In this edition: Bernie Sanders is back, CPAC is over, and socialism never goes away.
I'm eager to see which other 19th century ideologies make a comeback before the Iowa caucuses, and this is The Trailer.
SELMA, Ala. — On Saturday, Bernie Sanders launched his second presidential campaign with a crowd of around 13,000 people who waded through Brooklyn snow to see him.
On Sunday, the senator from Vermont found himself with candidates who’d run twice before and fallen short — both times. He was in Alabama for a day of civil rights remembrances, with Jesse Jackson sitting behind him and Hillary Clinton looking on from the crowd. Sanders quickly congratulated Clinton, who was receiving a voting rights award, and then turned to praise Jackson.
“Way back in 1984, this man ran for president, and he talked about a rainbow coalition,” said Sanders. “Remember that? History will not forget that he talked about the imperative of black, and white, and Latino, and Asian American, to come together.”
This wasn't one of the bigger moments of Sanders's first swing as a presidential candidate; those were the Brooklyn rally and a Sunday night speech in Chicago. Both are massive rallies designed to reintroduce the senator as a lifelong activist whose parents fled persecution to build a life in America — and as, for the first time, the leader in polls for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Sanders is the only candidate in the race with a previous presidential run behind him, which comes with both advantages and baggage. Clinton was the first Democrat since 1968 to win the party’s nomination on a second try. The first few days of Sanders’s campaign have revealed two things that began to be built during his first bid: an efficient and dominating campaign machine — and more enemies than anyone else in the race.
So far, Sanders has blown away his rivals by raising more than $10 million (no campaign has claimed to have more) and signing up 1 million campaign volunteers. His first Iowa events, planned for next weekend, are in arenas that can pack in thousands of voters.
“Because of all the work we have done, we are now on the brink of winning not just an election, but transforming our country,” Sanders said in Brooklyn. No other candidate would say they were “on the brink” of winning 11 months before the Iowa caucuses; no other candidate has so much early support. And no other candidate has so many critics still bitter about 2016.
The Brooklyn rally showcased a Sanders campaign that was largely picking up from where it left off, at the end of the 2016 primary, with several fixes. One was a focus on the senator’s biography, which wasn’t ignored in 2016 — Sanders frequently talked about his upbringing in Brooklyn — but which supporters thought was never effectively communicated.
Sanders on Saturday expanded a stump speech about universal Medicare, free college tuition and criminal justice reform to get into his personal story. At one point, deviating from the prepared remarks, Sanders appeared to hold back emotions as he described how his Jewish parents fled anti-Semitism and arrived in the United States.
And for the first time, he addressed the president as a potential opponent — not as a theoretical challenger once he got past the primaries.
“I did not come from a family of privilege that prepared me to entertain people on television by telling workers, ‘You’re fired,’” Sanders said. “I did not come from a politically connected family whose multinational corporation got special tax breaks and subsidies. I came from a family where my parents paid their taxes and understood the important role that government plays in a democracy.”
That still left room for Sanders surrogates to portray him not just as a candidate, but an indispensable man. Shaun King, a civil rights activist who had allied with Sanders on criminal justice issues, spoke at length about the senator's 1963 arrest in Chicago, when he joined a protest of segregated schools.
“He is the last activist from the civil rights movement with a chance to become president of the United States,” said King. “To this day, I still believe that he would have beaten Donald Trump.”
It's the last line — not the biography, but the experience of 2016 — that looks like political baggage. Polling has found Sanders, better known than ever, becoming one of the better-liked candidates for the Democratic nomination, even with the sort of voters he lost last time. But while a majority of Democratic primary voters say they're shopping around, Sanders has supporters who say they still struggle to imagine any other nominee.
In Brooklyn, several Sanders voters admitted that they had not voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, though they might have gotten themselves to that point had they lived in swing states. Anthony Baucicaut, a 26-year-old marketing technician, said that he could vote for Sanders or for Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), who endorsed Sanders's 2016 campaign. Any other Democrat was probably not worth his vote.
