In this edition: Beto O'Rourke on the trail, Seth Moulton looking for an opening, and the return of Mike Gravel.
I learned this week that Grover Cleveland's grandson is a New Hampshire voter who is leaning toward Marianne Williamson, and this is The Trailer.
CONWAY, N.H. — At his third stop in the Granite State — his third of 10, over two days — Beto O’Rourke was asked about white privilege. He'd taken similar questions before, but this time, he paused for five seconds, looked down, then looked up again.
“This country will truly hit its stride when it reflects and represents and involves the contributions, the genius, and the creativity of everyone,” O’Rourke said. “And right now — economically, politically, where power is concentrated, you don't have that representation. You don't have a true reflection of who we are, a people from every corner of the globe, who came together here to make this the indispensable nation on the planet.”
It would have been an unusually existential answer to the question for any other candidate, but it was not unusual for O’Rourke. In his first blitz as a candidate for president, O’Rourke has dealt with nagging questions — Is a failed Senate candidate ready for the presidency? Is he serious about policy? — with real-time prose. Other candidates talk in applause lines, while O’Rourke speaks in paragraphs, with lots of asides and emphasis and aphorisms.
The result (so far) is the first Democratic campaign to really shake up this race since Kamala Harris’s enormous early crowds surprised her rivals and boosted her in public polls. It is not like any other campaign — by design.
He’s still figuring this whole thing out. More than any other candidate for the presidency, O’Rourke admits that he does not have all the answers and will get things wrong. He thanks crowds for telling him what he did not know. He thanks reporters for being patient with him — after some complaints about access in Iowa, he began to hold 10- to 15-minute news conferences after nearly every event.
In Conway, this reporter asked O’Rourke about his 2012 run for Congress, when he talked about the “extravagant” size of government and the need to means-test entitlements — i.e., to shrink Social Security payments to many recipients. What changed his mind? Why should voters think it won’t change back?
“I think I've become a lot smarter, from listening to the people that I represented, to listening to people in Congress and others who understand this issue better than I do,” he said. “If you were to raise the [Social Security tax] cap, so that every extra dollar or extra hundred thousand dollars or extra million dollars that you earn is taxed, you would ensure the viability of that program well into the next century without means testing.”
After another town hall, in Durham, O’Rourke was asked about reparations for the descendants of slaves. His answer to that question is better seen in full; it was a perfect example of how O’Rourke, rather than giving a quick sound bite, will spell out the journey he made toward an answer.
“I have been talking to and, more importantly, listening to a lot of people on this question. I reached out to [civil rights activist] Bryan Stevenson, who was helpful in establishing the memorial to peace in Montgomery, Alabama, that records, to a great degree, the brutality visited upon African Americans, the lynchings throughout so much of this country. And he reminded me that at the root of the word reparations is the word repair and that in order to repair this deep and lasting damage to our country, we first have to confront the facts and the truth.
“And so, in addition to celebrating civil rights victories, we also have to acknowledge the extraordinary suffering and death endured by African Americans and people of color in this country, long after the end of the Civil War. People who were pressed into convict work gangs simply because of the color of their skin. People denied opportunity. People living in constant fear for their lives.
“And so, I said: What do you want to see the next president of the United States do? And he said he wanted the next president of the United States to help ensure that that conversation continues, that as many Americans as possible are confronted with those facts and acknowledge our history. And then he said, out of this can begin the real work of repair or reparations, so that truth, those facts, and a wide acceptance and understanding of what this country has done is the most important step that we can take.”
Another, shorter way to answer that would be to quickly say that he supports a study of reparations, which is the only legislative proposal recently introduced in Congress. But that's not how he talks, and while answers like the one he gave would not fly in debates or quick TV interviews, they are finding an audience on the trail.
He’s already in a policy war with Bernie Sanders (and he isn’t losing). O’Rourke has refused to attack any Democratic rival; Bernie Sanders has pledged not to go negative on any other candidate. But the first real skirmish of the primary is underway, pitting supporters of Sanders against O’Rourke, and at the moment it’s breaking to the Texan’s benefit.
On social media and at a few town halls, voters have asked whether O’Rourke has real policies or he’s going to offer platitudes — something that has grown out of his aforementioned, philosophical answers. Unlike Sanders, who states his policies one by one, O’Rourke tends to get to them after a soliloquy on what the country needs.
