In this edition: Inslee on the trail, Biden on a high, and the first real skirmish of the Democratic primaries.
I've gotten some excellent nightmares from “The Uninhabitable Earth,” and this is The Trailer.
AGOURA HILLS, Calif. — On Monday morning, when Washington Gov. Jay Inslee visited the Seminole Springs mobile home park, the husks of cars and houses were still sitting in pools of melted plastic. It had been four months since some of the worst forest fires in southern California's history. Inslee, joined by some of the people who'd lost their homes, was there to explain why man-made climate change was responsible.
“When you see this devastation, and you talk to these resilient survivors, it is maddening to think that we have a president who won't protect these people,” Inslee said. “It's maddening, because the science is abundantly clear: We will have at least twice as many of these fires in the upcoming decade if we don't act.”
Inslee, 68, jumped into the Democratic primary this month as the candidate who would fight climate change. His many rivals don't know what to make of that. Every Democrat seeking the party's nomination believes that the Earth is warming and that Obama-era environmental standards need to be fully restored. Every senator and member of Congress in the race had also embraced the Green New Deal, the Marshall Plan-size project to restructure the economy and bring net emissions to zero by 2030. All of them have found that talking about climate change, or about Democrats needing to “believe in science,” generates massive applause.
To Inslee, it looks like other candidates are “checking a box” on climate — good intentions and no assurance of action. Inslee, who had watched the Obama administration's cap-and-trade bill to limit pollutants be killed by filibuster in the Senate nine years ago, emphasized that only he was calling for the end of that bill-blocking tool, with no caveats. One of just two candidates with experience running a state in the race, Inslee was able to rattle off what his state had done on climate, including a new law that would phase out coal power by 2025 and stop state utilities from burning carbon by 2045. It's the only existential issue in the race, he says; if that makes him a “single-issue” candidate, so be it.
“Look, we didn't fight World War II by just helping the bombed-out cities,” Inslee told reporters in Agoura Hills. “We fought the enemy. And the enemy here is climate change. It's like December 8, 1941, the morning after Pearl Harbor. Nobody accused Franklin Roosevelt of being a single-issue president, because that was the threat. And this threat of climate change threatens everything we hold dear.”
The Agoura Hills event was the most public part of a short California swing that connected Inslee with Democrats craving a message like this. He met with Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who visited early-voting states last year but decided against a run. He raised money with Trevor Neilson, an investor who'd connected with the Inslee campaign after Mike Bloomberg said days earlier that he would not seek the White House. Life, Neilson said, could be separated into two periods — before and after the 2018 fire. Once he evacuated his home, near Agoura Hills, he knew how he wanted to spend his time as a donor and activist.
“Inslee's the guy,” said Neilson, 46. “He's 10 times more serious than these people who've jumped on board with the Green New Deal, which is a slogan, not a plan.”
Inslee, a cheerful and sometimes jokey politician, talks about climate in apocalyptic terms. When he learned that this reporter was on his flight to California, he handed over his copy, just finished, of “The Uninhabitable Earth.” It describes a future of food scarcity, droughts, dead oceans and heat too intense for civilization as we know it.
But averting that disaster, according to Inslee, would not need to be painful. Asked what he thought the federal government might limit or tax or ban to change behavior — gas-powered cars? Meat? — Inslee suggested that enough investment in renewable energy would “provide multiple choices” for people to get to work making cleaner cars and appliances, and develop “technologies that would allow them to enjoy life as they do now.” If anyone says he wants to ban automobiles, he points to his “spiffy, blue” GM Bolt, an electric vehicle that sells for more than $35,000. Republican concerns about overreach, he said, were as frivolous as their assertions that the Affordable Care Act would lead to “death panels” for the aged.
“A lot of these Republican politicians, if their house was on fire and the community made a bucket brigade to put it out, would say, 'That's socialist,' " Inslee said. “They've just got to quit worrying about their ideology and start worrying about their grandchildren a little bit more.”
Much of Inslee's thinking about how to run on climate was informed by the green movement's struggles in Congress. The filibuster was problem No. 1: There was simply no saving the planet, he said, without removing that bottleneck. Asked whether he would use presidential emergency powers to tackle climate change and what he would pack into a budget reconciliation bill — the annual opportunity to pass legislation with 51 Senate votes — he was rueful. He wanted President Trump's emergency declaration to be struck down in court, and he needed Senate rules changed to pass real climate bills. He put it starkly: You could save the planet, or you could worry about the old rules.
