In this edition: Meeting the Yang Gang, the Democrats' ACA lifeboat, and the Green New Deal denouement.
I'm beginning to think that the whole Brexit thing was a bad idea, and this is The Trailer.
RANDOLPH, N.H. — Fred Raimey, a 42-year-old truck driver who records YouTube videos under the name "Fred the Felon," had come a long way to see Andrew Yang. He had discovered the presidential candidate on podcasts and shaken off his political cynicism. Yang, he explained, had "real solutions" — starting with his idea of providing a universal basic income of $12,000 annually to every American. That, Raimey said, was why he invited Yang into his truck to record a video, and why he drove from Arizona to rural New Hampshire to see Yang speak.
"Initially I was like, oh, this guy's garbage, because 'blue' people are garbage to me," Raimey said, standing in one of the quieter rooms of the home where Yang was about to give a talk. (By "blue," he meant Democrats.) "But I hear him and I think: Oh, that makes sense. And that makes sense. And that makes sense, too. He's not anti-capitalist, saying the whole world is against you."
Yang, a 44-year-old start-up veteran who had never run for anything until becoming a presidential candidate, has attracted a sizable online following, one that alternately thrills and baffles him. This month, he said that more than 65,000 people had donated to his campaign, which guarantees him a spot in the first primary debate — something that can't yet be said for more-established politicians such as former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper or Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii.
At this stage in the Democratic contest, Yang has become a modern campaign archetype: the candidate for people who hate politicians and who don't trust news unless they get it online. The voters showing up to his events say they discovered him not through mainstream media but through podcasters such as Joe Rogan and Sam Harris, who have built followings as leaders of the "intellectual dark web" that asks whether "political correctness" has suppressed the truth about topics such as race and identity. Many say they had not bothered to vote in recent elections; those who say they did vote backed outsiders such as Ron Paul or Bernie Sanders.
"I first encountered him as a 'fringe' candidate, but he's less fringe by the day," said Matthew Tomas, a 40-year-old data scientist. Tomas had driven four hours from Connecticut, listening to an audio version of Yang's policy manifesto "The War on Normal People," to hear the candidate. "He feels like a smarter, more successful version of me. I felt the Bern [for Bernie Sanders] in some ways, but Andrew is speaking more to the things that I see happening in our country."
Yang's basic pitch is simpler than anything offered by other Democratic candidates and has been rattling around think tanks and the TED Talk circuit for years. If elected, Yang would work to create a "freedom dividend" of $1,000 per month for every American over 18 years old. It would be paid for by "consolidating some welfare programs" — which programs are TBD — and a small value-added tax on consumer goods. If poorer Americans wanted to stay on their current social welfare programs, they could, or they could get the monthly check.
That's not the entirety of the Yang platform. He has ideas ranging from what to do with failing suburban malls ("offices, churches, indoor recreation spaces, anything we can do to keep these spaces vital") to a proposal to turn tax day into a holiday ("bring two taxpayers who filed their taxes early from each state to a celebration at the White House") to an idea that would stop airlines from overbooking flights ("force airlines to have customers 'auction' their seat back").
In an interview near his motel, Yang said there was no special process for brainstorming these ideas. He is happy to point out that the "universal basic income" concept has been around for decades and nearly became law in the 1970s. The problems are obvious, the solutions are out there, but people with more traditional political minds have just been too hidebound to talk about them.
"In many of these cases, other smart people have looked at the problem already," Yang said. "So I'm the first person to try to go and refer to other sources of expertise and insight. I see many of these problems as nonideological. The question's just, really, what are you going to do to try and fix this stuff?"
The campaign is not lackadaisical. Yang has staff in early states, takes meetings with local Democratic leaders and gets a seat at the table at Democratic events. He reminisced about his speaking slot at last year's Iowa Wing Ding, where national media descended to cover the first — and given recent news, probably the last — major campaign speech by attorney Michael Avenatti.
Yang got the biggest audience yet for his basic pitch and his go-to laugh line: "The opposite of Donald Trump is an Asian man who likes math!" But he took it seriously, as an attempt to meet voters before the celebrity candidates rolled in.