But the rumor that O'Rourke is a policy lightweight makes it easy for him to impress voters, for now. In New Hampshire especially, he’s got heads nodding with a quick summary of the state’s “safe stations” program for tackling opioid abuse; in Manchester he described it as one “where anyone can walk into a fire department in some cities, and, without fear of being entangled in the criminal justice system, get lifesaving help right away.”
Like Sanders, who won over voters who had simply never heard a candidate state bluntly that America needed universal health care or free college, O’Rourke takes some clear positions on issues that other candidates often handle with extra caution. Asked in Manchester whether undocumented immigrants should have driver’s licenses, O’Rourke said “yes,” then argued it would “demonstrably make us safer.” Asked about marijuana, O’Rourke says it should be legal.
He does not go as far as Sanders on some issues, but he has been able to disarm critics offline. After O'Rourke's Durham town hall, an activist with the New Hampshire Youth Movement got into his photo line and, as phones recorded (and staff stood by nervously), asked him to commit to free college for “all Americans,” including those with criminal convictions.
“I believe in free community college and I believe in debt-free four-year public college, so the cost is not a barrier for admission,” O’Rourke said. “We should ensure that incarceration is also not a barrier to advancement.”
In the long run, this approach could put O’Rourke on the record for issues that Republicans can weaponize in a general election. At the moment, it is stymying the effort to portray him as a cipher.
He’s starting small. There are no campaign signs, yet, at O’Rourke’s events. There are no signs telling people where to go. The only evidence of a campaign advance team is the existence of working microphones at the venues after O’Rourke arrives. But in his first days as a candidate, O’Rourke is trying to keep the trappings of his Senate campaign, scaling it up nationally in a way that cannot work for much longer.
“I know that we have not done an event where folks cannot ask questions or make comments or level criticisms at me,” O’Rourke said in Manchester. “I'm getting better along the way. I have a long way to go, and that's very clear to me, but I am grateful for the opportunity.”
If he wanted them, O’Rourke could be speaking to much larger crowds. Only in Conway, a long drive north from New Hampshire’s population centers, did his audience merely fill the venue. Everywhere else, he has walked into an overflowing room, with dozens of people outside — and in places where, if he chose, he could book bigger spaces.
This won't last; O'Rourke's launch day, scheduled for March 30, is going to feature three rallies across Texas. But the degree to which he's maintained a “home-brew” image is almost surreal. He shows up at events in a van, joined by two staffers, who insist that he does not let them drive. He has just a few volunteers collecting names; in Portsmouth, they were outnumbered by activists looking for signatories on Medicare-for-all petitions. If the knock on O'Rourke was that he embodied a wistful writer's ideal of how a campaign should look, he has answered that by embracing it.
COLUMBIA, S.C. — Over two days in South Carolina, Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) got questions on universal basic income (“an interesting idea"), Medicare-for-all (not right now), national service (we need more of it), and how to unite America. He also got an easy question: Why had he not joined some Massachusetts colleagues and endorsed Elizabeth Warren's bid for the White House?
“Because I'm looking at running myself,” Moulton said.
The 40-year-old congressman, who made a few friends and a few more enemies with his campaign to stop Nancy Pelosi from becoming speaker of the House this year (he said it was time for “a new generation of leadership,” swiping a John F. Kennedy slogan) is making trips to every early-voting state. After he's done — sometime in the next few weeks — he will decide whether to enter the most crowded Democratic presidential primary in modern history. Wherever he went, he said, he met voters who wanted to hear “a plan to take the country forward” and felt they were not necessarily getting it.
“A lot of Americans are hurting,” he said, in between a meeting with veterans at a Columbia VFW hall and a meeting of College Democrats at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. “Frankly that's why a lot of Americans turned to Trump, thinking that he would disrupt the system so much that maybe it would get Washington working for them again.”
Plenty of Democrats — maybe two dozen, from 2016 runner-up Bernie Sanders to Miramar, Fla., Mayor Wayne Messam — are making the same argument. Some, like Sanders, Warren, and Sen. Kamala Harris of California, have already drawn the sort of out-the-door crowds that don't typically form until much later in the primary season.
