In this edition: The Pete Buttigieg moment, the Mueller report and voters, and not quite an AIPAC boycott.
“We thought you were shooting a promposal,” they explained, “or a reality show.”
Buttigieg, who was elected mayor of South Bend, Ind., before he turned 30, is used to the double-takes. As his dark horse candidacy has gotten more attention, he's leaned into his age, declaring himself a member of the “school shooting generation” that will live through the “business end of climate change.” The people who come to see him, sometimes clutching copies of his memoir, marvel at how he graduated from Harvard, attained a Rhodes scholarship and fought in Afghanistan — all before he combed gray hair.
“He's the smartest guy I've ever met,” said Eric Schronce, 43, an Indiana-based attorney who left his family vacation in Myrtle Beach to drive to a Buttigieg event in Columbia, 150 miles away. “The last election was about emails and porn stars and whatever. I want an election about issues, and Pete knows the issues inside and out.”
The Indiana Democrat, who is expected to officially launch his candidacy next month, has turned years of “next big thing” coverage into a genuine presidential boomlet. He raised more than $1 million after a CNN town hall and appeared to have met the standard for entering the first Democratic debates. He's adding to a skeletal staff, expanding his campaign headquarters and beginning to build the sort of operation that could compete in early states. Here's what it looks like on the ground.
Left-wing politics in moderate portions. Buttigieg, who has been seen for years by national Democrats as a potential star, arrived on the scene in 2017 as a candidate to run the Democratic National Committee. He came in third place then, but what matters is that his only previous march through national politics let him speak generally about what the party should do. He never needed to cast votes that might be litmus-tested; he never got into messy fights with Democratic interests.
That's not to say that being a successful small-city mayor was easy, but it's not a job that requires a ton of roll-call votes like many of the candidates have taken in Congress. Buttigieg rarely gets into the weeds about specific legislation that must pass, speaking instead about the principles he would carry into policy fights. On Medicare-for-all, for example, he supports the concept but stops short of endorsing any of the legislative vehicles for it.
At one South Carolina stop, in Rock Hill, Buttigieg's position on health care was tested. One questioner asked about a single-payer model, then criticized Buttigieg for not supporting a full, fast transition to a health-care system that would eliminate insurance companies. Buttigieg argued that creating a Medicare buy-in would allow everyone to get covered while not touching people who enjoyed their employer-based coverage.
“If people like me are correct about the way it can be designed, it will become more popular,” Buttigieg said about the Medicare option. “Eventually it can be a very natural path to a single-payer environment. But the bottom line is, we cannot tolerate the fact this country is the only developed country that lacks universal health care.”
Other Democrats who have co-sponsored the Senate's Medicare-for-all bill but say a "public option" might be an achievable first step are getting torn apart by critics on the left and compared unfavorably to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who has no caveats about single-payer health care. Buttigieg tells voters that he's on board with the agenda and concerned only with how to get it passed; at the moment, this is enough for a lot of Democratic voters.
Youth for youth's sake. It can't be overstressed how many Democrats come to hear Buttigieg, or give to his campaign, for the simple reason that he's young and new. The current state of the Democratic primary has Joe Biden ahead in all polls and Sanders leading among the candidates who have declared. Both men are about 40 years older than Buttigieg. A topic that comes up frequently at his events is that the party might be in trouble if it nominates an elderly candidate.
“I'm a little worried about age, to be honest with you,” said Susan Mathis, 40, who came to see Buttigieg in Columbia. “You have to ask: Who will the next president be leading? The answer is a much younger country, demographically.”
Polling, which may largely reflect name recognition right now, does not show a youth advantage for Buttigieg at this point. Sanders does best among voters younger than 35, as he did in 2016; he often notes to audiences that he got more votes from young people than Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump did during their primary bids.
The voters most likely to prize Buttigieg's youth are, themselves, a couple of decades older than him. Buttigieg's crowds in South Carolina also skewed white, which he acknowledged, telling reporters that “building a diverse [campaign] team” would allow him to start making more introductions to nonwhite voters. Nan Johnston and Dianne Bledsoe, two volunteers in their 60s who met Buttigieg during his Greenville canvass, argued that the party needed to move past candidates of their generation.
