In this edition: Democrats bid for the building trades, Bernie Sanders stands alone, and polls, polls, polls.
Everyone's black hole jokes were so terrible that I feel better about my jokes being terrible, and this is The Trailer.
It was meant as a compliment, a way to thank North America's Building Trades Unions for all the good organized labor had done. Instead, it was the moment when Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) lost the room.
“Organized labor built the middle class in this country,” said the senator from California toward the end of her Wednesday morning speech to the 14-member labor federation. “Five-hour work day? Thank organized labor!”
Dozens of union leaders began muttering and shuffling in their chairs. At a focus group after the morning's marathon of speeches — Harris was one of nine Democrats who are running or may for president and addressed NABTU — one organizer explained that Harris sounded like she didn't understand who she was talking to. Unions created an eight-hour workday, not five; they created a five-day workweek.
“I don't know she just misspoke or that was her true thought,” said Rodney French, the business manager of Ohio's Sheet Metal Workers local 24.
For all the work Democrats have done to get right with party activists — supporting Medicare-for-all, voting rights for felons and reparations for the descendants of slaves — they are still working out how to win back voters who were unfailingly loyal to the party until the past 10 years. The building trades, whiter and more male than the party's electoral base, knew that voters who might be willing to let President Trump slide on some issues, or verbal slips, needed Democrats to be perfect — or they could keep walking.
The NABTU legislative conference was a perfect demonstration of the challenge, with an audience of laborers whose colleagues had been deeply unhappy about the two names on the presidential ballot in 2016. Some sat with their arms folded, unconvinced that any Democrat had won them over. And if they wouldn't win this room, they wouldn't win over the colleagues who'd gotten tired of Democrats.
“When they start referring to themselves as public servants, instead of leaders, then we're halfway there,” said Earl Agan, the business manager of Operative Plasterers' and Cement Masons' Union in Iowa, who felt unsatisfied after watching all nine Democrats. “In 2016, I couldn't vote for either one of them, Trump or Clinton.”
According to the exit polls, just 51 percent of voters in union households backed Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, down from 58 percent for Barack Obama's 2012 campaign, and she did far worse with members of building trades. No national building trade union endorsed Trump, whose official labor support was limited to the Fraternal Order of Police and the National Border Patrol Council, but he began his presidency by meeting with leaders from a number of NABTU affiliates.
“For thousands of hard-working men and women who have been shut out of our economy for too long, it is beginning to feel like a new day,” said Terry O'Sullivan, general president of the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA), after a White House meeting in January 2017.
Trump has also maintained a cultural connection to manual laborers that frustrated some union leaders. At Wednesday's focus group, Patrick J. Corrigan of the Heat and Frost Insulators and Allied Workers bemoaned how no Democrat at the conference had uttered a simple phrase — “I'm not going to take your guns,” explaining that it would have been “very important for my guys to hear.” Vince Sugrue, a representative of the Sheet Metal Workers in Northern California, said many workers were consuming clicky social media articles that portray the president as a bulwark of sanity against wild-eyed Democrats.
“The hot topic members are reaching out to me for right now is, 'What's going on with this reparations thing?' " Sugrue said. “All they hear is that Democrats are talking about reparations.”
Everyone sharing these concerns was frustrated, because, as they saw it, the president had clearly not delivered for their members. While Trump has issued repeated orders to begin construction on the Keystone XL pipeline — under President Obama, a perfect example of the tension between laborers and environmentalists in the Democrats coalition — no work has begun. The campaign promises that had excited laborers in 2016 had been massive infrastructure spending and a return to buy-American trade policies. Trump had delivered on the latter, sort of, in the form of tariffs on steel; he had not delivered on the infrastructure spending. For labor leaders, it was a vulnerability big enough to drive a campaign bus through, so which Democrats would convince union workers that they got it?
Wednesday's speeches didn't answer the question, but they were helpful. Members of the focus group said they had been most impressed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey; other attendees said they had been impressed by former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe. Each of them had used their time onstage, less than 18 minutes, not to praise the labor movement but to make it promises. Warren, who had the advantage of speaking early, was the first to suggest a national law that would prohibit states from passing “right to work” measures (other Democrats would agree as the day went on) and she sold her idea of a wealth tax as a way to fund infrastructure projects.
“That's two trillion dollars to build a real future, not just for the rich and powerful, but two trillion dollars to build a future for all of us,” Warren said, referring to the estimated revenue from her 1 and 2 percent taxes on wealth above $50 million and $100 million. (By Thursday morning, she had proposed a new tax on corporate profits.)
