In this edition: What Elizabeth Warren says on the trail, what everyone gets wrong about Rashida Tlaib, and what Democrats are starting to think about tax hikes.
I've already got my first flight delay of the 2020 cycle out of the way, and this is The Trailer.
DES MOINES — By the end of her first full day of campaigning in Iowa, Sen. Elizabeth Warren had spoken to around 2,700 people. She'd taken 30 questions from voters, chosen by a random, ticket-based lottery. She'd stopped for three short media scrums, evaded one heckler and battled one cold ("too much time with little people!"), the waking nightmare of any presidential candidate.
The first visit to a primary state by a top-tier Democratic presidential candidate found a candidate still honing her stump speech, with a well-oiled campaign infrastructure and audiences that were still in the tire-kicking phase. It revealed plenty about how Warren, who has been urged to run for president since at least 2013, would approach a real campaign. The caricature of Warren — by mid-December, she was being covered as a flawed and stumbling liberal who had missed her best shot to run for president — did not survive intact. Here's what replaced it.
She's not focused on Donald Trump. In 2016, as the primaries were winding down, Warren began attacking Trump on Twitter, branding him a "xenophobic bully" as he fired back with attacks on her claim of Native American heritage. At the time, Democrats insisted the senator was cracking a code. "She’s showing that the best way to respond is to punch back hard and to call him out,” former Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor told the New York Times.
But Trump won the election, and ever since his insults have been perceived, by the press, as masterful distractions that no Democrat can effectively rebut. Since her DNA test, Warren has simply stopped responding to Trump's insults; over four Iowa events, she mentioned the president's name only once, when asked about the aforementioned test, saying that she simply could not stop him from "hurling racial slurs."
Trump has become the silence between the notes of Warren's speeches, which portray an economic system that has been rigged, for decades, to favor the wealthy. When Warren talks about the fights she's been through, she focuses on the "million dollars a day" that bank lobbyists spent, unsuccessfully, to stop the creation of the financial-industry regulatory agency she proposed and initially ran, and on her evisceration of former Wells Fargo chief executive John Stumpf, which was a factor in his resignation. It's a return to the rhetoric that worked so well for her in 2012, affirming her status as an icon of the left.
Warren also emphasized her lower-profile Senate work to demonstrate that she was more than a left-wing candidate. In Sioux City, she talked about her effort to pass legislation lowering the price of hearing aids.
"I talked to a lot of people about what would it take to do this, and then I called Chuck Grassley," she said. After some boos at the name of Iowa's senior Republican senator subsided, Warren said she'd "called another Republican and another Republican and another Republican, done all this all under the radar screen, put no hard lines on it, and [wrote] a bill." It’s not the most dramatic story, but it tells Iowan more about Warren than they knew before she flew in
She is not Bernie Sanders. Plenty of the Democrats who wanted to draft Warren into the 2016 race went on to support the Vermont senator; a good number of those strategists, activists and voters now support him even with Warren in the race. But Warren's approach to campaigning could not be more different. The Sanders approach, which has not changed in decades, is to sketch out a social democratic vision of America — universal health care, free public college tuition, a $15 minimum wage — in sentences punctuated by applause. He mentions his biography only to talk about how he proved skeptics wrong as mayor of Burlington. Voters who show up to hear Sanders hear "the message," and then they decide whether they're in.
Warren's stump speech begins with "a little bit about who I am," with a story that quiets down the crowd: about the night she heard her mother muttering, "We will NOT lose this house" as she contemplated how to deal with her father's medical bills. She moves on to a vision of "changing the rules" of three sectors of society: the economy, government and politics.
In that litany, anti-corruption legislation is filed under government; voting rights, including a constitutional amendment to enshrine the right to vote, is filed under politics. It's more incremental than the Sanders approach, but it grows out of a rationale for running, the sort of thing Democrats believe Hillary Clinton never was able to do. Warren, who has been accused of elitism (by Republicans) since entering politics, connects every policy position to her identity and the years she spent (to use a phrase she's dropped) on "the ragged edge of the middle class."
Warren is one of five senators with presidential ambitions who has co-sponsored the Medicare for All Act; she is also the first of them to announce a campaign or exploratory committee. Yet at her first four events, the Massachusetts senator did not mention the legislation at all. Only in Des Moines did she say something that emphasized her support for universal care: "Health care is a human right."
After the Sioux City event, I asked Warren if there was a reason she wasn't mentioning Medicare-for-all in the stump speech. "No, no special reason," she said. "No one’s raised it. But I have had a chance to talk about Medicaid. Partly because I think we’ve had a national conversation about health care, and I think it’s been enormously valuable. It’s obviously about how we protect ourselves and each other. But it’s also about our values. I hope we continue to have that conversation. I will continue to talk about health care every chance I get."