"I think I might have started as a curiosity," Yang said. "I was invited to the Wing Ding because one of the organizers heard me on a podcast."
So far, the "curiosity" factor has helped Yang, and he has embraced it, with a couple of caveats. He was amused by some of the memes that were generated after posters on 4Chan and other strange corners of the Internet decided that it would be funny to support him. He was disturbed when white nationalists began tweeting enthusiastically about him. Other outsider candidates had wrestled with what to do when fringe groups and racists wanted to help out, and no one had really figured out how to fumigate the room.
"We have much more active moderation now of our volunteer groups," Yang said. "Before, it was like, why should we be policing this stuff? I've never physically looked at 4Chan. I think somebody from our team is monitoring it. If there was some active step I could take, I would take it, but the racism is gross and I want no part of it."
What would not change: a laissez-faire approach to the campaign trail, approaching any media interaction not as a risk, but as a way to get the Yang name out there. The day before his event in Randolph, Yang told the Daily Beast that, if elected president, he would encourage parents not to circumsize their sons. When conservative podcaster Ben Shapiro challenged Yang to a debate on the topic, Yang tweeted back that he would be happy to do so.
"I find the whole thing really interesting," Yang said, as a campaign aide looked on nervously. Yang asked if he should share the joke that he wanted to tweet when the story became viral — something that tied his warnings about job automation to his opinions about circumcision. The aide urged him not to, so Yang went ahead and did it anyway.
"I almost tweeted today, as a joke: 'A robot took my foreskin!' Just because I thought it'd be really funny."
There is no discussion of circumcision in Yang's stump speech. Instead, he tells audiences that he spent a career in business (and six months as a lawyer) and saw firsthand the decline in America that fueled the rise of right-wing populism.
"I'm convinced that the reason why Donald Trump's our president today is that we automated away 4 million manufacturing jobs in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Missouri and Iowa over the last number of years," he said in Randolph. (Since 2000, the United States has lost around 5 million manufacturing jobs, though economists argue about the causes.)
On the stump, Yang sounds the same as he does on podcasts. There is no high-flying rhetoric; there is, instead, a long diagnosis of why political elites have been completely wrong about the economy. Even the gross domestic product, he says, is an outdated concept that, as president, he would "walk across the street, to the Bureau of Labor Statistics" and get rid of.
"When people start talking about the happy talk about record GDP, well, what good is record GDP?" he asked. "People are literally dying younger and dying of despair in many cases. They talk about the unemployment rate being at a record low, or they say it's near record lows. But what that masks is that the labor force participation rate is at 63.2 percent in the United States right now, which is the same levels as Ecuador and Costa Rica."
The questions for Yang in Randolph were mostly friendly; even the skeptical ones, like about the risk of inflation if every American got a fat check in the mail, were the kind of elementary stuff he had dealt with before. When the talk was over, the three dozen people at the house party grabbed every copy of Yang's book, and some made plans to see him talk again.
Unfortunately for them — though not unexpectedly, in this part of New Hampshire — snow began falling overnight. A planned visit by Yang to a diner in Berlin was abruptly canceled, and not everyone who had signed up for it got the memo. Fred the Felon arrived early and began playing the role of an unofficial surrogate, telling diners how he had learned of Yang and why he had the answers.
"It works for the Finns," said one diner, after being told about the universal basic income.
Bianca Mirales, 28, said she had driven two hours to meet Yang and was disappointed that she couldn't hear him in person. She had supported Bernie Sanders's 2016 presidential campaign, she explained — "I promoted Bernie a lot on social media" — but did not hear a candidate who spoke directly to her until Yang.
"When Andrew talked about how my generation had record lows of entrepreneurship, that struck a chord with me, because I want to be a freelance artist," Mirales said. "My values aren't necessarily [reflected] by the GDP. And Andrew's the only person I see talking about that."
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On Sunday afternoon, Democratic candidates were genuinely wrestling with how to respond to the end of Robert S. Mueller III's probe of the Trump campaign. On Monday evening, all of that changed: The Department of Justice asked the conservative-leaning U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit to invalidate the entire Affordable Care Act. Literally overnight, the Trump administration had resurrected the health-care issue, the one that Democrats kept saying they wanted front and center in 2020.