“I think other candidates are trying to further their brand using his progressive platform,” he said. “Just look up their donors. From what I read, Kamala Harris has like nine billionaire donors. So I don’t genuinely think that she will actually fight for these policy goals.” (Harris has urged donors against the creation of a super PAC.)
Sanders has tried to tamp down the idea that his supporters are willing to attack other candidates for the Democratic nomination, but the idea that they are, and that the candidate didn't do enough to encourage them to support the party, carries over from 2016.
Only Joe Biden, who has waxed nostalgically about how he could have run in 2016, has a similar power to Sanders to remind Democrats of their last and most painful primary. In Selma, it was hard not to notice the difference between Clinton's post-speech reaction to Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.), whom she hugged, and the mutual iciness with Sanders.
As he left the stage, Clinton gave him a quick handshake. She then sat back as two political allies praised her, said that the 2016 election had been stolen from her and performed a song about her resilience. Clinton herself gave the morning's longest speech, talking about her own civil rights work and saluting activists who were in the streets for voting rights. She singled out Stacey Abrams, the Democrat who narrowly lost a 2018 bid for governor of Georgia, and described the work she'd done to restore voting rights in her state.
“She didn't just go on TV and make speeches,” Clinton said.
Sanders's campaign launch was designed to emphasize that he, too, did a lot more than simply make speeches. But he got a quick reminder of how many Democrats thought otherwise.
Are you enthusiastic/comfortable backing a candidate with these qualities? (NBC/WSJ, 720 registered voters)
African-American — 87%
Caucasian — 86%
Female — 84%
Gay — 68%
Independent — 60%
Under age 40 — 58%
Business executive — 56%
Evangelical Christian — 54%
Muslim — 49%
Over age 75 — 37%
Socialist — 25%
This is the rare enlightening question in a national presidential poll, as it isn't affected by candidate name recognition; it's just a pH test of voter biases. Since 2006, a supermajority of voters gave said they are comfortable supporting a black or female presidential candidate, but the percentage comfortable with a gay candidate has surged from 43 percent to 68 percent — the biggest movement on this sort of question — and support for a Muslim candidate has moved from 32 percent to parity.
Obviously, that's not the headline here. What stands out is the wan support for a candidate such as Bernie Sanders — older than 75, and identifying as a socialist. (The nuance of Sanders's “democratic socialism,” a pretty well-understood term in most democracies, is lost in the survey.) Also striking: Support for a theoretical third-party candidate has fallen from 67 percent in 2015 to 60 percent now.
New Hampshire Republican presidential primary (UNH, 218 likely Republican voters)
Vote for Trump or another Republican candidate?
Donald Trump — 56%
Another candidate — 29%
Vote for Trump, John Kasich, or Bill Weld?
Donald Trump — 68%
John Kasich — 17%
Bill Weld — 3%
Last month, former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld became the first Republican to challenge the president in the 2020 primary. This first look at his support suggests that the Trump-skeptical GOP voter, well represented in political coverage, remains overwhelmingly outnumbered. When asked about a hypothetical Trump challenge, a full 44 percent of New Hampshire Republicans have to think about it; when offered the choice of Weld or the better-known Kasich, just 32 percent of those same Republicans break with the president.
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Some years, the Conservative Political Action Conference turns into a festival of Republican infighting, of grudges lurching from Twitter into reality, of obscure speakers making disastrous onstage gaffes.
That was not this year's CPAC. Apart from a few awkward moments, like when columnist Michelle Malkin mocked “the ghost of John McCain” and Donald Trump Jr. bombed with a #MeToo joke, nothing became fodder for second-day stories. The president's two-hour stemwinder, which included the sort of insults (“Pocahontas”) that used to make news, did so only when he promised an executive order protecting free speech for campus conservatives.
More than any year since George W. Bush’s first term, the conference resembled a three-day rally for the incumbent president — a miniaturized Republican National Convention. There was not much daylight between the issues discussed at the conference and the issues favored by the Republican National Committee — even the often-snarky tone was the same.