But there is no stop signal flashing for a number of Democrats who believe the field is missing the perfect messenger: the one they see in the mirror. As Moulton held meetings in Columbia, former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe was across town, talking to local Democrats. At his first event, Moulton was introduced by 2018 gubernatorial candidate James Smith — a friend of Joe Biden who, coincidentally, had talked to the former vice president a few hours earlier.
Biden leads in hypothetical polls of South Carolina and other early-voting states; Moulton and McAuliffe do not. But with no "moderate" Democrats gaining real traction in the Biden-free race, and with Biden himself facing questions about his age, Moulton is looking for evidence that Democrats want something not yet on offer. A Marine veteran (he politely corrected one voter who called him a "former Marine"), he peppers his remarks with comments about how the president dodged the draft or how he has no right to continue attacking the late John McCain.
“I have been wondering if maybe his bone spurs are flaring,” Moulton said, referring to the condition that a young Trump cited to avoid serving in Vietnam.
At the roundtable with veterans, Moulton made the sort of argument that had, in 2014, made him a rising Democratic star. Heads nodded around the room while Moulton talked about the lack of a “mission” for America in its post-9/11 wars and the disconnect many Americans feel from their government. He had fought for America, he said, in a war he did not support.
“It really made me understand what it was like to be betrayed by my government,” Moulton said. “I didn't agree with the war. I didn't agree with why they were there. But the people in Washington who sent us there were out of touch.”
The veterans who'd come to see Moulton had not known much about him that morning, but they left impressed. Lyle Hendrick, a private investigator who had chased down “stolen valor” cases of fraudulent claims of military medals, said he was undecided on 2020 and enjoyed hearing from a veteran with some substance.
“I start my day with 'Morning Joe,' so I see the candidates, and I'm not impressed with the pool of people running right now,” Hendrick said. “They may be good policy wonks, or they may be good intellectuals, but I don't see any real leadership.”
Moulton, whose national profile grew in 2018 when he campaigned for fellow veterans in House races, was working to prove himself as a leader with a series of big ideas. Before heading to South Carolina, he had endorsed the idea of electing presidents by popular vote; on Thursday he came out for a new Voting Rights Act. In between, he'd said Democrats were right to start asking whether the Supreme Court should be expanded beyond nine members, to neutralize the Republican appointees confirmed since 2017.
“One thing I learned in the Marines is you don't show up to a gunfight with a knife,” he told University of South Carolina students. “You show up with a rocket if you can.”
At the same time, Moulton sketched out an argument that would distinguish him from most of the members of Congress running for president, who have signed on to many of Sanders's bills. He was not an automatic fan of Medicare-for-all, and he could explain why, to anyone of either party.
“I meet a lot of Americans who actually like their private health care and don't want to have the experience that I have had with single-payer health care,” Moulton said. “My experience at the VA hasn't been all rosy. Now, maybe over time, if we make Medicare or some version of Medicare available — I don't think a health-care plan designed in 1963 is really the best America can do — but if we make some version of universal health care available to everybody and it competes against these private health-care plans, may the best plan win."
One topic that was not raised in South Carolina was the one that had made Moulton so many enemies — his campaign to block Pelosi. Asked about that effort, which sputtered out after Pelosi agreed to some rules changes, Moulton suggested that it was another example of why leaders needed to pick the hard fights.
“I think Speaker Pelosi is doing a very good job of standing up to Trump,” Moulton said. “But I also think that because we had that debate and we had that little leadership battle, its given a voice to this new generation that's come to Congress. You know, we have the climate change committee. We have a discussion about term limits, to make sure that there will be generational change. In some ways that is much more significant than if we just got three new leaders right off the bat.”
On Tuesday evening, at and after a wide-ranging talk with South Carolina students, none of them brought up the Pelosi challenge. There was more exciting news to talk about — Beto O'Rourke would be on the campus in three days.
The Mike Gravel moment. On Monday afternoon, the dormant (and oddly unverified) Twitter account belonging to former U.S. senator from Alaska Mike Gravel sparked with life for the first time since 2008. The first tweet announced that the 88-year old Democrat, who ran for president 11 years ago, was interested in a 2020 bid. As Gravel filed for an exploratory committee, the Twitter account unloaded on most of the Democratic field. A few samples:
The 2020 Democratic field pretends to progressivism, but don't buy the lie. @KamalaHarris kept innocent men on death row. @JoeBiden voted for the Iraq War. @CoryBooker invented a drug dealer friend (and voted with Big Pharma).— Mike Gravel (@MikeGravel) March 20, 2019
This didn't sound much different from the Mike Gravel who ran against Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in 2008, but as Splinter's Jack Crosbie found, it wasn't really him. A group of left-wing teenagers urged Gravel to run, and he handed over his social media to them. That's it. That's the campaign.