"This is the last issue they want to talk about," said Cole Leiter, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, of the Republicans. "Literally the last. But we're happy to run on health care again."
The political trouble with Texas v. United States, the lawsuit brought by Republican attorneys general last year, is simple. Their argument, which many outside observers consider specious, is that Congress killed the ACA when it passed the 2017 tax-cut law. A late addition to that law reduced to zero the ACA's penalty for people who don't buy insurance. In 2012, the Supreme Court had upheld most of the ACA by ruling that the penalty was a tax and therefore constitutional. Therefore, if this case could be kicked up to the court again, the current justices might rule that the whole law would have to fall.
The 2020 Democrats pounced on the administration's move much more quickly than they reacted to the end of the Mueller investigation, with all the candidates sounding pretty much the same note.
"The Affordable Care Act means that people can’t get kicked off their insurance for pre-existing conditions," Sen. Amy Klobuchar tweeted. "With the stroke of a pen, this court filing by the administration would take that away."
"The ACA means health care coverage for 800,000 more people in WA," Gov. Jay Inslee tweeted. "Trump is attacking our health care again. We've stopped them before and we'll stop them again."
Every Democratic campaign had a similar reaction, and it's easy to see why. In 2018, the national exit poll found that 41 percent of voters considered health care "the most important issue facing the country." Seventy-five percent of those voters picked Democrats. The year-long fight against repealing the ACA unified Democrats like no issue since then, and the administration's endorsement of the new lawsuit could unify them again.
If the lawsuit moves relatively quickly through the 5th Circuit, it would be appealed to the Supreme Court by the end of the year. (An appeal is likely to happen whether the state attorneys general prevail or lose.) That probably means a high-profile legal fight over the ACA in early 2020, culminating with a decision in the summer, shortly before the national party conventions. After the bruising 2017 fight, the ACA has consistently enjoyed majority support for the first time in its existence.
Part of Democrats' confidence here comes from the idea that the Supreme Court would eventually swat the lawsuit down. (The last attempt to kill the ACA on a technicality lost at the high court by a 6-3 margin, with John Roberts and Anthony Kennedy joining the court's liberals.) In their nightmare scenario, where a conservative majority shredded the ACA, Republicans would get a period to gloat about destroying Barack Obama's legacy; Democrats would get an election about health care, with the estimated 19 million customers affected by a potential end to "Obamacare" suddenly thrown into the void.
Do you support replacing the current health-care system with a single-payer system? (Quinnipiac, 1,358 voters)
Good idea - 43%
Bad idea - 45%
Do you support letting adults buy into Medicare?
Good idea - 51%
Bad idea - 30%
The Medicare-for-All question is looming over most of the Democrats running for president. In 2017, when many of them endorsed legislation to move toward a single-payer system, Quinnipiac found that 51 percent of voters liked the idea. Eighteen months later, the health insurance industry has highlighted the immediate impact of a "Medicare-for-All" phase-in — it would shrink their industry as millions of people are moved from the private system to the government system.
This is the latest of several polls that's found that version of the proposal becoming unpopular, albeit more popular than much of what Republicans proposed in 2017. What sells: The "Medicare for America" plan backed by most House Democrats, which would simply let every American who wanted Medicare buy into it.
The left is in an endless argument about how far to go on Medicare-for-All. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), citing the polls that have shown the highest support for the idea, is all-in for Medicare-for-All; many Democrats, even those who have co-sponsored the bill, argue that the bill is akin to the Green New Deal, shifting debate in the right direction but not a realistic goal in 2021.
Arizona. In a blow to left-leaning Democrats, and a win for the national party, Rep. Ruben Gallego opted out of the 2020 race against appointed Sen. Martha McSally (R). That ended the threat of a serious primary challenge to Mark Kelly, the husband of former congresswoman Gabby Giffords who became a prominent gun-safety activist after her near-fatal 2011 shooting.
"I won’t beat up another Democrat for 15 months, and then whoever comes out of this race has to limp into a general election one month later," Gallego wrote on Facebook. "We can’t take that chance."