Hamburger helpers. Speaker after speaker suggested that the post-2016 Democratic Party had tumbled into insanity and that Republicans needed only to point this out to win. Exhibit A was the Green New Deal, the very mention of which would bring the audience (ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand) to boos. By a mile, the most popular part of the idea to attack was a theoretical government ban on meat-eating.
“I support cows,” said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.). “I hope to see PETA supporting the Republican Party, now that the Democrats want to kill all the cows.”
The Green New Deal resolution says nothing about meat; the popular CPAC riff is based on both a far-too-jokey FAQ that suggested Americans wouldn't “ban farting cows” within the next 10 years and the very real movement to discourage meat-eating as a health and climate lifestyle choice. The president has been talking about this for a month, but the idea of a “war on meat” was percolating on the right long before that. After CPAC, it's easy to see this working into a 2020 riff on how Democrats want to change the country.
Midterms? What midterms? At CPAC, talk about “the election” meant one thing — 2016. Speaker after speaker accused Democrats of working to overturn “the election” by investigating the president. Less frequently discussed was how the Democrats got into a position to do that; namely, by dismantling the House GOP's majority in November 2018.
The absence of 2018 talk followed on cues from the president himself. Unlike Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, all of whom changed tack after losing midterm elections, the president blamed losing candidates for distancing themselves from him and has prioritized the same issues as he did when Republicans controlled both houses of Congress. When 2018 was discussed at CPAC, it was as evidence that Republicans lost steam by betraying the president.
“I urged the administration: Let's take up a budget reconciliation and look to build the wall,” Cruz said in his turn at the microphone. “In September or October, with Republicans standing together funding and building the wall, I'll tell you right now: I don't think we would have lost the House of Representatives.”
Polling doesn't back that up; Republicans ducked the border wall fight in October because it polled terribly, and a subsequent pivot to campaign against a caravan of migrants from central America did not shift polling, either.
Democrats are losers who will defeat us. The only discord in CPAC's “all is well” melody came when a few people who'd lost elections got to speak. Scott Walker, who was ousted in November, spoke to a small Wednesday night crowd and warned them that the left was on the march. He'd won more votes in 2018 than he had in his successful 2014 reelection; he was simply overwhelmed by Democrats. (Cruz also allowed himself a little pessimism after his close Senate race: “We are going to see the left turn out in massive numbers, flush with cash.")
But there wasn't much discussion of what, exactly, the left had done right. A presentation from Bill Meierling, a vice president at the conservative legislative group ALEC, warned conservatives about Democrats' use of social media; presentations from Hans von Spakovsky and J. Christian Adams, opponents of Democratic voting-restructuring ideas, focused on the threat of absentee ballot fraud and how automatic voter registration made it harder for Democrats to fall off the rolls. And at one presentation by the National Republican Senatorial Committee, a worried CPAC attendee asked whether millions of fraudulent votes would steal the Senate back for Democrats.
Mississippi. Candidate filing closed this week, setting up the first competitive-looking statewide elections in this state since 2003, when Republicans first swept into power. The primaries are Aug. 6 and set up three-week runoff elections if they don't produce clear winners.
As expected, Attorney General Jim Hood is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor; he drew seven opponents, ranging from complete unknowns to local elected officials who can run to Hood's left. The Republican race will include Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who has been the front-runner since winning his current office in 2011, plus former state Supreme Court Justice Bill Waller and conservative state legislator Robert Foster.
Democrats have not won any Mississippi elections in this decade except for Hood's; this year, they will compete for seven of eight statewide offices, with credible candidates (Hood included) in four. Johnny DuPree, the former mayor of Hattiesburg who badly lost a 2011 bid for governor, has a token opponent in the race for secretary of state. Jennifer Riley Collins, the state's ACLU director, will be the party's nominee for attorney general — an office the party has held since Reconstruction. State legislator Jay Hughes will be its nominee for lieutenant governor.