Gravel has not appeared in public much since his 2008 run — he briefly returned in 2013 to ask whether the government was covering up evidence of “extraterrestrial influence” — but that campaign has endured thanks to one memorable debate performance where Gravel unloaded on the party's front-runners and a surreal Web ad in which he dropped a rock into a pond. Gravel's campaign website explains that the 2020 is also a kind of stunt: “If he were to run, he would aim not to win, but instead to qualify for the 2020 Democratic debates in order to send a message that no other candidate, not even Bernie Sanders or Tulsi Gabbard, is willing to issue.”
The lack of ambition is realistic. Even in 2008, when Gravel's return from obscurity made him a memorable addition to the primaries, he won 0.1 percent of the total Democratic vote — less than several Democrats who quit the race after Iowa. (Gravel stayed in until bolting to the Libertarian Party, after most of the primaries were over.) There's no obvious constituency for a pure protest candidate, especially not with Sanders himself running a revamped campaign.
But the motivation behind the Gravel campaign accentuates one of the problems for the Democrats' resurgent left. After Sanders's loss in 2016, the left enjoyed dramatic success in converting the party on its major issues. That started with the 2016 platform fight before the Democratic National Convention and continued as most of the party's ambitious senators endorsed Sanders's Medicare-for-all bill. A popular idea among Democrats at the end of 2018 was that whoever won the party's nomination would run to the left of Hillary Clinton's campaign.
While that has been borne out, the Democrats who endorsed most of Sanders's legislative agenda are nevertheless getting pilloried by the left for having caveats or for simply not supporting the agenda as long as Sanders has. On the far left, it's generally believed that Barack Obama wasted a generational chance at real social democratic change; every non-Sanders Democrat is seen in that light, as a candidate who may back the right bills but may abandon them in office.
That's not how most rank-and-file Democrats see Obama. The former president is beloved by Democratic voters and more popular than any candidate for president. And the question of whether they side with Obama or Gravel was settled 11 years ago.
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Bernie Sanders for president. Earlier this week, the nonpartisan and fairly new firm Emerson Polling released head-to-head numbers testing the leading Democratic candidates for the presidential nomination against President Trump. They found Bernie Sanders up 51 to 49 on Trump, within the margin of error — effectively a tie, and without the large undecided numbers that most pollsters leave in their results. (Emerson uses opt-in Internet interviews, which are not seen as reliable by other pollsters.)
That poll made it into a social media post from the Sanders campaign, showing the candidate beaming and the Sanders-Trump numbers represented on a bar graph. “Our campaign is surging,” the copy read on Instagram, where Sanders has more than 3 million followers. “A recent poll just put us ahead of Trump in a head-to-head matchup.”
That post was liked more than 200,000 times. Left unsaid: The poll showed Joe Biden and Kamala Harris with a clearer advantage over Trump, and the two-point margin was nearly identical to the (effectively irrelevant) margin by which Hillary Clinton won the popular vote in 2016. The mantra that “Bernie would have won,” a real factor in this Democratic primary, relies on polling from spring 2016 that showed Sanders ahead of Trump by around 10 points, a bigger lead than most polls showed Clinton holding at the time.
America First Policies. One of the super PACs created to help the president has purchased time in two safe Republican House districts to defend the incumbents and attack Democratic donor Tom Steyer, who is continuing to campaign for Trump's removal from office through his “Need to Impeach” campaign. One ad in North Carolina warns that impeachment is “part of the radical plan to push America to socialism,” while Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) “stood up against the socialist agenda and voted to reduce regulations and cut taxes.” (The ad mentions “socialism” four times.) An ad in Ohio uses the same script on behalf of Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio). Neither Republican is seen as endangered in 2020, though ongoing litigation may shake up North Carolina's map and put Meadows in a less friendly district.
