In this edition: The two states of the union, the bright post-scandal future of Virginia, and more bad polls for the president.
I'm very thankful to Felicia Sonmez and the other colleagues who wrote this newsletter while I was out, though they left before giving me a joke for this section. Anyway: This is The Trailer.
For 60 or so minutes tonight, depending on the applause, the president will describe a country in bang-up shape. The litany rolls off his Twitter feed, from 3.9 percent unemployment, to the highest wage growth in a decade, to job creation on pace to fulfill a 2016 campaign promise: 10 million more people at work by 2020. It's been at least 20 years since a president walked into the House with this much economic data to brag about.
That's not how the speech is going to be received, not by Democrats. This State of the Union address will take place with most voters saying the country is heading in the wrong direction and with 10 Democrats running around that country describing how everything's gotten worse. Five of those Democrats will be in the room tonight, and three or four more Democrats shifting in their seats may join them in the race for their party's nomination.
On the trail so far, Democrats have described a country that is simply not as fair or as livable as the data say it is. They may acknowledge that unemployment is low, before pivoting to argue that Republicans have skewed economic gains away from most voters. And the midterm election suggested that this pitch can work — that even in low-unemployment states, many voters can be persuaded to toss out their leaders. If you've been listening to Midwestern Democrats this year, it almost sounds easy.
“There is more to an economy than counting job creation, and the state of our state is more than just our unemployment rate,” said Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, the Democrat who retired Scott Walker, in his first “state of the state” speech last month. “The opportunity we have to offer is not just the number of jobs we create; it’s counted, too, by the number of workers who will work 40 hours each week and still won’t make enough to keep their family out of poverty.”
Evers, who got less national attention than many other “star” Democratic candidates, won in a state where unemployment had fallen from 8.2 percent in November 2010 to just 3 percent in November 2018. Walker ran on that record, but he made policy choices that gave Evers an opening — most notably, an unpopular lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act and a $4 billion package of benefits to attract the electronics manufacturer Foxconn to southeast Wisconsin.
The pitch that worked for Evers, and that might be adopted by 2020 Democrats, overlaps with the one Trump delivered across the industrial Midwest in 2016. Then, no state was in worse economic shape than it had been in 2008, but hundreds of thousands of voters had never dug out from the Great Recession, and the cost of living had increased faster than inflation.
For a little while after that election, some Democrats speculated that the economy would suffer under Trump's policies. It hasn't, and the result is a campaign with the roles reversed, with Democrats arguing that Trump simply swindled the swing voters. That's what Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) is aiming at when she tells audiences that there used to be a better social safety net for the middle class; it's what Kamala Harris (Calif.) is doing when she tells voters that she'll “guarantee working and middle-class families an overdue pay increase."
That was also the message at every stop of Sen. Sherrod Brown's “dignity of work” tour through Iowa, which may or may not lead to a presidential campaign. The Ohio Democrat concentrated on visiting counties that had voted reliably Democratic for years, then flipped Republican in 2014 and had not snapped back. The problem, Brown argued, was that economic conditions were still lagging for those voters, and while Trump had not delivered, Democrats had not explained what they might change.
“Those folks voted for Trump because they thought their kids would have a less material life than them,” Brown told reporters at one stop in the small city of Cresco, in Howard County. “They are increasingly seeing that Trump betrayed them. They’re increasingly seeing that Trump doesn’t care about them, whether it’s a Donaldson worker in Howard County, or whether it’s a GM worker in Lordstown, Ohio.”
The GM plant in question is set to lose jobs as part of layoffs by the car manufacturer in Michigan and Ohio, two states that are crucial to the Republican story of how Trump rolled over the Democrats. In both states, Democrats have gone after GM with the sort of populist rhetoric that Trump adopted in 2016.
“I propose that no public money in any form should be given to wealthy corporations without binding contracts that guarantee local benefits and stipulations for the community,” Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich), who represents much of Detroit, wrote in a column last month. That got less attention than Tlaib's comments about impeaching Trump, but it was a clearer preview of how Democrats plan to run in the Midwest.
How much do the headlines about the top-line numbers on the economy affect any of this? So far, not much, and that's a contrast with the last time an embattled president was presiding over a strong economy. Twenty years ago, when Bill Clinton became the first impeached president to deliver a State of the Union address, The Washington Post-ABC News poll put his approval rating at 66 percent; one month later, 55 percent of Americans said the country was headed in “the right direction.” That same poll now puts Trump's approval rating at 37 percent, while since the start of 2019, polling has found less than 40 percent of voters believe that the country is on “the right track.”
Who are the other voters, the ones receptive to a message about how bad the state of the union is? They include millions of people who do have jobs right now and who may be doing better than they were two years ago, but who wake up with plenty of economic angst. A new data analysis by Kevin Reuning, a professor at Miami University, broke “working class” voters into three categories, depending on how precarious their own work situations were. “Those who are most precarious are actually the least supportive of Donald Trump,” Reuning concluded.
These are the voters Democrats are likely to aim for in their responses to the State of the Union and, once the speech is whisked out of headlines, in their campaign trail rhetoric about why a president presiding over strong economic numbers needs to be replaced.
Who do you want to have more influence over the direction the nation takes — Donald Trump or Democrats in Congress? (CNN, 1,011 respondents)
Democrats — 51%
Trump — 40%
That's the lowest a president has scored on this question in the limited history of CNN asking it; after the 1994 rout, voters preferred that Republicans, and not Bill Clinton, take the lead, but the margin was just nine points. Republicans who did not support the government shutdown warned and worried that it would give Democrats a victory and at least a few weeks to cohere instead of dissolving into a fight over part of their agenda. The Eeyores were correct.
