor told Semafor, criticizing lawmakers who aren’t offering alternative proposals of their own. “Vice President Pence is going to be honest with the American people, as he’s always been, and that means being straight with them about the need for getting our fiscal house in order.”

Joseph Zeballos-Roig

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Foreign Influence

Members of Congress flock to Taiwan

Reuters/Taiwan Presidential Office

Three members of the new select committee on China have traveled to Taiwan over the past week, looking for some valuable insight before the panel kicks into gear when Congress returns.

Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., the committee’s chairman, made a secret trip to the island in recent days to meet with Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen and other officials. Gallagher told the Washington Post that he heard concerns from Taiwanese officials about delays of weapons shipments from the U.S.

A separate delegation that includes Reps. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., Jake Auchincloss, D-Mass., Jonathan Jackson D-Ill., and Tony Gonzales, R-Texas is also visiting the island to discuss forging new ties between the U.S. and Taiwanese semiconductor industries. Both Khanna and Auchincloss are members of the select committee, which will scrutinize U.S.-China competition.

While the group traveled separately from Gallagher, an aide told Semafor that the Wisconsin Republican dropped in on their meeting with Morris Chang, the founder of semiconductor giant TSMC.

Congressional trips to Taiwan have seemed to pick up in recent years, culminating in a visit by then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. last summer that prompted a furious response from Beijing. There has also been talk about House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. visiting the island but that appears further off.

Gallagher wants the China committee to, among other things, make the case to the American public for robust military assistance to Taiwan, given the threat of a Chinese invasion.

The committee hasn’t yet set its first hearing, but Gallagher has sent out letters signaling some of the threads he wants to pull on.

He wrote to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen earlier this week recommending sanctions on companies involved in China’s balloon surveillance program and asking for a briefing on discussions about companies recently added to the Commerce Department’s entity list. Gallagher also wrote to the chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong expressing concerns about his appearance in a promotional video for Hong Kong businesses.

Morgan Chalfant

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One Good Text

Ben Judah is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center and author of the forthcoming book This Is Europe.

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Blindspot

Stories that are being largely ignored by either left-leaning or right-leaning outlets, according to data from our partners at Ground News.

WHAT THE LEFT ISN’T READING: The Biden administration wants to rescind a Trump-era rule that required colleges and universities to allow religious student groups to operate on campus or risk losing federal grants, calling it unnecessary and confusing.

WHAT THE RIGHT ISN’T READING: The former Republican attorney general of Arizona didn’t release records of an investigation debunking allegations of fraud in the 2020 election. Instead, he claimed his investigation “revealed serious vulnerabilities.”

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— Steve Clemons

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