“You can't solve this through reconciliation,” he said. “There are multiple things, including regulatory actions, that really can't be done through reconciliation. You look at the clean fuel standard, you look at 100 percent [carbon-free] grid, you look at banning super pollutants — it's too big a lift. You can't do a major mobilization of the economy through that process.”
Inslee's “war footing” approach to the issue won him some converts in California. The evacuees in Agoura Hills nodded and occasionally wiped away their tears as they blamed the warming climate for what had happened to their communities; they were rueful when they remembered the president saying the problem had been improper raking of the forests, not climate change. Inslee, in conversation with the evacuees who'd been invited back for the tour, reminded them that he had written a book about the risks of climate change in 2007 and that he had been working on the issue in some way or another for his entire career. They were happy to hear it.
“In the 10 years I lived here, every year, it's getting hotter,” said Bracken Carter-Webb. “Climate change has always been in the back of my mind, but after this, it hit home. There are 10 kids on my son's soccer team; five of them lost their homes.”
Invisible in early polling, Inslee was trying to prove that he simply took those concerns more seriously than other candidates. He had, he told them, wrestled with Republicans enough to learn that it was a waste of time to wait for them on climate.
“We have been hoping that the spirit of Teddy Roosevelt would be rekindled in the Republican Party, and it hasn't,” Inslee said after the trailer park visit, talking about a long-ago conservationist focus inside the GOP. “The kind of things that we have to do to mobilize to defeat climate change — we only have one party that's willing to do it. I wish it were otherwise.”
Inslee also separated himself from other Democrats by allowing a super PAC, Act Now on Climate, to raise unlimited money for a campaign that will support him from the outside. The rest of the field has denounced super PACs; that, to Inslee, meant “unilaterally disarming” and allowing the president to “beat our eventual nominee over the head” in 2020.
“They are not as committed to defeating climate change as I am,” Inslee said of his rival Democrats.
Monday's visit made Inslee one of just a few Democrats to visit California, where home-state senator Kamala Harris (D) has won early endorsements from members of Congress and from new Gov. Gavin Newsom (D). Inslee intended to compete in the state “as much as Steph Curry,” he said, referring to the Golden State Warriors' star. No Democrat would say as much about climate as he, he stressed, no matter who jumped into the race next.
“If Joe Biden wrote a book about climate change in 2007, I must have missed it,” he said.
Democrats expect Beto O'Rourke to announce a presidential bid soon. He's in Iowa on Saturday to campaign for a state Senate candidate; more telling, he's running more than 100 variations of a Facebook ad that tells supporters to expect an announcement of some sort very soon.
“People in communities across the country have been reaching out and asking me if I'm planning on running in 2020,” the ad reads. “Amy and I have made a decision on that. Sign up today to be first to know what's next. I’d like for you to be a part of it.”
This is the first ad of any kind O'Rourke has purchased since his defeat four months ago. The variations are key: This sort of A/B message testing is exactly what a campaign operation would do before it seriously heads back out to raise money.
Three lesser-known Democratic presidential candidates got their own CNN town halls Sunday: John Delaney, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (Hawaii) and Pete Buttigieg. Only one of those candidates, Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., has released a cash haul from the wake of the debate: $600,000 from 20,000 donors, over just 24 hours. That's real money for a candidate polling at or under 1 percent; it's comparable to what Bobby Jindal, who by 2015 had been a rising GOP star for a decade, put up in his first full quarter as a presidential candidate.
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Joe Biden's speech to the International Association of Fire Fighters was, as expected, a show of strength before a group that is expected to endorse him if he runs for president. The ballroom of the Hyatt Regency was filled with “Run Joe Run” signs on the union's yellow and black template; Biden himself was framed by massive signs reading “Fire Fighters for Biden.” And the former vice president's long tango with the 2020 race continued, with him telling union members that he could need their support in the “next few weeks.”
The speech itself, though, did not put much fear into Biden's potential opponents. The first reason was the form of the speech, a series of anecdotes and big themes that did not hang together until the end, when he returned to one of his favorite rhetorical tricks: telling a friendly audience that “you can knock us down, but you can never beat us.”
