The Democratic race for president is waking up

The Democratic race for president started out woke — but it has often felt barely awake with its gang of 70-somethings and wonkish seminars about the intricacies of health care policy.

Suddenly, that’s all changed. Just 20 days before the first nominating contest, the campaign of veteran leftie and heart attack survivor Bernie Sanders is scorching earth and showing he’s ready to do anything to win.

National front-runner Joe Biden was in the firing line after the independent senator from Vermont leveraged the Iran crisis to remind everyone the former vice president voted to authorize the Iraq War. And so much for that nonaggression pact between Sanders and fellow liberal Sen. Elizabeth Warren. In a story first reported by Politico, Sanders’ campaign slammed Warren as a candidate of the elite.

Now the senator from Massachusetts is seizing on a CNN report that Sanders once told her a woman can’t win the presidency. He denies it, but since the spat revives anger among female voters at how Sanders treated Hillary Clinton four years ago, it’s too good for Warren to let go.

“I thought a woman could win; he disagreed,” she said in a Monday night statement.

Sanders has the cash to stay in for the long haul and can genuinely claim to have moved the Democratic Party left. He’s also got as good a chance as anyone to win in Iowa and New Hampshire next month. A pair of wins would electrify the Democratic grassroots and could doom Warren’s bid to become the progressive champion against more moderate hopefuls like Biden and Pete Buttigieg.

But such upsets would also highlight a key question of this Democratic campaign — if the party goes all in with the left, will it scare off more moderate voters and hand reelection to Trump?

Expect more fireworks on stage tonight in Iowa, where CNN and the Des Moines Register host the last Democratic debate before the first votes are cast.

Taiwan

Taiwan’s elections over the weekend were a rebuke to China, granting a second term to Beijing skeptic Tsai Ing-wen. Her victory aligns the nationalist island more firmly with Hong Kong protesters, who are also resisting the mainland’s totalitarian bear hug — and could have ramifications for already-strained relations between the US and Beijing.

The US is bound by law to offer Taiwan the means to defend itself. If deteriorating cross-Strait relations spark fears of military action between the two, the US could be drawn in. Taiwan has vehement support in the US Congress and there’s no love lost for Chinese President Xi Jinping in parts of Trump’s administration. At a fraught moment, it wouldn’t take much for the island to become a huge deal in Washington.

Yet, as always there’s a caveat — Trump himself.

America’s posture towards China has changed under Trump — going from wary accommodation and hopes Beijing would play by global economic rules to trade wars and geopolitical competition. And the President made clear during a spike in Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests last year that he wouldn’t let such political tumult upset his hopes for a trade deal with Xi — phase one of which will be signed at the White House this week.

Given Trump’s highly personalized view of US interests overseas — a reality borne out by his conduct with Ukraine — it’s also not clear whether he sees defending democracy in Taiwan as a priority on principle. Put it this way: Intervening wouldn’t win him many reelection votes.

Chalk this up as another area where Trump’s idiosyncrasy breeds strategic uncertainty, raises risk and has US friends and foes wondering where it stands. It’s a white-knuckle ride for everyone else, but that’s just how Trump likes it.

Number of the day: $1 trillion

The US federal government budget deficit surpassed $1 trillion in 2019, the first time it has crossed that threshold in a calendar year since 2012, CNN’s Donna Borak reports.

America’s deficit has ballooned in part due to tax cuts and a two-year budget deal that boosted federal spending under Trump, despite his campaign promises to shrink or even eliminate the nation’s deficits.