“I love Joe Biden, but we need young leaders,” Johnston said. “Look at all the people who won in 2018 and never dreamed that they'd run.” It would take a “miracle,” she said, to persuade her not to back Buttigieg.
Buttigieg is not the only young candidate seeking the White House. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), a fellow military veteran, is just nine months older than he is; Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), who just turned 40, is still exploring a run. Both have also made a "generational change" pitch; that has not drawing crowds the size of Buttigieg's yet but is getting them second looks. The average age of a president upon taking office is 55 years old. Buttigieg, if elected in 2020 then reelected to a second term, would leave office the day after he turned 47.
Hasn't taken a punch yet. More than anyone else in the race, Buttigieg has benefited from the idea that the 2016 election demolished notions of what sort of résumé voters needed in a president and what sort of character traits were dealbreakers. In conversations across his South Carolina trip, no voter suggested that a candidate who was born in 1982, whose highest office was mayor of South Bend and who would be the first openly gay nominee for the presidency, would face “electability” issues.
On the trail, Buttigieg tells the story of a gay man who fought for his country, then was able to marry after the Supreme Court's 2015 Obergefell decision. It's one of his steadiest applause lines. On a riff about his “bumper sticker” slogan for the party — freedom, democracy, security — Buttigieg says that his own right to happiness depended on a 5-4 court vote. Only once, when prodded by a local religion reporter, did Buttigieg grapple with how some social conservatives might view him morally; “freedom,” he explains, can be a Democratic Party issue, so long as they explain how it's not just government that threatens freedom.
“You know, I was married in our church, and my marriage and my faith go well together,” Buttigieg said. “Other people can have their interpretations of their religion. But we live in a country that is committed to the idea that people of any faith, or no faith all, have equal claim over the blessings of life in this country. And what I'm finding with the turning tide on LGBT equality is that more and more people are coming to understand that.”
Democratic voters have told pollsters that they're comfortable with a gay presidential nominee, so Buttigieg may face more heat on issues where the party's base is looking for details; his criticism of President Barack Obama's clemency for Chelsea Manning has emerged as one of those issues, though it didn't come up on the trail this weekend. But the candidate's brand, as a Midwesterner who came home after fighting in a war, is like a sun that every question or test orbits around.
After one of his Greenville stops, when asked about the winding down of the Russia probe by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, Buttigieg said that “the ballot box” was the place to end the Trump presidency and then argued, from a Midwest perspective, that Democrats needed to understand why even a litany of scandals and character flaws did not defeat him in 2016.
“I think a lot of folks are waiting for some piece of evidence to come along that finally proves once and for all that he's not a good guy,” Buttigieg said. “And what they forget is that there are a lot of people where I live, and maybe a lot of people around here too, who, knowing that he's not a good guy, walked in to the voting booth and voted to burn the house down because of some very deep issues that motivated them to send a message. Some of which I think we should give no quarter to, like racism, but others of which deserve to be taken seriously.”
One day later, the release of a summary of the Russia probe's findings had Republicans celebrating and mocking Democrats who had invested so much in the probe. Buttigieg, by his own positioning, was not among those Democrats.
North Carolina's 3rd District. The same week that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) appeared on the cover of Time magazine, she enjoyed another first: A starring role in a Republican TV ad. Michelle Nix, a Republican candidate in the crowded race to replace the late Walter Jones, is going on the air with an ad entirely about the New York congresswoman and her “green deal,” warning that it would devastate the district. (Stretching across much of the state's coastline, North Carolina's 3rd would be particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels, though there's a debate over what the Green New Deal would do to stop that.)
“She has the media. She has the followers,” Nix says of Ocasio-Cortez. “But bless her heart, she has some terrible ideas.”
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“If the 2016 presidential election were held today, how would you vote?” (Fox News, 1,002 registered voters)
Joe Biden — 47%
Donald Trump — 40%
Bernie Sanders — 44%
Donald Trump — 41%
Donald Trump — 41%
Kamala Harris — 39%
Donald Trump — 42%
Elizabeth Warren — 40%
As Hillary Clinton could tell you, there is no popular vote for president; being skeptical about these national trial heats is good. But any poll that tracks opinion over time is worth looking at, and the Fox poll has found both Biden and Sanders losing some of the advantage over Trump they had in 2015 and 2016, when the question was last asked. Sanders led Trump by 11 in a hypothetical June 2016 poll; he leads by three now. Biden led by 13 in October 2015, when he decided against a run for president; he leads by seven now.
