The Memo: Iran crisis reverberates for Trump, Democrats

The killing of top Iranian commander Gen. Qassem Soleimani is reverberating in U.S. domestic politics, potentially affecting views of President TrumpDonald John TrumpFed saw risks to US economy fading before coronavirus spread quickened Pro-Trump super PAC hits Biden with new Spanish-language ad in Nevada Britain announces immigration policy barring unskilled migrants MORE and shifting the race for the Democratic nomination.

To be sure, much depends on how Iran reacts to the killing of the general, who headed the country's elite Quds Force. His standing in Tehran has been compared by some Iran experts to that of an American vice president.

Iran has vowed “severe revenge” on the United States over the drone strike killing, which was carried out late Thursday as the Iranian military official and others were in a convoy leaving Baghdad International Airport.

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The president seemed to take an early victory lap moments after reports emerged of the strike, tweeting out an image of an American flag. The Pentagon later confirmed the deadly air strike, characterizing it as a defensive action.

Trump could theoretically benefit from a “rallying around the flag” effect of the kind that has boosted other presidents.

Former president George W. Bush, for example, saw his approval rating in Gallup polling jump by more than 10 percentage points in early 2003 at the start of the Iraq War.

Bush is, of course, also a salutary example. The war went badly, a consensus formed that the president had made a catastrophic error and his Gallup approval rating dwindled from 71 percent when the war was launched to just 25 percent in November 2008 as he neared the end of his tenure.

Democrats argue that Trump is less likely than previous presidents to receive any domestic political boost from his actions regarding Iran because of his deeply polarizing nature. 

They also say that the nation remains much more wary of foreign military adventuring and less susceptible to jingoism. Trump himself has been, up to now, largely wary of risking the U.S. becoming enmeshed in full-scale conflicts.

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The killing of Soleimani could also weigh against the president if voters believe he has behaved rashly or if the Iranian response inflicts serious economic or physical damage on American interests.

“This has been panned pretty aggressively even by people in the national security apparatus who might not be Trumpists but are fair-minded,” said Democratic strategist Joel Payne. “There is no plan that has been communicated. As with everything with Trump, this feels ‘seat of the pants.’”

In brief remarks at Mar-a-Lago on Friday afternoon, Trump asserted that Soleimani was “plotting imminent and sinister attacks on American diplomats and military personnel.” He provided no evidence to support that statement.

The president also argued that the killing of the commander had been undertaken "to stop a war," maintaining that "we did not take action to start a war.”

Supporters of the president argue that it is Democrats and other Trump critics who will find themselves swimming against the tide of public opinion, given Iran’s longtime hostility toward the United States, its support for militant groups in the Middle East such as Hezbollah and Soleimani’s centrality to those efforts. 

Brad Blakeman, a veteran of the Bush White House who is a strong supporter of Trump, argued that the critics were “in a different place” than the American public.

“The president did not overreact. He acted with justification and in a measured way. I think Democrats are on the wrong side of history — and certainly they are politicizing the kind of event that should never be politicized,” Blakeman said.

Democratic presidential candidates blasted the president for the killing. 

Former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden leads Sanders by single digits in South Carolina: poll Pro-Trump super PAC hits Biden with new Spanish-language ad in Nevada Biden will go after Bloomberg, Sanders at Las Vegas debate, aides say MORE, the front-runner in national polls, said in a statement that Trump had “tossed a stick of dynamite into a tinderbox.” 

Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersBiden leads Sanders by single digits in South Carolina: poll Pro-Trump super PAC hits Biden with new Spanish-language ad in Nevada Biden will go after Bloomberg, Sanders at Las Vegas debate, aides say MORE (I-Vt.), Biden’s closest challenger nationally, accused Trump of “risking another disastrous war in the Middle East.” 

Both Sanders’s campaign and Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenBiden leads Sanders by single digits in South Carolina: poll 2020 Democratic candidates support Las Vegas casino workers on debate day Sanders takes lead in new Hill/HarrisX poll MORE (D-Mass.) also referred to the killing as an assassination. By contrast, former New York City Mayor Michael BloombergMichael Rubens BloombergBiden will go after Bloomberg, Sanders at Las Vegas debate, aides say Sanders takes lead in new Hill/HarrisX poll Bloomberg campaign warns of 'insurmountable' Sanders lead if moderates split votes MORE called such characterizations "outrageous," saying Soleimani was "an enemy of America who killed Americans."

Beyond the fallout for the Trump administration, the events in Baghdad — and the response to them — also risk reopening the divisiveness of Democratic debates over the Iraq War almost two decades ago.

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Biden, then a senator, voted to give Bush authority to use force in Iraq, as did then-Sen. Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonClinton asked if she'd be Bloomberg's vice president: 'Oh no' Trump launches three-day campaign rally blitz Free Roger Stone MORE (D-N.Y.), Trump's eventual rival in the 2016 election.

Clinton’s vote became a major vulnerability when she ran against then-Sen. Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaPro-Trump super PAC hits Biden with new Spanish-language ad in Nevada Meghan McCain rips Blagojevich pardon: He is 'like the swampiest swamp creature in the world' Ex-Obama aides say Bloomberg-Obama relationship more 'complicated' than his ads portray MORE (D-Ill.) for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008. Biden’s backing for the war remains a sore point for some on the left even now.

“The elites and the establishment are going to try to say that because Joe Biden sat next to Barack Obama he has the most ‘foreign policy credentials,’ but that is insane,” said progressive strategist Jonathan Tasini, who supports Sanders. “Joe Biden made one of the worst foreign policy blunders ever by voting for the Iraq War, which shows he is completely without judgment.”

Payne, who is unaligned in the primary, said that while commander in chief issues generally might be expected to help the experienced Biden, this crisis could be different because of the obvious comparisons to Iraq.

“I will be interested to see if Sanders or Warren see this as an opportunity,” he said. “It actually exposes Biden a bit.”

On the other side of the aisle, however, Team Trump was already trying to turn events to its advantage on Friday.

A mass email from the Republican National Committee bore the subject line: “President Trump strikes another blow against terrorism.” 

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.