Trump touts a comeback as Democrats hobbled by Iowa debacle

Four hours before President Trump’s State of the Union, Iowa Democrats finally managed to cough up partial results for the caucuses that have been the epicenter of a year-long battle.

They showed a big night for Pete Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders, but with an elephant-in-the-room caveat: only 62 percent of the votes had been counted. And the flurry of numbers was confusing because of the endlessly complicated rules, confounding even veteran analysts such as MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki.

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It was against this chaotic backdrop that the president delivered his televised speech to Congress, touting a “great American comeback.” Oh, and today he gets acquitted by the Senate after an arduous impeachment trial that changed very few minds.

It’s been a very good stretch for Trump. He’s even gotten an impeachment bump, with a new Gallup poll putting his approval at 49 percent approval. That is astronomical for him, a result powered mainly by record-breaking support on the economy. The decision by Nancy Pelosi’s Democrats to press ahead with impeachment not only totally overshadowed the Iowa contest, it probably strengthened the loyalty of those who believe the president’s insistence that the whole thing was a hoax.

In that sense, rising approval for Trump mirrors what happened with Bill Clinton, who hit a high in popularity after the Senate acquitted him in 1999 on what was also largely a party-line impeachment.

Iowa is an unbelievable fiasco that hurts the party, probably spells the death knell for the ridiculously complicated caucuses, and robbed the winners of their moment in the TV spotlight. Buttigieg, an obscure small-town mayor a year ago--not to mention the first major White House contender who is gay--could have given an inspiring speech rather than prematurely predicting victory. Sanders, who lost Iowa last time by three-tenths of a percent, could have softened his image by reaching out to those who aren’t democratic socialists.

Instead, they were all campaigning in New Hampshire, with Iowa already in the rear-view mirror.

The only candidate who may have dodged a bullet is Joe Biden, whose anemic finish--fourth place in many of the partial tabulations--reflects his failure to generate much excitement. Trump may have been most worried about Biden’s candidacy--hence the Ukraine pressure campaign that led to impeachment--but that matchup may never happen.

Still, it’s ridiculous for the pundits to be burying Biden after partial results in one predominantly white state, with more diverse contests such as South Carolina coming up.

As for the president, who barred CNN from the traditional lunch with anchors on SOTU day, he may have wanted impeachment officially over before last night’s speech, but it hardly matters. Even with a few Republicans such as Lisa Murkowski (technically an independent) saying his actions were shameful, his Senate acquittal is just hours away, the inevitable outcome that drained the entire proceedings of much suspense.

With some Democrats, including AOC and Ayanna Pressley, boycotting the speech, Trump said “the future is blazing bright” and “the years of economic decay are over.” (For the record, Trump inherited a pretty strong economy from Barack Obama.)

In classic fashion for an election-year address, the president said he had transformed the country and that even better things lie ahead:

“Our country is the best it’s ever been...Our pride is restored...The unemployment rate is the lowest in over half a century...This is a blue-collar boom,” he said with a nod toward the Rust Belt workers he needs in November.

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Some of Trump’s comments would obviously be challenged by Democrats, who mostly sat on their hands: “We are building the world’s most prosperous and inclusive society.” But he was able to tout one bipartisan achievement, the new Canada-Mexico trade deal that replaced NAFTA.

In a not-very-subtle jab at Sanders, Trump said: “We will never let socialism destroy American health care.”

He called for rebuilding infrastructure, as he has in previous speeches without ever backing a specific bill. He promoted his Middle East peace plan, which has already been rejected by the Palestinians.

The president dwelled on illegal immigration and touched on religious liberty, gun rights and late-term abortion, but hot-button cultural issues were not the speech’s focus. One emotional high point was the shout-out to Rush Limbaugh, battling advanced lung cancer, as Melania Trump hung the presidential medal of freedom around the radio host's neck.

The president’s delivery was straightforward and rather low-key, at least by his standards. He made no reference to the fact that the House had impeached him in that very chamber. Nor did he issue the usual call for bipartisan cooperation.

The speech was, in short, a self-proclaimed victory lap for a president who beat impeachment. Whether he’ll be taking a victory lap in November depends on who among the Democrats rises from the Iowa debacle to take him on.