Ryan, whose campaign is not yet one week old, leaned more on nostalgia, describing why union workers should be especially angry at the president. “The top 1 percent control 90 percent of the wealth in the United States,” he said. “The bottom 60 percent haven't seen a raise since 1980.” Instead of ameliorating that or tackling the reasons his constituents in eastern Ohio were losing work, Ryan said, Trump was plunging into hot-button controversies and undermining industries that could grow. “By 2030 there's going to be 30 million electric vehicles made somewhere, and I want those to be made in the United States.”
The specter of Hillary Clinton's campaign hung over everything. In 2016, she had won over NABTU affiliates faster than any other Democratic candidate for the presidency, securing their support before the end of the primaries. She had done so with the sort of policy Democrats accused Trump of touting without a plan for implementation — a massive infrastructure spending program. By raising some taxes on businesses, Clinton said, she would invest in $275 billion worth of infrastructure improvements. It was big enough to impress the people who were paying attention but not so big that it would feed into the idea that Democratic presidents set the public's money on fire.
Most importantly, it was not as big as what voters heard from Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Donald Trump. While Sanders did not attend this week's NABTU meeting, multiple Democrats, such as Klobuchar and McAuliffe, lit into the president for telling voters that he'd have a $1 trillion infrastructure plan, then belatedly coming up with a public-private plan (with just $200 billion from the feds) that never got introduced seriously.
“You were going to get yuuge infrastructure,” said McAuliffe, joking about the president's pronunciation of a favorite word. “It was going to be 26 times the size of Hillary's! Right? He hasn't even gotten off the couch!”
McAuliffe, who regaled the audience with stories of how he flew around the world to lobby for Virginia jobs, epitomized how the Democrats' pitch was being altered by Trump's upset win. Traditional Democrats who voted for Trump — a small part of his base, but a crucial one — were convinced that Democrats had prioritized other issues over jobs and infrastructure. Instead of telling unions that they'd built the middle class, Democrats were now expected to tell unions that they were elected to serve them, and to grow those unions. Trump had made that easier, potentially, by fumbling the infrastructure pledge and by appointing judges and National Labor Relations Board members who wanted to shrink unions.
But Trump also had a base that could not be reached, and some at the NABTU had watched the president win die-hard fans despite their efforts to move them. At the focus group, a number of union leaders bemoaned how the 2017 tax cut affected them by wiping out some deductions they counted on.
“The ones who are in support of Trump, they’ll tell you they got a big tax cut,” French said. “The ones who are being honest say they didn't.”
Use the fun and power of math to determine which of the 18 Democratic presidential candidates gets to be called “major” or “credible.”
The president's poll numbers haven't budged since his victory lap over his attorney general's summary of the Mueller investigation. What happens if more becomes known from the probe, and it isn't good for him?
“Democratic candidates embrace gun control in notable shift,” by Matt Viser
The days of Democrats donning hunting gear and proving that they, too, love guns are over . . . but, why?
The Butti-vetting begins.
“Bernie Sanders vs. Kamala Harris: These Dems are plotting sweeping Super Tuesday strategies,” by Katie Glueck, Alex Roarty and Adam Wollner
Several major 2020 campaigns are already talking to staff in the states that vote after February; there's no guarantee that these campaigns make it that far but plenty of upside if they do.
“DNC launches hyper-local 2020 effort to shadow Trump on the trail,” by Heidi Pryzbyla
After learning that voters did not much care about Trump's personality or foibles, Democrats are trying, early, to focus on whether he's delivered on what he promised workers.
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The rollout of Sen. Bernie Sanders's updated Medicare-for-all bill did not look quite like the rollout of the last version, in 2017. Two years ago, Sanders was flanked by most of the senators who would be challenging him for the presidency. Then, they took turns at the microphone — Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.), Sen. Kamala Harris (Calif.), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) — explaining why they'd signed on to a bill that would not pass.
This year, three of those senators were busy speaking to the NABTU conference and Sanders (I-Vt.) was joined by just one 2020 competitor, Gillibrand. She used much of her time at the microphone to discuss “the part of the bill I worked on,” which would allow people to buy into Medicare “no matter what” and “let competition do its magic.”
That's one part of the bill, but Medicare-for-all's vital component — the replacement of the for-profit insurance industry — has one supporter. That's Sanders, who used his media appearances around the bill rollout to explain that the industry needed to go. In an interview with CBS News reporter Ed O'Keefe, Sanders resolutely defended the concept of putting that industry out of business while ending millions of private health plans.