Need to Impeach. Speaking of Tom Steyer — he's on the air in the other Carolina, with a 30-second spot attacking Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) for being “scared of Donald Trump” and voting to block the House's bipartisan bill to make the entire Mueller report public. “Lindsey Graham needs to grow a backbone,” a narrator warns. Trump's approval in South Carolina has been below 50 percent in some recent polls, but he remains widely popular with Republican voters; Graham is on the ballot in 2020.
Do you approve of the way Sen. Lindsey Graham is handing his job? (Winthrop, 1,007 South Carolina voters)
Yes — 49%
No — 38%
When Republicans urged their voters to “remember Kavanaugh,” the voters listened. Graham, who faced primary challenges during his 2008 and 2014 reelection campaigns, has no real intraparty enemies now; a full 75 percent of Trump supporters back the senator who once warned that President Trump would destroy the GOP. Graham next year is also likely to face his first credible Democratic opponent since 2002, as former state Democratic Party chairman Jaime Harrison explores a bid. (In 2008, Democrats accidentally nominated a conservative who compared himself to Pat Buchanan and was unendorsed by the party — not to be confused with the 2010 election, when they accidentally nominated a novice candidate with a criminal record who was unendorsed by the party.)
Florida. Andrew Gillum, who had briefly considered a run for the presidency following his near miss 2018 gubernatorial bid, announced Wednesday that he'd be focused on registering voters ahead of the 2020 election. Forward Florida, his own political operation, started the year with almost $4 million to spend; it will now become a round-the-clock registration and mobilization campaign.
In an interview with Astead Herndon of the New York Times, Gillum pointed out that the Democratic registration advantage in Florida had shrunk from around 800,000 to around 300,000 since 2008. Some of that can be traced to the ongoing migration of conservative white voters out of the Democratic Party, which has happened across the South for decades; the Democrats' answer was, in part, supposed to be massive outreach to former felons, whose voting rights were restored by the 2018 passage of Florida's Amendment 4. (An estimated 17.9 percent of voting-age black Floridians had been blocked from the polls by the old felon voter restrictions.) Gillum's first task: stopping, or mitigating the effects of, a Republican-backed effort to deny voting rights to former felons with unpaid court fees.
Iowa. Democrats broke their 2019 losing streak in special elections this week when they held onto Iowa's 30th state Senate district — after at least half of the Democratic presidential contenders came in to help. Eric Giddens won with 57 percent of the vote, matching Hillary Clinton's strength in the 2016 election here — and running ahead of the past few margins for local Democratic candidates. He did so after being narrowly outspent by Republicans, who tested out the sort of messaging the party has been using in congressional races, and framed Giddens as an ally of “the D.C. socialists.”
Michael Bennet. The Denver Post reports that he is getting closer to announcing a White House run, following trips to New Hampshire and Iowa.
Joe Biden. He’s continuing to call supporters about a likely presidential run, per the Wall Street Journal; some of those supporters are also suggesting that he should tap Stacey Abrams as a running mate, which is the third time Bidenworld has speculated about the former vice president sweetening his appeal with a female running mate.
Howard Schultz. He made several Thursday stops in Colorado, saying Congress erred by not passing immigration restructuring in 2007 and by not passing a version of Simpson-Bowles in 2011.
President Trump. Vice President Pence, per Politico's Alex Isenstadt, is still working to persuade some wealthy conservatives who opposed Trump's 2016 bid to come on board for the reelect.
"Donna Brazile Explains Why She's Working for Fox News,” by Isaac Chotiner
For three years, the interim DNC chairwoman and former CNN commentator has been a punching bag for conservatives who believe she exemplified media bias. So why'd she go to Fox?
“Sanders and Warren are talking a lot about civil rights. Not many blacks are listening,” by Cleve R. Wootson Jr. and Annie Linskey
After years of work and conversations, the older white candidates for the Democratic nomination are still struggling to get black voters in seats at their events.
What will become of the not-quite-ready candidates running for the Democratic nomination?
. . . two days until John Hickenlooper talks about “the changing cannabis landscape” in New Hampshire
. . . three days until Kirsten Gillibrand's campaign reboot in front of Trump International Hotel
. . . nine days until Beto O'Rourke officially launches his presidential campaign from El Paso
. . . 170 days until the New Hampshire Democratic convention