In this edition: Joe Biden on the trail, Big Labor on the fence, and the positive campaign pledge that lets candidates go negative (sort of).
I, too, am not running for U.S. Senate this year, and this is The Trailer.
CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — Joe Biden's first rally in Iowa, on his third try for the Democratic nomination, was the biggest he'd ever had as a solo candidate. Around 500 people gathered in basement of this city's Veterans Memorial building — busy for a weekday, yet about half as many as had come to see him rally for the state's Democratic ticket on a Tuesday last October.
Still, the bar for a Biden presidential bid has been set low, and the former vice president has leaped over it. His bids for the 1988 and 2008 nominations, one a debacle and one a springboard to the vice presidency, had left a perception that he simply struggled in the big game. He's now a front-runner in early polling, the holder of a single-day fundraising record, and the first Democrat to score a national labor endorsement.
“No one's going to work harder in Iowa than Joe Biden,” Biden told voters Tuesday afternoon.
No candidate in this race came into it with more speculation, or with a stronger perception of “electability,” than Joe Biden. Here's what we're learning about his campaign, now that it's real.
The “broken bargain.” Biden, who reportedly considered tapping Sen. Elizabeth Warren as a running mate had he been the party's 2016 nominee, has adopted some of her rhetoric. She tends to talk audiences through the history of post-Reagan capitalism, identifying moments when deregulation allowed executive pay to skyrocket and for companies to focus on share value over workers. Biden delivered a version of that's a bit more nostalgic and a bit less pointed.
“A lot of folks are worried that the American Dream is literally slipping from their grasp,” Biden said in Cedar Rapids. “That bargain, that drove the most successful economic engine in the world, that bargain is pretty simple. If you contribute to the welfare of the outfit you work with, you got to share your benefits. If an enterprise hit hard times, everyone took the hit, from the CEO to the secretary. But folks, the only people who benefit now, because that bargain was broken, are the CEOs.”
In Pittsburgh, Biden said that his campaign was built on three pillars: to “restore this nation,” to “rebuild the backbone of America,” and to “unify this nation.” There is some overlap in his explanation of the first and third ideas, both of which center the president as an aberrant political force who has defended white supremacists and divided the country.
“Donald Trump is the only president who decided not to represent the whole country, but to represent his base,” Biden said in Pittsburgh. At the moment, the two ideas — Trump's unique badness, and the setbacks for workers — come together when Biden promises to repeal the 2017 tax cut and asks his crowd (knowing their answer) whether they felt any benefits from it. But Biden does not attack Republicans as Warren does; at one point, in Cedar Rapids, he interrupted his own riff on clean energy spending to say that “a deal has been struck” on infrastructure spending, referring to a Tuesday meeting between Democrats and Republicans that many are skeptical will amount to anything.
Folks, folks, folks. Biden's first speech as a candidate, in Pittsburgh, made use of two Teleprompter screens. That was unusual. As a surrogate for other Democrats in 2018, Biden tended to let it rip; an audience might hear five or six minutes of anecdotes about how the Senate used to work before Biden's standard, high-energy “get back up!” closer.
The Cedar Rapids speech ditched the Teleprompter and brought back the traditional Biden, with a good example of how he likes to close:
“We choose hope over fear! We choose unity over division! We choose truth over lies! We choose science over fiction! This is the United States of America! We can do anything! God bless you, and God bless our troops.”
That's pretty standard political rhetoric, and it's what Biden delivers. At age 76, he has settled into a rhythm of speaking quietly and reflectively before ramping up and getting loud. In Pittsburgh, he briefly remarked on the 2018 massacre at a nearby synagogue; in Cedar Rapids, he reflected on the grit he saw from firefighters during family tragedies. (The International Association of Fire Fighters was the first union to endorse him, doing so Monday.)
The rest of Biden's messaging resembles what Democrats have run on for decades: populist praise for the “dignity of work” and a promise to take on special interests. Hillary Clinton ran on the same things in 2016, but where she carefully talked crowds through the agenda, Biden seasons his speech with “that's no joke” and “literally” and “folks,” a word he used 26 times in Pittsburgh.
“The country wasn't built — I'm making clear to you — the country was not built by Wall Street CEOs and hedge fund managers,” Biden said in Cedar Rapids, using a line that he has been deploying at labor rallies. “It was built by ordinary American doing extraordinary things! You built it! That's no joke. That's a historical fact.”
Some Democrats have convinced themselves that the party stopped talking like this in 2016 and therefore lost the election. That's not the case. “Democrats are the party of working people,” Hillary Clinton said in her speech accepting the party's nomination, “but we haven’t done a good enough job showing that we get what you’re going through and that we’re going to do something about it.”
The Biden difference is what Democrats at his speeches call “sincerity” and what pundits call “folksiness.” It's harder to define than it is to say that many voters didn't see it in Clinton. Clinton simply did not have it. Asked how Biden could convince voters who abandoned Clinton in 2016, the IAFF's president, Harold Schaitberger, repeatedly said that voters simply like the guy.
“He hears them, and they hear him, and they know it's genuine,” Schaitberger said. “It's real. It's not artificial. It's not phony. It's not scripted.”
As a campaigner, so far, Biden has blended that impression with a fairly careful media strategy. Unlike most other Democratic candidates, he has not taken questions from reporters on a ropeline; in Pittsburgh, a divider kept most press far from the area where Biden greeted supporters. Asked by one reporter if he could take questions about today's clashes in Venezuela, the sort of question a post-presidency Biden sometimes leaped at, he said "later, later," and returned to hugging and taking photos with voters. (He did engage with a few reporters at an ice cream stop between Cedar Rapids and Dubuque but told the New York Times that he was not "going to get in a debate with my colleagues here.")