“You may be one of the millions of people who leaves your job this year, and you're going to leave your private insurance,” Sanders said, explaining that people's insurance coverage changes under the current system, as well. “You may be one of the many millions of people who finds that their employer has gone out and got another insurance company to cover you. You're going to have to change that, but essentially, under Medicare-for-all, all people will be covered by Medicare.”
Technically, every co-sponsor of the Medicare-for-all bill is on record for a plan that would end the insurance industry as we know it. But everyone other than Sanders has described it as a good conceptual structure, an end goal, with some plan like “Medicare for America” — an optional Medicare buy-in — in a better position for passage.
This has become the single biggest division in a primary that (some mean supporters' tweets aside) has not featured many arguments among candidates. The Sanders theory of change is that the insurance industry must be defeated by a popular movement, first in the 2020 elections and then in whatever legislative negotiations occur in 2021.
Why are other Democrats so nervous? Because while the passage of the Affordable Care Act was politically painful, what really wiped out their party politically was the implementation of the law in 2013 and 2014 — specifically, the way new requirements erased many skimpy health plans from the books. Hundreds of thousands of voters got the news that they had to buy new plans, almost always costing more than the ones they'd had. To throw an estimated 180 million people off their plans sounds like political suicide; indeed, that's the way the White House always describes Medicare-for-all.
On the left, the Sanders approach (like many Sanders ideas) is seen as a masterstroke. Every other candidate for president is campaigning to keep most of the insurance system in place, which to the left means that only Sanders will be offering people the chance to blow up a hated industry.
“Be honest with the public, and hold out the promise of good coverage that is actually permanent, like Medicare-for-all,” Ryan Cooper wrote last month in the Week. “Yes, if you have private coverage, you will lose it — but in return you'll get something really good that will stay with you for life.”
But no other major candidates see that as the necessary approach.
One of the unwritten rules of this primary is that nothing can truly go well for Elizabeth Warren, and her finance report was the latest great example. After some murmurs and speculation that the senator from Massachusetts had crashed in first-quarter fundraising, Warren did better than some expected; she put up $6 million from 135,000 individual donors. That was less than Sens. Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris, former congressman Beto O'Roure and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and more than everybody else.
Warren's very okay haul drew attention to the real issue that other campaigns were whispering about: the size of her staff. She transferred $10.4 million from her Senate campaign account, which had always been part of her plan; she did not run campaign ads on television in the final weeks before her easy win. That transfer and the new money left her with $11 million on hand, which paid for, among other things, more than 170 employees, in the fastest “burn rate” of the primary, based on numbers released so far.
Iowa Democratic caucuses (Monmouth, 351 Iowa voters)
Joe Biden — 27%
Bernie Sanders — 16%
Pete Buttigieg — 9%
Elizabeth Warren — 7%
Kamala Harris — 7%
Beto O’Rourke — 6%
Amy Klobuchar — 4%
Cory Booker — 3%
Julián Castro — 2%
John Delaney — 1%
Kirsten Gillibrand — 1%
Tim Ryan — 1%
Eric Swalwell — 1%
Andrew Yang — 1%
This is the pollster's first dip into the first caucus state; last cycle, it didn't enter the field until autumn. Biden's continued lead, though less than half of what Hillary Clinton enjoyed four years ago, is what might be expected given how few Democrats reported being moved by the story of Lucy Flores, who alleged that Biden acted creepily in a 2014 encounter. Buttigieg's support is dramatically higher than his footprint in the state would suggest; he has traveled there just twice as an exploratory candidate. A supermajority, 64 percent, say they would like to support a candidate they “do not agree with but stronger against Trump” than a candidate they agree with. That is what Biden's supporters see as a strength; that is also what the many non-Bidens see as evidence that they can take off, as they are skeptical that Biden's electable image would survive a campaign. (If it does, of course, they lose. No pressure.)
California Democratic primary (Quinnipiac, 482 California Democratic voters)
Joe Biden — 26%
Bernie Sanders — 18%
Kamala Harris — 17%
Elizabeth Warren — 7%
Pete Buttigieg — 7%
Beto O'Rourke — 4%
Cory Booker — 2%
Amy Klobuchar — 2%
Julián Castro — 2%
Tulsi Gabbard — 1%
Jay Inslee — 1%
Andrew Yang — 1%
This is the first poll, in a very under-polled state, that has shown home-state Harris at a disadvantage. But it's not much of one; like in Iowa, Biden's support mostly comes from voters who think he's the most electable Democrat. At an early stage in the primary, voters believe that Sanders, and to a lesser extent Warren, have the best policy ideas; Biden and Harris both lag behind on that indicator.