But Republicans are still favored in every race below governor, where the first polls have been tight. There will be competitive primaries for treasurer, attorney general and secretary of state; the incumbent treasurer and secretary of state are both seeking bigger jobs.
Republicans hold 33 of the state's 52 state senate seats and 72 of its 122 state house seats.
Joe Biden. He's keynoting the Delaware Democratic Party's dinner March 16, which would be his first real campaign event since the midterms — if he doesn't announce something else before then. He also walked back his comment, made in Omaha, that Vice President Pence is a “decent” man, after Cynthia Nixon published an op-ed calling Pence “America's most anti-LGBT elected leader.”
John Hickenlooper. The former governor of Colorado is widely expected to announce a White House bid this week; he'll be among the White House-curious Democrats at South by Southwest on Saturday.
Tulsi Gabbard. She made a three-day “civil rights pilgrimage” through Alabama over the weekend.
Michael Bennet. The senator from Colorado talked to the Atlantic during his swing through suburban Iowa, sketching out the path for a mild-mannered “normalcy” Democrat. “We’ve got to find a president who’s capable of leading us to a much better politics than we have right now.”
Marianne Williamson. She was the first (and only) 2020 Democrat to broach the topic of slavery reparations on her own; tonight she'll speak to Iowa's black caucus, and on Wednesday she'll be in Brooklyn to talk to female business leaders.
Jay Inslee. He's in central Iowa on Tuesday for a run of “clean energy” events.
Andrew Cuomo. He ruled out a run for president last year and preemptively endorsed Joe Biden; in a new interview with Edward Isaac-Dovere, he said to “call me back” if Biden doesn't run.
Justin Amash. The libertarian-leaning Republican congressman from Michigan said he did not rule out a 2020 bid for president as a libertarian. “I think that it is important that we have someone in there who is presenting a vision for America that is different from what these two parties are presenting.”
John Delaney. The first candidate in the race became the first to send out a mailing to Iowans.
What is to be done about “socialism” coverage? Before CPAC and its litany of attacks on “socialism,” Alex Shephard in the New Republic asked whether the media discussion of the s-word was off-base. Political science has a very clear definition of the term, as did Karl Marx: It means public ownership of the means of production. And not even Bernie Sanders was running on that.
“Warren’s wealth tax, which would add a two percent levy to assets over $50 million, and Booker’s baby bonds, an innovative plan to curb racial inequality, would redistribute wealth, but don’t challenge the very structure of America’s economic system,” Shepard wrote. “The Green New Deal, which some candidates have embraced, is perhaps the most ambitious policy proposal to gain mainstream traction in decades, but it is not socialism, properly defined.”
The rise of “socialism” as an idea, especially among younger Democratic voters, is one of the most important ideological stories of the decade. But many of the questions about socialism, put to candidates, ask them to take a stand on something that the questioner does not define. And Democrats have discovered that there's no great way to answer them without getting lost in debates about Venezuela or the Soviets.
Ben Jealous, the 2018 Democratic nominee for governor of Maryland, blew up at The Washington Post's Erin Cox when she asked whether he identified as a socialist. (He'd ironically said “call me a socialist, but that doesn't change the fact that I'm a venture capitalist,” and the first part of that sentence ended up in an attack ad.) Elizabeth Warren told CNBC that she was a “capitalist” who believed “the market needs rules” and got attacked by the party's left. Kamala Harris tripped the same wire when she told Fox News that she was not a “democratic socialist.”
Is it an unfair question? Obviously not — a growing number of Democrats say they're sympathetic to socialism, and the poll leader in the Democratic primary is a democratic socialist. It's as fair a question as the one posed to Republicans since 2015: Do they consider themselves nationalists?
What's missing is a real definition of what “socialism” is, and a big advantage for Sanders on this question is that he's thought about it. In November 2015, he delivered a well-covered speech at Georgetown about “democratic socialism.” The short version, Sanders said, is that “democratic socialism” meant the old New Deal agenda of the Democratic Party, which resembled the market socialism — private companies, but a robust welfare state — embraced by Europe.