Contrast that with Sanders, who never lets a speech end without talking up Medicare-for-all. Contrast it with what the bill's other sponsors might do when they get to Iowa and work to distinguish themselves.
She has a fan base, and she takes care of it. At every Warren stop, but especially in Des Moines, it was easy to spot merchandise and tokens of support that predated her trip to Iowa. Shirts reading "Nevertheless, she persisted," references to the 2017 moment when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell prevented Warren from negatively referring to Attorney General-designate Jeff Sessions, were everywhere.
A 2014 "Run, Warren, Run," sign, printed by MoveOn, was unfolded in Storm Lake. A shirt from the Progressive Change Campaign Committee's 2012 ad campaign, "I'm from the Elizabeth Warren Wing of the Democratic Party," was visible at three of the stops. In Council Bluffs, a Teamster named Bob Payne briefly pulled Warren aside to ask if she'd gotten a shirt he'd sent her office, to advertise a pension reform bill the union supported.
"I got it and I wore it!" Warren said, hugging Payne — who called her "my hero" for working on pensions.
It was also easy to find Democrats who had wanted Warren to run before and were still shopping for a candidate but had an emotional connection to her.
"From the moment of ‘nevertheless, she persisted,’ I got the mug on my desk," said Julie Brown, a 55-year-old businesswoman who brought her daughter to see Warren in Des Moines. "I’ve got a pen that says it. It was a rallying call for women, in particular. When you live that, when this happens to you on a daily basis, and you have a strong wonderful woman who shuts it down — it’s very inspiring."
A lot of that could change as candidates pile into the race, but Warren's campaign, at the moment, is taking full advantage of the pent-up interest. At every stop, she has stopped to take pictures with anyone willing to wait for one; her team has grabbed copies of her books (or even photographs and baseballs, which sometimes are passed around by autograph hunters) and returned them to voters, signed. It's more like the approach Clinton's campaign took in 2016, and Sen. Cory Booker's pre-campaign is taking now, than what fans of Sanders found last cycle.
Both Booker and Sanders, of course, had been to Iowa more recently than Warren had. Both, if they run, will get their chance to introduce themselves to voters who don't see a clear favorite right now. But Warren's visit, coming after a long stretch of skeptical coverage, set a higher bar than many expected.
The president's reelection campaign is running new digital ads on immigration; I saw one of them as a YouTube pre-roll while in Iowa this weekend. In it, footage of crime — and of the White House meeting where the president said he'd "own" any shutdown — play over a number that voters can text to get campaign updates.
"Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer care more about the radical left than keeping us safe," a narrator says. "The consequences? Drug deaths. Violent murder. Gang violence. We must not allow it." That's followed by Trump himself saying that "liberals care more about illegal immigrants" than Americans.
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Jay Inslee. The governor of Washington has created a special expedited process to clear the records of people convicted of marijuana possession before voters legalized it. He's also being pilloried by Ray Buckley, the chairman of New Hampshire's Democratic Party, for not helping New Hampshire's 2018 gubernatorial nominee more; Inslee was last cycle's chairman of the Democratic Governors Association.
Julián Castro. He's in Iowa this week, ahead of an expected presidential announcement; after that, he'll head back out. He appeared on ABC's "This Week" on Sunday, pitching himself as a candidate for the 21st century who'd run one of United States' "most diverse cities."
John Delaney. He’s opening the first 2020 campaign offices of any Democratic candidate for president — one in Des Moines, one in Cedar Rapids, both on Saturday.
The controversy over remarks by Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) at a MoveOn reception this week seems to be winding down, but not before inspiring head-scratching theories about the political impact.
Tlaib, one of the first Muslim women elected to Congress, ran as an implacable opponent of the president who had once been hauled out of an event for protesting him. Her district, which for a half-century was represented by John Conyers, gave Trump just 18.1 percent of the vote. For Tlaib herself, the political impact of saying that she wants the president impeached and removed from office was at worst a wash; at best, it's going to earn her votes.
What's confusing is the speculation that Tlaib will hurt her party politically. True, the House Democratic majority, and the leaders of the relevant committees, have no plan to impeach the president until and unless Republicans believe it's necessary. They've said it many times. To the extent Tlaib forced them to say it again, they had a bad news cycle.