Until Monday, Gallego was widely expected to run, and opposition research about Kelly's unformed positions on some liberal issues had been circulating in D.C. and Arizona.
New Mexico. On Monday, Sen. Tom Udall became the first Democrat in the 2020 cycle to call it quits. There are bad times for incumbents to retire, as when senators leave ahead of a tough midterm election for their party — as Democrats discovered in 2014, when Iowa's Tom Harkin, Nebraska's Ben Nelson and South Dakota's Tim Johnson all ceded their seats to Republicans. Udall is doing something else, creating an opening in a presidential year in a state that has trended blue.
Republicans reacted to Udall's news by pointing out that Hillary Clinton had not cleared 50 percent of the vote in New Mexico's 2016 election. But the local popularity of Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson scrambled the vote; Donald Trump underperformed every Republican presidential nominee in New Mexico since 1992. And in 2018, Democrats swept the state, building a supermajority in the state legislature and electing Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham by 14 points.
The president's party will look for a real candidate in this race, with early speculation focused on former lieutenant governor John Sanchez and former Albuquerque mayor Rich Berry. But Democrats have a deeper bench, starting with Attorney General Hector Balderas, who lost a 2012 primary for the state's other Senate seat and has since become the state's strongest-performing Democrat statewide.
Rep. Ben Ray Lujan (D-N.M.) has not yet ruled out running, saying in a statement that he will talk to "family, New Mexicans, and supporters about the opportunity to serve our state in the U.S. Senate." Left-leaning Democrats are pushing for one of their own, like Rep. Deb Haaland or Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, to consider the race; a big question is whether Balderas, like Arizona's Kelly, decides to bigfoot the race. Neither party has elected a non-white senator in this majority-non-white state since Joseph Montoya's defeat in 1976.
New York. One of the most lopsidedly Democratic House districts will have a new member of Congress in 2021: Rep. José Serrano is retiring after four and a half decades in politics.
Serrano, who arrived in the House after a 1990 special election, said in a Monday statement that he is "living with Parkinson’s disease" and planned to serve out the rest of his term. He said nothing about the race to replace him, but speculation focused immediately on state Sen. José M. Serrano, the congressman's son, who didn't rule out a run.
Other possible candidates: state legislator Ritchie Torres, who had considered mounting a primary challenge to the aging congressman, and state legislator Michael Blake, who won Serrano's support in his 2019 bid for New York City public advocate. All three men have carried the territory that makes up the Bronx-based 15th District, but to be fair, any Democrat would: Hillary Clinton won 93.8 percent of its votes in 2016.
A few hours before the Senate’s vote on the Green New Deal resolution, the activists who wrote and campaigned for it gathered outside the Capitol — though they weren’t demanding that it pass. Only one of the half-dozen Democratic presidential hopefuls who'd endorsed the resolution spoke at the rally — and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) later announced that she'd be voting "present" on the resolution.
If any of that sounds confusing, welcome back to the politics of the Green New Deal. The left says it intended to start a debate, which is really all it could do without control of the White House and Senate. Republicans, alternately baffled and amused at the scope of the GND, ask why Democrats would introduce something never intended to pass.
“The purpose of this resolution is not for it to pass the House or the Senate or show up on the president's desk,” said Varshini Prakash, the executive director of the Sunrise Movement, whose November 2018 protest in Nancy Pelosi’s office kicked off the Green New Deal debate. “The purpose of it is a statement of principles. It's a vision document that lays out and turns out a blueprint for how we create the kind of policies that we need to stop the climate crisis and create good jobs in this country.”
In the Capitol, the GND debate concluded with Republicans mocking the kitchen-sink approach of the resolution — it assumes universal Medicare coverage and employment as part of a phased-in climate plan — and hammering at the botched "fact sheet" that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez originally published alongside the resolution. At an 11th-hour news conference, members of the House Western Caucus, a group of conservatives, returned to the FAQ's language about how the government couldn't "ban farting cows" in the 10-year scope of the resolution and Arizona Rep. Paul Gosar downed a glass of milk.
"That’s delicious. That’s refreshing," Gosar said. "Got milk? Not under the Green New Deal!"