Which type of candidate would you prefer between: a Democrat you agree with on most issues but would have a hard time beating Donald Trump or a Democrat you do NOT agree with on most issues but would be a stronger candidate against Donald Trump? (Monmouth, 228 registered Democrats)
Stronger candidate — 56%
Agree with — 33%
It's early days, but this might be the most knotted and problematic poll question there is. National polling, and increasingly state polling, shows the president struggling to crack 40 percent approval and trailing many potential Democratic candidates. Just two Democrats, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, have universal name identification, so there's no great way of determining what other candidates would poll ahead of Trump.
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Cory Booker. He's bringing Edward Douglas, a former prisoner freed after last year's passage of a criminal justice overhaul bill, to the State of the Union address; he's headed to Iowa for a campaign swing Friday and Saturday.
Kamala Harris. She's bringing Trisha Pesiri-Dybvik, a federal worker who was affected by both the shutdown and the California wildfires, to Tuesday's presidential speech.
Elizabeth Warren. She's bringing Sajid Shahriar, a HUD employee who was furloughed during the shutdown, to the State of the Union address.
Kirsten Gillibrand. She's bringing Lt. Cmdr. Blake Dremann, who'd be affected by a ban on transgender people serving in the military, to tonight's address.
Howard Schultz. He's speaking at Purdue University on Thursday, at 1 p.m., for what is billed as the first policy address of his listening tour.
Bill Weld. The former Massachusetts governor and 2016 Libertarian Party vice presidential nominee has switched back to the GOP to consider a potential challenge to the president. (Weld had previously said he'd be a "Libertarian for life.")
Beto O'Rourke. He told Oprah Winfrey in a Tuesday afternoon interview that he will make a decision on the 2020 race by the end of February.
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) officially announced her bid for the White House on Saturday, with an “Aloha 2020" rally in Honolulu that was broadcast on Facebook, Periscope and other social media. The official Facebook stream clocked 17,000 views; the Periscope hovered between 350 and 500 views. By contrast, the official Facebook video stream of Kamala Harris's launch, one week earlier, has clocked 181,000 views.
What Gabbard had and Harris didn't, according to the Hawaiian's campaign, was a street team. In a Monday Instagram post, Gabbard shared an image that purportedly showed the locations of “over 3,500 watch parties.” That would be a lot; in July 2015, after he had been in the presidential race for months, Bernie Sanders's campaign held over 3,500 organizing house parties. That was made possible by a distributed organizing platform that Sanders's campaign developed; there's no similar tool on Gabbard's site, and a quick Facebook search finds just six archived house parties for Gabbard.
Gabbard's campaign said that a volunteer designed the "3,500 house parties" graphic, and that Periscope and Facebook were just two venues for livestreams; the video was also streamed on YouTube and the campaign website.
Still: The idea of that many house parties, that quickly, left some other campaigns with questions. If you attended one of these parties. please email The Trailer and tell us how it went.
Yes, Virginia, there is life after a governor resigns. The job that once belonged to Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry and Terry McAuliffe is, as you may have heard, in flux. In one scenario, a weakened Gov. Ralph Northam completes his term in January 2022. In another, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax replaces him. In yet another, both Northam and Fairfax are forced out of politics, for very different reasons, and Attorney General Mark Herring becomes governor.
The Washington Post has been all over the scandals surrounding Northam and Fairfax, but one raw political question is what could happen if Virginia gets a governor it did not elect. The commonwealth is the only place in America where governors are prevented from seeking consecutive terms, but those limits would probably not apply to a governor taking office mid-term. (This has never happened before in Virginia.)
What would happen to a replacement governor, be it Fairfax or Northam? The recent record on this is actually pretty promising. Since the start of this century, seven governors have resigned unexpectedly because of some kind of scandal or political pressure and not to taking some other political job. They were: Connecticut's John Rowland (2004), New Jersey's Jim McGreevey (2004), New York's Eliot Spitzer (2008), Illinois's Rod Blagojevich (2009), Alaska's Sarah Palin (2009), Oregon's John Kitzhaber (2015), Alabama's Robert Bentley (2017) and Missouri's Eric Greitens (2018).
In the seven cases where it was possible, the disgraced or departed governor's successor was able to hold the governor's mansion for his party in the next election. (The exception is Missouri, where the next election isn't until 2020). In five of those cases, the election was won by the person who replaced the departed governor; i.e., someone who had shared a ticket with them. In three of those cases, the new governor won with a bigger margin than his or her predecessor. (The exceptions came in Alabama and Illinois.)
There's never been a case quite like Virginia's, where Democrats quickly embraced the lieutenant governor by name only for him to be hit by accusations. But the limited data on this sort-of-common scenario is clear: “Accidental” governors have benefited from voters' desire to just move on from the chaos.
"The audacity of America's oligarchy,” by Edward Luce
A concise, negative response to the Howard Schultz speculation that boils it down: Schultz is issuing a sort of “billionaire's veto” if Democrats nominate a candidate he views as too far left.
“Kamala Harris Says Her Campaign Is ‘For the People,’" by Jocelyn Simonson
A takedown, from the left, of the slogan that Harris took from the courtroom to her presidential campaign.
“Cory Booker hates private schools,” by Eric Blanc
One of what will be a wave of critical Booker coverage from the left; this one, focused on the alliance with charter schools that initially made Booker so interesting to Republican allies.
. . . four days until Elizabeth Warren makes a special announcement
. . . 273 days until the next Virginia elections