But how will any of this cost them votes? The Tlaib controversy is what I like to call a "Red Hen event" — a brief source of outrage that is pored over for political impact but it too far from an election to have any. Think of the moments in 2017 and 2018 that were, according to Republicans (and some neutral analysts), going to focus the electorate on the new radicalism of the Democratic Party.
- Protests of Trump administration officials as they ate dinner.
- Clashes between antifa and right-wing protesters.
- Michelle Wolf's routine at the White House Correspondents' Dinner.
- Kathy Griffin's photo shoot with a "decapitated" Trump.
And the most relevant example was the rhetoric of Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.). In early 2017, she said Democrats needed to impeach the president and "stop his a--." In the summer of 2018, she was filmed encouraging protesters to "push back" on Trump Cabinet officials and "tell them they're not welcome." That kicked off a multi-day news cycle, with speculation about Waters, whom the president personally attacks on Twitter and at rallies, disrupting the Democratic message.
Some events, and some gaffes, do change the national conversation. But few do so while affecting the individual fortunes of politicians. Nearly every Democrat asked about Tlaib this week had the same response: They did not like the language, and they would prefer that any impeachment talk be shelved until after investigations did or didn't turn up impeachable offenses.
“I think it is absolutely essentially that we protect the Mueller investigation," Sen. Elizabeth Warren said in Iowa this weekend after being asked about Tlaib. "The special prosecutor has already produced more than two dozen indictments or guilty pleas. Our job right now in Congress is to protect that investigation, and we need bipartisan legislation to do that. Mueller needs to complete his investigation and make a full report to the American people."
Republicans have been predicting a Democratic crack-up on impeachment for nearly the entirety of the Trump presidency, and it simply hasn't happened. In 2018, as the president of the House GOP's super PAC, strategist Corry Bliss repeatedly speculated that the angry Democratic base would nominate impeachment-obsessed candidates, who would alienate swing voters.
“The crowded, nasty, divisive primaries going on around the country [are] going to produce nominees who are to the left of Bernie Sanders and want to do nothing but impeach the president,” Bliss said confidently in a May 2018 interview.
But with the exception of Beto O’Rourke, Democrats in swing races evaded the impeachment issue; they gave the sort of "wait for Mueller' answers that Warren gave this weekend in Iowa. And the impeachment issue was more potentially potent in the midterms than it can possibly be in 2020. Either the House will impeach the president, or it won't; if it does, it will be as the first step in a process that Republicans get behind, in the sort of drama that is unthinkable right now. If it doesn't, the president will be on the ballot in 22 months, making the question completely irrelevant.
Eating the rich. An under-noticed moment from Julián Castro's ABC News interview came when he was asked if he agreed with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) on taxes. She suggested, in a "60 Minutes" interview, that high marginal tax rates were not so radical, as they'd been well above 50 percent in the past. Did Castro agree?
(Marginal tax rates are simple — currently if you fall into the top bracket, you pay that top 35 percent rate only on income over $416,000.)
"I can support folks at the top paying for fair share," said Castro, former San Antonio mayor and HUD secretary. "As you know, George, there was a time in this country where the top marginal tax rate was over 90 percent; even during Reagan's era in the 1980s it was around 50 percent.
"So do I support, in order to have something like Medicare-for-all, that we ask folks that are in the top 0.05 percent or 0.5 percent or top 1 percent to pay more?" he asked rhetorically.
Since 1992, Democrats have run elections on a twin promise of cutting "middle class" taxes while making the rich pay their "fair share." But since the passage of the 2017 tax cuts, there's a palpable willingness among Democrats to talk about restoring higher taxes on the very wealthy, and perhaps even returning to rates abandoned decades ago. In Iowa, Warren suggested restoring the 50 percent estate tax on the very highest incomes, so that it would affect perhaps only the 10,000 wealthiest families in the country.
There are Democrats looking at 2020 who will utterly reject that. But keep an eye on the Democrats who see this as a starting point for a new debate.
A look at some of the same Warren rhetoric mentioned above, and how the senator harks back to a pre-Reagan regulatory era as a time when the country was, while not perfect, a little greater.
An origin story about Warren's first connections with the online left, and liberals. She's not kidding when she suggests that the presidency was not in her sights until very recently.
“I came forward after Ruben Kihuen harassed me: Here's what it cost me,” by Samantha Register
One of the first-person essays on what it is actually like to blow the whistle on political sexual harassment.
... two days until the start of Kamala Harris's book tour
... three days until Tom Steyer talks about education in Iowa
... six days until Julián Castro announces something in San Antonio about his political future
... six days until the grass-roots group People for Bernie organizes house parties to urge Sanders to run for president