“Top choice” in Wisconsin Democratic primary (Marquette, 800 registered Wisconsin voters)
Bernie Sanders — 32%
Joe Biden — 29%
Elizabeth Warren — 17%
Kamala Harris — 11%
Beto O'Rourke — 10%
Cory Booker — 9%
Amy Klobuchar — 8%
Pete Buttigieg — 7%
Julián Castro — 4%
Jay Inslee — 2%
Kirsten Gillibrand — 2%
John Hickenlooper — 1%
The careful reader will notice that these numbers add up to something more than 100 percent. That's how the early editions of Marquette's polling work; they ask for the voter's top choice, then his or her second choice. Since January, the last time Marquette pollsters asked the question, fewer voters say that Joe Biden is their favorite, and more voters say they prefer Sanders and Warren. Wisconsin was Sanders's strongest primary state in the Midwest, but he's the favorite of slightly more than half as many voters than backed him in 2016; that's better than he usually does in polls. What makes this all less than definitive is that Wisconsin will not vote until April 7, 2020; barring something truly unexpected, most of the Democrats in this poll will have quit by then.
Seth Moulton. His congressional campaign is paying for Facebook ads that ask readers whether Moulton should “run for higher office” and offer to keep people posted if he does.
Elizabeth Warren. She introduced the latest in her ever-expanding portfolio of tax and policy ideas: a “real corporate profits tax,” which would hit companies that report more than $100 million in annual profits with a 7 percent tax on the profit above that. “That means Amazon would pay $698 million in taxes instead of paying zero,” Warren explained. “And Occidental Petroleum would pay $280 million in taxes instead of paying zero.” (Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Joe Biden. He's the target of a new survey from left-wing polling group Data for Progress, which tested negative messages against him, from the 1994 crime bill to his vote for the Iraq War, to see whether he still is seen as “electable.” The result, based on online panel interviews: Biden lost support with nonwhite and female voters, falling behind the president in a head-to-head race. “Pundits have hoisted the crown of electability on Biden, but it's unclear he deserves it,” said Data for Progress's Sean McElwee. “Democrats need a candidate who can fight Trump, while still mobilizing our progressive base.”
Tulsi Gabbard. She announced that her campaign had received more than 65,000 donations, giving her a spot in the first presidential debates in June.
Eric Swalwell. He announced Wednesday that his presidential campaign became the second to recognize a union, after Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). After his inaugural Iowa visit as a candidate, the California congressman is heading to a town hall in his district, then to Nevada.
Bernie Sanders. He is stretching a Midwest trip over four days, starting Friday in Madison, Wis., and continuing through a Fox News town hall in Bethlehem, Pa.; notably, one of the parts of that state that has become a bit more Democratic.
Andrew Yang. He's rallying supporters in Washington on Monday, in front of the Lincoln Memorial.
Terry McAuliffe. He told the NABTU conference that he's getting closer to a 2020 decision and emphasized that he would be the one Trump challenger who had wrestled an alligator.
Last Friday, a package containing the sort of Tennessee products (barbecue sauce, Jack Daniels coffee grounds) you might find at an airport arrived at the residence of Margaret McBath. The elderly McBath signed for the package, which was addressed to her daughter-in-law, Lucy McBath, a Democratic member of Congress from Georgia. The National Republican Congressional Committee had sent the gifts. It was a memorable way to draw attention to the news that McBath, who won her seat in 2018, had lost a tax break because she'd briefly lived in Tennessee (and registered to vote there to be with her husband, Curtis McBath).
Here's where it gets weird. One: Rep. McBath was in New York City last Friday, speaking at the National Action Network convention. Two: Margaret McBath's signature does not look like the congresswoman's; she writes an “M” in front of McBath, where the congresswoman writes “Lucy.” Three: None of this altered subsequent attacks by the NRCC on the congresswoman. The group accused her of “throwing her elderly mother-in-law under the bus" and insisted that the signature on the package came from a "Lucy.” This cycle's NRCC is far more aggressive than the last cycle's, and Democrats are still grappling with what to do about that.
. . . one day until Bernie Sanders goes on a five-state Midwest tour
. . . four days until all of the campaign's fundraising numbers are public
. . . 11 days until CNN holds five candidate town halls in one night