What might worry Democrats is that Clinton often enjoyed solid leads over Trump, too. That October 2015 poll gave her an 11-point lead over Trump, while the three-point lead Sanders has now is identical to the three-point lead Fox gave Clinton over Trump in June 2016. A narrow lead in the polls, as we saw in 2016, doesn't mean an electoral win.
One of the frequent themes of this newsletter is that the conversation in Washington doesn’t always sync up with the conversation on the trail.
The end of special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe is a dramatic example, in part because of how little drama it has actually led to — so far. It rarely came up at Democratic events over the weekend, and the Sunday afternoon release of Attorney General William Barr's summary put both parties back in their camps. Republicans focused on the headline news that, per Barr, there was no finding that the Trump campaign knowingly coordinated with Russian operatives; Democrats focused on how the Russian hacking role in the campaign was validated and that Mueller had not exonerated the president when it came to obstruction.
Here's a guide to how the campaign politics is likely to play out.
The 2020 Democrats. Unanimously, they reacted to Mueller’s wrap-up by saying that his entire report needed to be released to the public. Some candidates, such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), even created sign-up forms to “tell Trump’s attorney general to release the report immediately” — ignoring that no form would make that happen.
But to some surprise, Democrats didn’t find voters asking about Mueller this weekend. There was one question about it posed to Beto O’Rourke, by a Democratic state senator; there was no question about it for Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), so she talked about it as part of an answer to a question about “separation of powers.” At stops across South Carolina, neither Pete Buttigieg nor Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.) was asked about the report. Across five weekend stops in New Hampshire, Warren took a total of 25 audience questions — none about Mueller.
The Democrats are taking the most politically popular position here. Per this week’s Fox News poll, 80 percent of voters say that they want the report to be made public and 52 percent say that the president has “tried to interfere” with the probe.
What to watch: how candidates respond when asked whether Trump has been exonerated, especially when their own quotes are thrown back at them. A number of Democrats, some joking and some serious, have speculated that the president could be driven from office by scandal; they’re likely to bring up the many ongoing investigations of the president, but they’ve got to walk a more careful path now. Many said that they would reserve judgment on impeachment until the report was finished; what will they say now?
The GOP and the president's campaign. Republicans showed their hand as soon as the probe ended with no new indictments: They are describing the weekend as a complete exoneration of the president and a humiliation for Democrats. "No collusion" was the operative Trump phrase about the probe even before Friday; now that the summary has suggested that the campaign did not coordinate with foreign operatives, Republicans are accusing Democrats of hurting the country by demanding this investigation.
“Democrat (sic) leaders acted irresponsibly and threw caution to the wind to damage and distract from the work the Trump administration is doing on behalf of our fellow citizens,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said in a statement. "While this conclusion is an embarrassment to those Democrats, it is more discouraging to think of the opportunity costs to our country."
Expect to hear a lot more of that, even if it represents a 180 from their posture when it came to a Democrat, Hillary Clinton. Led by the president, Republicans will say that every single investigation underway is a political trick, part of a witch hunt. Republicans are simply more resolute in making this argument than Democrats are. Compare the hand-wringing of Democrats after the FBI decided not to pursue a criminal case over Clinton’s use of a private email server — an issue that bedeviled Democratic candidates well into 2016 — to the confidence of Republicans today.
“Today marks the day that President Trump has been completely and fully vindicated by special counsel Robert Mueller, exposing the Russia collusion conspiracy theory for the sham that it always was and catching Democrats in an elaborate web of lies and deceit,” said Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale.
What to watch: The president’s reelection campaign, the RNC, and the larger party apparatus are not being subtle: They will argue that Democrats have become conspiracy theorists, that they lied to hurt the president and that nothing they say can be trusted. At the same time, House and Senate Republicans will face a choice on whether — like the president — they want an investigation of how the FBI handled the Clinton investigation. Can Republicans decry Democrats for demanding a long, divisive investigation of the president, while demanding a new, divisive investigation of people who are not the president? They could always try.
