A week ago, the top challenge facing Democrats was how to run against Donald Trump in a strong economy.
Now they face a dual dilemma, namely how to run against a president who also, for all the criticism around the globe, took out Iran’s top terrorist.
The most liberal 2020 contenders are ratcheting up their rhetoric on the killing of Qassam Soleimani, which they obviously believe plays well with the party’s left wing. But when the general election rolls around, it could leave them looking like their sympathies are misplaced.
The situation is obviously complicated, and will be influenced by how the Iranians retaliate, the magnitude of the president’s counterattack, and whether Iraq destabilizes the region by expelling American troops. The Bush invasion of Iraq looked very different a year later.
Bernie Sanders cast Trump’s decision in the harshest possible light by telling CNN’s Anderson Cooper:
"This guy, you know, was, as bad as he was, an official of the Iranian government. And, you unleash -- then, if China does that, you know, if Russia does that, you know, Russia has been implicated under Putin with assassinating dissidents."
Now I understand the argument that Soleimani, in addition to being one of the region’s top terrorists and responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans, was also part of the Tehran regime and therefore should have been off-limits.
But comparing what the president of the United States did to Vladimir Putin having political dissidents murdered is rather offensive. And yet it will undoubtedly draw some cheers on the Trump-hating left.
Elizabeth Warren, while accusing the president of a “reckless move,” initially called Soleimani a “murderer” who was “responsible for the deaths of thousands.”
But by Sunday morning, Warren was describing Soleimani only as "a government official, a high-ranking military official." In a CNN interview with Jake Tapper, she said that next week “the president of the United States could be facing an impeachment trial in the Senate. We know he's deeply upset about that. And I think people are reasonably asking, why this moment? Why does he pick now to take this highly inflammatory, highly dangerous action that moves us closer to war?"
As Chris Cillizza put it, “Wow. We went from ‘murderer’ to ‘wag the dog’ in the space of a few days.”
Again, I get the distract-from-impeachment argument. But why promote Soleimani as just “a high-ranking military official”?
On "The View" Tuesday, it took Meghan McCain three attempts before Warren tersely acknowledged that Soleimani was a terrorist.
Such rhetoric has opened the door to criticism from the likes of Nikki Haley. “The only ones mourning the loss of Soleimani are our Democrat leadership and Democrat presidential candidates,” she told Fox. That’s political spin—almost no one in America is “mourning” the general’s death—but the former U.N. ambassador knows her target.
The more moderate Democrats have been more restrained.
Joe Biden, looking at the long-term effects, said Iran would boost its nuclear program and that “this is totally a crisis of Donald Trump’s making.”
Iran, he said ungrammatically, “now is going to be the person occupying and influencing Iraq, which is clearly not very much in our interest." Biden, of course, was vice president when the Iranians agreed to a nuclear deal.
The furor gives Pete Buttigieg, who served in Afghanistan, a chance to play up his military credentials. He dodged Tapper’s question on whether the Soleimani killing was an “assassination,” saying he’s interested in consequences: “Did the president have legal authority to do this? Why wasn't Congress consulted? It seems like more people at Mar-a-Lago heard about this than people in the United States Congress who are a coequal branch of government with a responsibility to consult. Which of our allies were consulted?”
And the former mayor told reporters in New Hampshire: “You could also argue that we wouldn’t be there if it weren't for the invasion of Iraq in the first place, which I still believe was a grave mistake.” (Sanders, meanwhile, is using the occasion to rip Biden for voting for Bush’s Iraq invasion, which is true but also happened 17 years ago.)
Biden, Bernie and Buttigieg are in a three-way tie in Iowa, at 23 percent, with Warren 7 points back, according to a new CBS poll. Warren doesn’t want to let Sanders get too far to her left. And all the candidates have convince voters that they beat Trump, and that means besting him on the foreign policy crisis that is suddenly dominating the headlines.
Saying anything that be construed or twisted into sympathy for Soleimani does not help their case.