Trump's Iran move puts 2020 Democrats in a political bind

Analysis: Bernie Sanders ripped the president outright, while other top hopefuls tempered their criticism with condemnation of the Iranian commander who was killed.

"This is and was an enormous escalation," former Vice President Joe Biden said Friday of the decision to target Qassem Soleimani.Mark Peterson / Redux Pictures

WASHINGTON — When President Donald Trump ordered the killing of Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, he put his 2020 Democratic rivals in a tough political bind.

Democrats are worried that Trump is touching off yet another war in the Middle East, and at the same time, wary of failing to commend the assassination of a figure who was roundly viewed in the United States as one of the world's leading bad guys.

So, faced with the choice of condemning the move or condoning it, most chose in the hours immediately following the news to do a little bit of both. The lone exception among the top four contenders: Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who is running second in national polls and who ripped Trump for the decision.

The rest responded with the kind of "yes, but" framing that is inherently less decisive than the message Trump delivered to Iran and to the American voting public on the wings of a drone-fired missile. That group included front-running former Vice President Joe Biden, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

"He has blood on his hands from countless operations against American interests, American allies, and American citizens," Buttigieg said of Soleimani on Friday morning, adding that the move "must not be the beginning of another endless war."

The challenge for them is the liberal wing of the party has no interest in endorsing anything Trump does — much less a military strike that could lead to broader hostilities — but swing voters who will be crucial targets in a general election may be persuaded by the idea that killing a top militant is a good thing.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., nearly echoing Biden's own words from eight years ago, put it this way Friday: "This morning, Iran's master terrorist is dead."

No one is more familiar with the political value of a simple dead-enemy political tagline than Biden, who rallied the 2012 Democratic National Convention with the words "Bin Laden is dead, and General Motors is alive." And yet, before diving into a long discourse on his concerns about the repercussions of Trump's decision Friday, Biden spent several sentences explaining why Soleimani "deserved to be brought to justice."

"This is and was an enormous escalation," Biden said. "And it follows a string of dubious actions that President Trump has taken that have drastically increased the prospects and the risk of war with Iran and danger to Americans."

Of course, there are important differences between the bin Laden raid and the Soleimani killing. Bin Laden was the leader of an international terrorist organization who was not a government official, while Soleimani was a high-ranking member of Iran's national government. And, as Biden noted in his statement, the Middle East is a "tinderbox" that may be much more primed for a chain reaction leading to an escalation of hostilities in several nations that have been at war, or on the brink of it, for decades.

So while it is undoubtedly more complicated to criticize the killing of Soleimani to American voters in the short term than to laud it, the real-world fallout of a potential escalation of tensions with Iran — and the political consequences — are much harder to gauge right away.

Democrats know Americans are wary of anything that smacks of a long-term American commitment of money or troops to the kind of foreign wars that both Trump and Barack Obama campaigned against, and Trump has long pointed to his own reluctance to go to war as a selling point to the public for his re-election campaign.

Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., who is expected to resign from Congress to take a job assisting Trump in the near future, played down the possibility of a longer-term engagement in an interview on MSNBC on Friday.

"This is not deploying military assets in terms of boots on the ground, where obviously he would come to Congress with that, but we had a particular bit of intelligence, and certainly a decision that had to be made in a very key and quick moment," Meadows said. "And I think the president made the right decision."

While most of the Democratic candidates were quick to condemn Soleimani, not all of them stopped to do that in criticizing Trump.

Warren's emphasis changed overnight. In a Thursday tweet, she sounded more like Biden and Buttigieg. By Friday, she had dropped any mention of Soleimani. "We’re on the brink of yet another war in the Middle East — one that would be devastating in terms of lives lost and resources wasted," she tweeted. "We’re not here by accident. We’re here because a reckless president, his allies, and his administration have spent years pushing us here."

The most noteworthy exception to the rule of "buts" was Sanders, who rallied opposition to the 2003 Iraq War authorization in the House. The only "but" in the statement he issued Thursday night pointed to a contrast between Trump's campaign rhetoric and his action.

"Trump's dangerous escalation brings us closer to another disastrous war in the Middle East that could cost countless lives and trillions more dollars," Sanders said. “Trump promised to end endless wars, but this action puts us on the path to another one.”

That put him more clearly in opposition to Trump than Biden, and more in line with the public sentiments of many former Obama administration officials than the former vice president.

"There's too much throat-clearing about what a bad guy Soleimani was," Tommy Vietor, a National Security Council spokesman under Obama wrote on Twitter shortly before retweeting Sanders. "Yes. He was awful. But the potential consequences are far more significant. The total lack of an Iran strategy needs to be the focus."