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WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Because external events have a way of reshaping America's political landscape — quickly.

By Daniel Malloy

The sky hung heavy over Independence, Iowa, snow pelting the cars arriving at Heartland Acres Agribition Center, a shrine to local agriculture just off the highway. Even here on Friday, thoughts drifted to Baghdad and Tehran.

Waiting for former Vice President Joe Biden to arrive, a man held his cell phone to his ear to listen to CNN for the latest on Iran. On Thursday, President Donald Trump ordered an airstrike in Baghdad that killed Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Quds Force. He had been behind deadly attacks on Americans and others and was considered the second most powerful person in his country. Iran vowed retaliation. America seemed once again on the brink of war.

From his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, Trump declared that the strike was “to stop a war, not start one.” His reelection campaign had already leaped into action to portray the strike as a decisive act against terror by a strong president. It seemed to be the kind of moment that could permanently shift the 2020 playing field.

It could well tilt in Biden’s direction. If the Democratic electorate — already skittish about who can beat the incumbent — seeks more safety, they can find it in a familiar face who’s been entrenched in America’s foreign policy debates for decades.

Graphic designer Betty Giddings, 53, is still deciding whom to support in Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses on Feb. 3. She was one of about 100 souls who came out Friday night to see the former vice president, to glimpse him up close and hear him tell stories about Scranton, about grief, about the days when the Senate used to get things done, for crying out loud.

When asked what Biden’s experience means, in light of the Iran news, Giddings replied: “It’s definitely a bonus. He’s already been that close to everything.”

In a 40-minute stump speech that covered his career and priorities like health care and education, Iran got only a passing allusion from Biden. He’d given some scripted remarks at an earlier stop, saying no American should mourn Soleimani but warning that the killing “was an enormous escalation, and it follows a string of dubious actions that President Trump has taken that have drastically increased the prospects and the risk of a war with Iran.” In Independence, he let his steady-hand message carry the day. “There will be no time for on-the-job training,” Biden said of the day a new president takes the oath of office. “It’s important that the other world leaders — friend and foe alike — know you know who they are, and they know who you are. I’ve met every single major world leader in the past 40 years. Not because I’m so important, but the nature of my job” as senator and vice president.

Bernie Sanders’ implicit rejoinder: And how’d that turn out? The Vermont senator spent his Friday talking about his vote against the Iraq War in 2002. “It gives me no pleasure to tell you that at this moment we face a similar crossroads, fraught with danger,” Sanders said. Unsaid but implied: Biden voted to go to war in Iraq. Sanders has tried to play this card before against Biden, but with war drums beating again, the attack could have a fresh punch.

The full ramifications of Soleimani’s assassination are far from understood. With thousands more American troops en route to the Middle East, domestic political concerns seem trivial. But they will certainly influence how Trump moves forward and how Democrats react.

Health care, jobs and education are still far more likely to animate voters this fall than Iran. But the opening days of 2020 have served as a bloody reminder of how external events can quickly shake the political firmament. 

Considering how he responds, the ayatollah of Iran will have a say in America’s presidential election, and it won’t be the first time.

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