Prakash, asked about Republicans pushing for more votes on the resolution, reiterated that activists did not expect to pass it. She pointed to the most recent Des Moines Register/CNN Iowa poll, which found Democratic support for the resolution at 79 percent and climate change emerging as a top issue.
"Beto O'Rourke is standing on tables talking about the Green New Deal," she said. "Elizabeth Warren is making videos about the Green New Deal."
But Tuesday, Warren joined 42 other Democrats in voting "present" on the Green New Deal. Four members of the caucus — Alabama Sen. Doug Jones, Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, Maine Sen. Angus King, and West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin — voted no.
The run-up to this year's American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference was dominated by three topics: the condemnation of Rep. Ilhan Omar over tweets and remarks she made about Israel's influence in Washington, an AIPAC donor's accusation that Omar was a "terrorist," and a push by MoveOn to make sure the 2020 Democrats skipped the event.
The conference itself was as divisive as Democrats could have feared. A short guide:
The boycott storyline. As The Trailer pointed out on Sunday, MoveOn's admonition for Democrats to skip the conference was mostly PR. Presidential candidates do not typically address AIPAC in off years; the group did not invite them to speak this year. And only Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) issued a statement, through his campaign, saying that he had a reason not to visit. (“He’s concerned about the platform AIPAC is providing for leaders who have expressed bigotry and oppose a two-state solution,” Sanders policy director Josh Orton said,)
Nonetheless, Democrats got hammered by Republican speakers for not attending the conference. Vice President Mike Pence matter-of-factly said that eight 2020 Democrats were "boycotting," while Florida Sen. Rick Scott said that some Democrats were "refusing to come to this conference.” By the end of the conference, most of the eight Democrats who had been cited as “boycotters” had either met with AIPAC members from their states or, in the case of Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.), addressed a closed session.
The Trump welcome wagon. Even before the two-week focus on Omar's comments, the White House had been emphasizing its support for Israeli objectives as part of an appeal to Jewish voters who rejected the president in 2016. Some of the loudest applause for Pence came when he reiterated that the administration would recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, a shift in policy the president had announced on Twitter.
There were detractors to Pence; his speech prompted some of the sharpest partisan volleys in the recent history of the conference. “History warns us against letting anyone use the Jewish community as a pawn in a political game,” said Sen. Robert Menendez (N.J.), the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “What is politically expedient today may not be tomorrow when you’re dealing with a leader who lacks any genuine understanding of the history of anti-Semitism, racial hatred and white supremacy.”
The Omar kerfuffle. If left-wing Democrats remember anything from this year’s conference, it will be the way that several leaders of their party criticized (not by name) the Muslim congresswoman from Minneapolis. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer pointedly reminded the crowd that “there are 62 new House Democrats, not three,” a line other frustrated Democrats have used to minimize the coverage of Omar, Rep. Rashida Tlaib, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Hoyer also angered Omar’s supporters by saying that “when someone accuses American supporters of Israel of dual loyalty, I say: Accuse me” — a non-subtle reference to Omar’s February comments attacking “political influence in this country that says it is okay to push for allegiance to a foreign country.” Senate Democratic Leader Charles E. Schumer went even further, twinning the president and Omar: "When someone looks at a neo-Nazi rally and sees some, 'very fine people' among its company, we must call it out. When someone suggests money drives support for Israel, we must call it out."
Traditionally, in presidential years, the candidates still standing when AIPAC meets address the conference. Democrats are far from narrowing their presidential field; it would be a major break from the norm if their candidates don't speak next year.
"Fighting the Republicans' voter purges in Ohio," by Harlan Spector
An in-depth look at the work the luckless Ohio Democrats are doing to get voters back on the rolls ahead of 2020. The same problem faces Democrats in a number of swing states.
Speaking of swing states . . . there's uproar in Florida over rulemaking around Amendment 4, focusing on how to define "completion," "murder" and "sexual offense."
Reports that the former president urged Democrats not to propose anything they couldn't pay for and pass have not been received very well on the left.
. . . three days until the non-partisan UnRig Summit starts in Nashville
. . . four days until some 2020 Democrats head to Iowa for an agricultural summit
. . . 29 days until the She the People presidential forum in Houston