“It builds on what Franklin Delano Roosevelt said when he fought for guaranteed economic rights for all Americans,” he said. “And it builds on what Martin Luther King Jr. said in 1968 when he stated that: 'This country has socialism for the rich, and rugged individualism for the poor.' It builds on the success of many other countries around the world that have done a far better job than we have in protecting the needs of their working families, the elderly, the children, the sick and the poor.”
The oddity of Sanders's career and rhetoric is that almost every Democrat who's sought the presidency since 1932 has agreed with this; what's really new is that years of “red-baiting,” with even market-based policies such as the Affordable Care Act labeled “socialism” by opponents, have desensitized many Democratic voters to the term as memories of the Cold War have faded. The attacks have even given it the kind of rebellious cachet that “deplorable” or “bitter clingers” has with supporters of the president.
But critics haven't tried to define “democratic socialism,” and they've ignored what it means to adherents. Politicians see no upside in discussing how “democratic socialism” differs from the “Bolivarian socialism” of Venezuela, but it's the only way to avoid “the s word” being hammered into meaninglessness. Getting Democrats to say they're not “socialists” doesn't necessarily tell us the whole story of their evolution.
The world's greatest deliberative body. It's rare that the angriest people on Twitter and the most connected people in Democratic politics agree on something, but they agree on this: There are too many potential Democratic candidates for the Senate who are choosing instead to explore long-shot runs at the presidency. Glenn Thrush's story about the phenomenon runs it down:
Colorado: John Hickenlooper, who left office as one of the country's most popular governors, is exploring a run for president instead of challenging Sen. Cory Gardner (R).
Georgia: Stacey Abrams has not ruled out a bid for the White House, as Democrats urge her to run against Sen. David Perdue (R).
Montana: Steve Bullock, the only Montana Democrat who won statewide in 2016, is exploring a run for president and not a run against Sen. Steve Daines (R).
Texas: Beto O'Rourke appears to have ruled out a bid against Sen. John Cornyn (R).
It all has led to loud Democratic bellyaching, uniting everyone from Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer to the malcontents of Twitter. But the four states fit into three categories. The first (Colorado, Texas) are places where Democrats are on the mend and have at least one other credible candidate who could run. The second (Georgia): a place where the reluctant candidate may be moved into the race. Only the third (Montana) has no first-tier challenger to a first-term senator if the recruit runs instead for the presidency.
Each state runs on a different timeline, too. In Colorado, candidates can file to run in the 2020 cycle as late as April of that year; Gardner himself passed on a 2014 run before changing his mind and clearing the field in late February. Both Georgia and Montana require candidates to file in March, but Daines himself was helped into office when the 2014 Democratic nominee did himself in with a plagiarism scandal; Democrats were able to file a new candidate in August.
Only Texas, with its early March primary, requires candidates to make up their minds before any presidential primaries are held; they must file petitions 11 months before the general election. Every other could-be Senate candidate might, in theory, be able to do what Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) did in 2016 — brush off the debris from a failed presidential bid, and submit himself to becoming one of 100 people with power over presidential nominees, treaties and major legislation.
"Candidates press to connect with black voters,” by Matt Viser and Cleve R. Wootson, Jr.
There has never really been anything like the campaign to win the Democrats' most loyal electorate, a race that pits two credible black candidates against two better-known white candidates, while lesser-known candidates refuse to concede anything.
“The elite media sees impeachment as a problem — for Democrats,” by Dan Froomkin
It's always worth asking whether the “savvy” take is incorrect; here, the question is whether elite Washington is too stuck in the past to discuss whether the president should be impeached.
“Trump recruitment failure sets off alarms over 2020,” by Alex Isenstadt and Gabby Orr
Who wants to run the super PAC that will reelect the president? The surprising answer: Nobody!
. . . four days until Bernie Sanders returns to Iowa
. . . 28 days until the end of March, when Sherrod Brown has said he'll make a 2020 decision
. . . 43 days until the middle of April, when campaigns must release their first-quarter financial reports