Voters. Since the moment Trump won the presidency, rank-and-file Democrats have been talking about how he’ll be removed from office. That’s taken the form of serious (and doomed) efforts, such as the campaign to get the electoral college to deny Trump the presidency, and it’s taken the form of kitsch, like the T-shirts, dolls and children’s books that they could buy to celebrate the Mueller probe.
But there's a real division between Democratic voters on the Mueller probe, and there always has been. For one large faction of Trump opponents, the probe was always a diversion from the real issues and the real reasons Clinton lost the 2016 election. (Some in this faction ignore a finding of the probe that was doubted by many in 2016: Russian operatives did hack the Clinton campaign and the DNC, damaging the campaign by releasing their emails.)
As Trump settled into office, their dream of finding some evidence that drove him from office actually faded. In that aforementioned Fox News poll, 41 percent of Democratic voters said that they wanted to see Trump impeached; 41 percent said they wanted to defeat him. It’ll take a few days before we know whether the Mueller findings, as summarized, changed any minds — among Democrats, but also among independents who’ve been saying that they had questions about Trump’s conduct in 2016.
What to watch: how quickly “no collusion” T-shirts pop up at Trump rallies, and how quickly “Southern District of New York” T-shirts pop up at urban boutiques.
Kirsten Gillibrand. She relaunched her bid for the presidency with a rally outside the Trump International Hotel in New York, casting herself as the candidate who “stood up to Donald Trump more than anyone else in the U.S. Senate” and would “go toe-to-toe with anyone to do the right thing, whether it's powerful institutions, the president, or even my own party.”
Howard Schultz. He responded to reports that 2020 Democrats would not be attending the AIPAC conference by scheduling his own trip there, though he is not on the speaking schedule. (The plenary speeches are just one part of an event that includes scores of off-the-record meetings.)
Eric Swalwell. He was one of the very few potential 2020 Democrats attacked by Republicans after the release of the Mueller report summary, with the RNC mocking him for saying there was “strong evidence of collusion” between the president's campaign and Russian agents.
AIPAC follies. It's a simple question but one that proved oddly difficult to answer this week: Are the 2020 Democrats boycotting the American Israel Political Affairs Committee conference or not?
The story began with a very smart PR stunt from MoveOn, which like much of the broader left has been critical of AIPAC's lobbying against the Iran nuclear deal and of the Trump administration's alliance with Benjamin Netanyahu's government. MoveOn urged Democrats seeking the White House to skip this year's conference, saying it would “give a clear insight to 2020 candidates on where their base stands instead of prioritizing lobbying groups and policy people who rarely step outside of D.C.”
Why was this smart? Because no 2020 Democratic presidential candidate had been invited to speak at AIPAC. That's not how the conference works; it gives speaking slots to presidential candidates only in election years. By the time MoveOn blasted this out, no Democrat was on the AIPAC schedule.
Nonetheless, campaigns began confirming that the candidates would not make it to this year's conference. But only one of them, Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), cited a political reason for missing it, with spokesman Josh Orton saying “he’s concerned about the platform AIPAC is providing for leaders who have expressed bigotry and oppose a two-state solution.”
Sanders, the only Jewish candidate in the Democratic race, is in a unique position to evade accusations of anti-Semitism. But no other Democrats said they were skipping AIPAC for policy reasons. Two of them reached directly by The Trailer, Pete Buttigieg and Tulsi Gabbard, explained that they simply were not invited and wouldn't rule out going in the future.
“We'd entertain any serious invitation to engage in an issue that matters to people in our country,” Buttigieg said. “We should be able to have different views represented without saying something that belittles someone's right to be in the debate.”
At the same time, no Democrat put out a statement defending AIPAC and its mission — and that's notable. Since the group began inviting presidential candidates to speak, none have turned it down. From the start of its meeting Sunday through its conclusion Tuesday, it will hear remarks from at least 10 elected Democratic members of Congress, including the party's leaders in the House and Senate.
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