Just hours after former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg was sorta declared the winner of Iowa caucuses, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi dramatically tore up President Donald Trump’s State of the Union Speech on live television.
Pelosi’s fire, in White House showdowns and passionate speeches throughout the impeachment debate, stands in contrast to Buttigieg’s calculated coolness on the campaign trail.
That dichotomy had me wondering: How should Democrats handle President Trump? This is another version of the question: How do you beat Trump?
This is almost the singular question Democratic voters have been focused on in polling throughout the 2020 primaries—less so the particulars of Medicare-for-all and tax plans (or really, any policy plan).
And, frankly, it’s a question some Republicans have been asking for four years now (although that group has dwindled significantly over time). Somewhere between February 2016 and March 2016, the strategy of ignoring Trump in the GOP primary gave way to an awkward Marco Rubio joke about the size of Trump’s hands (and the implication that bore). Then on Monday, Trump’s nominal opposition in the Republican primary fight struggled to get more than a single percentage point of support in the Iowa caucuses.
The responses to Pelosi tearing up the speech were pretty predictable: Trump supporters leered, liberal activists cheered and whatever middle there is on Twitter wrung its collective hands.
In some ways, the move had echoes of Trump and Pelosi’s last viral showdown, in the White House last October, when Pelosi stood up in a White House meeting—the only woman in the room of more than a dozen Democrats, Republicans and the president—and jabbed her finger across the table at Trump. Trump tweeted the photo as an insult, calling it an “unhinged meltdown,” but Pelosi and Democrats quickly took it back and said it showed her as a woman standing up to Trump.
While Pelosi’s speech-ripping became the viral moment of the State of the Union (more than the mid-speech ceremonial awarding of the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Rush Limbaugh, more than the campaign-like chants of “Four more years!”), I couldn’t help but think of how Buttigieg handled Trump almost a year ago, when he was just bursting on the scene.
Fox News anchor Chris Wallace asked Buttigieg last May, during a televised town hall, how he would deal with Trump’s insults and tweets if he won the Democratic nomination.
“The tweets are, I don’t care,” Buttigieg told Wallace.
At that moment, Buttigieg as Democratic nominee seemed a long-shot hypothetical. After Iowa’s staggered circus of a release of caucus results—in which showed Buttigieg edging out Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders—his candidacy seems much less like a long-shot.
What’s clear, coming up on five years after Trump stormed the political arena, is his tweets and insults don’t have the potency they used to. But he still knows how to grab the camera and the national narrative (remember when Trump ordered the New Year’s strike that killed Iranian general Qasem Soleimani? Even in a chaotic news environment, the story grabbed hold of the national news for almost a week.)
So which tactic will work best for whoever wins the Democratic nomination? Stand up, rip the speech and point the finger? Or make a calculated dismissal? The only answer to that question comes on Nov. 3.•
Tom LoBianco, a veteran reporter, is author of “Piety & Power: Mike Pence and the Taking of the White House.” He previously reported for the Associated Press, CNN and The Indianapolis Star. Send comments to [email protected]
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