The second was Biden's continued difficulty in making a populist economic argument. It wasn't necessarily the theme of the speech — Biden was there to praise the union and promise permanent protection for firefighters' pensions. But it was noticeable when Biden said that workers, not "CEOs and hedge funds," had built America and then, within seconds, added that the CEOs were "not bad people." It's just how Biden talks, especially when he's excoriating the president and needs to pull back.
“If you've noticed, I get criticized for saying anything nice about a Republican,” Biden said. “Folks, that's not who we are.”
The third and less decorous reason the speech didn't scare other candidates: Biden's presentation. The IAFF, by inviting no other potential or declared 2020 candidates, spared Biden a contrast with a younger Democrat. But it welcomed Biden to the stage with a 90-second video recalling his previous appearances at the conference, a visual aid that could not help but emphasize the age, and slower speaking style, of the Democrat who appeared onstage.
The Democratic primary is in a strange place, with Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) clearly ahead in state polling and rival campaigns completely convinced that their support will fade as voters learn of the "fresh-faced” options. Tuesday's speech didn't change Biden’s perception of enthusiastic support for a possible candidacy or rivals’ perception of that support. His potential opponents could be wrong, but nothing has put the fear into them yet.
Tulsi Gabbard. She's making a northern California swing this weekend, starting in San Francisco and continuing on to Fremont, also in the Bay Area.
Amy Klobuchar. She returns to Iowa this weekend, with three Saturday stops across northeastern, Democratic-leaning cities.
Andrew Yang. His campaign says it has secured donations from at least 65,000 people; if spread around enough states, that would qualify him for the first Democratic debates. He's also got 14 Iowa and New Hampshire stops coming up before the end of the month.
Marianne Williamson. She's setting out on a swing through Nevada and New Hampshire, including a St. Patrick's Day celebration in the Las Vegas suburbs.
Seth Moulton. He said Tuesday that he favors the end of the electoral college and the filibuster; he is heading to South Carolina next week to suss out support for a presidential bid.
This was a pivotal week in the Democratic primary — the first real case of one candidate going on the attack and the other candidate parrying.
On Sunday, former HUD secretary Julián Castro attacked Sanders by name, twice. In a CNN interview and subsequent South by Southwest appearance, Castro asked why Sanders was comfortable proposing massive, pricey social welfare and public works projects but deferred on questions about reparations for the descendants of slaves.
“It's interesting to me that, when it comes to Medicare-for-all, health care, the response there has been, we need to write a big check,” Castro told CNN. “If the issue is compensating the descendants of slaves, I don't think that the argument about writing a big check ought to be the argument that you make, if you're making an argument that a big check needs to be written for a whole bunch of other stuff.”
Castro’s jab was a bit of a test for Sanders; he had, days earlier, said that his campaign would do no opposition research on opponents and run no negative ads. And Sanders himself never responded.
But Sanders's network of surrogates did respond. Behind the scenes, negative stories from 2016, about whether Castro's HUD prioritized investors over distressed communities, were quickly recirculated. In public, some well-known Sanders allies went after Castro.
“As HUD Sec Castro did more to exacerbate the racial wealth gap than anyone in the Democratic Party over the last few years,” tweeted Nina Turner, a national co-chair of the Sanders campaign.
It wasn't much of a fight; Sanders supporters overwhelmed defenders of Castro online. On Monday, asked about Castro on a conference call, Sanders campaign manager Faiz Shakir largely dismissed the challenge.
“This is a worthy debate; I appreciate all of the candidates offering their thoughts and ideas,” Shakir said. “Anyone who tells you they've got a magic bullet here is lying. But the effort to play politics with this does a disservice to the fact that Senator Sanders has been a lifelong advocate for racial justice.”
"The Trudeau Scandal Happens All the Time in America,” by David Dayen
Have more lax corruption laws in the United States made it easier to have government-business collusion — something that, in other countries, can quickly become an ethical crisis?
The polling that finds a large number of Republicans open to a Trump primary challenge sounds enticing to conservative critics … until it's compared to the similar numbers for previous presidents, who did not end up getting real challenges.
“Medicare-for-all v. Medicare-for-less: Trump’s proposed cuts put health care at center of 2020 race,” by Toluse Olorunnipa and Sean Sullivan
Democrats cannot say enough about the White House's budget, which surprised them by once again putting the president on the record for Medicare cuts.
. . . four days until Beto O'Rourke heads to Iowa
. . . six days until Elizabeth Warren's CNN town hall
. . . 18 days until Democrats meet in Iowa for a debate about antitrust policy