PTSD from 2016. Two types of Democrats have been especially excited to see Biden: those who worry that the party is moving too far left to win and those who worry that it will take a white man to defeat the president.
To that first type of Democrat, Sanders looks unelectable, no matter what polling says about his swing-state pull. After a morning labor event Monday, Darrin Kelley, the president of the Allegheny County Labor Council, said flat-out that no other Democrat would be able to win Pennsylvania — a state Clinton lost only narrowly, one where Democrats made big gains in the midterms.
“National politics has been polarizing; it’s about what divides,” Kelley said. “You want to win this state, you have to work on what unites. Until we get back on that message, nobody’s going to win this thing. If you come with the Green New Deal, you’re going to lose Pennsylvania, and I’m not afraid to say it.”
Other Democrats said that candidates who they might agree with more than Biden would alienate winnable voters. Several, in both Pittsburgh and Cedar Rapids, pointed to the idea of free public college tuition as wonderful and aspirational and probably not safe to use in a general election.
“That's a great place to get to, but I don't see it as viable,” said Michele Merkle, a 56-year-old educator from York, Pa., who saw Biden in Pittsburgh. “You've got to appeal to more people, and the country just isn't ready for that.”
Sanders, of course, did not lose the 2016 general election. Clinton did. And a number of Biden supporters arrived to see the former vice president convinced that only a man could beat Trump.
“He's a man; that's what's different,” said Elizabeth Harkay, a retired teacher in Pittsburgh who said that she'd backed Clinton in the 2016 primary. “A man will stand up to him a little better. Misogyny in this country isn't seen as a big deal by a lot of white men in the power structure. So, even though I could see it was misogyny when he lurked around her on the debate stage, I know he wouldn't do that to a man. I'd like to see a woman in the White House, but I don't think it's going to happen anytime soon.”
Nervousness about nominating a female candidate came up again and again at Biden's rallies; at times, voters seemed to be talking themselves into raising Biden's grade as a speaker. Sara Riley, a 59-year-old Cedar Rapids attorney who had supported Biden in the 2008 caucuses, said he had room to improve and would clearly do so.
“He actually had a tighter speech today,” Riley said. “In 2008, if you ever followed Joe, you couldn't get him off the stage!”
And Harkay, who had been convinced that Biden could take on Trump, left with some nagging concerns about the enunciation and the speed of the 76-year-old candidate's speech.
“The first stump speech is always tough,” Harkay said. “Yeah. Okay, I'll have to, you know, make adjustments. But I think he was having some kind of dental problems today because my husband has the same issue."
Rich details about how a man who had been considering White House runs since 1980 has rebooted for 2020.
Rich details about a man who was not yet born when Joe Biden started considering his presidential bids.
After weeks of coverage that labeled him a policy cipher, Beto O'Rourke has a big, ambitious plan that die-hard climate activists consider too slow and skimpy.
“Few In Nevada Noticed, But Seth Moulton Matters,” by David Bernstein
It's not “buzz,” per se, but there is some curiosity out there about the other young veteran who thinks he has a middle lane to the Democratic nomination.
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PITTSBURGH — The symbolism of Joe Biden's first real campaign rally was impossible to miss. The sign outside Teamster Local 249 Hall, welcoming Biden, straddled a pro-Biden flag from the International Association of Fire Fighters. Union members in yellow-and-black IAFF shirts filled the stage before the former vice president arrived. And when he did, he rattled off the name of every union he saw represented in the hall.
“Here's a union that helped me in the beginning of my career, that I have great respect for, the United Steelworkers,” Biden said, going on to shout out organizations for building trades, teachers, government employees, firearm and tool mark examiners, carpenters and service workers.
“I make no apologies: I am a union man,” Biden said.
No one was really asking him to apologize, and none of the unions in that rundown have endorsed Biden. The power of IAFF's early Biden endorsement, which had been hinted at for weeks, came both in the army of 313,000 members who'd be encouraged to support Biden and in shaping a story of Biden as the candidate of labor. It shows him as the guy who delivered the 2009 stimulus package and the guy who could be counted on to restore Obama-era rules (and labor lawyers) who supported unions.
Despite that, most labor unions remain very much up for grabs. Across the spectrum of American labor unions, the IAFF has a relatively white, male and conservative membership; in 2015, Schaitberger repeatedly held off on any endorsement in the hope that Biden would run, and when he didn't, the union stayed neutral. In a post-election internal poll, 50 percent of IAFF members said that they voted for Donald Trump; just 27 percent said they'd backed Hillary Clinton.
Clinton's relative weakness with union workers and their families may have been determinative in her narrow Midwest and Rust Belt losses, and therefore determinative in electing Trump. That's implied in the IAFF's pitch: Biden can pull back voters who bailed in 2016 over their personal mistrust of Clinton.
But other unions, with a more liberal and diverse membership, wondered if Clinton lost because younger and more diverse voters were not excited to vote. A host of liberal unions — the Communications Workers of America, the Service Employees International Union, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, the American Federation of Teachers — have been participating in candidate forums designed to see whether candidates would use their power to push corporations to the negotiating table.
“Don't simply phone in the old 'labor built the middle class' speech,” said Sara Nelson, the president of the CWA-affiliated Association of Flight Attendants. “Talk about the relevancy of labor today and who makes up the labor movement. It's vibrant, diverse and fighting for dignity at work, no matter what that work looks like.”
Several other candidates have made headway with labor by talking about what they'd do, now. In a swing through Ohio, where he was joined by AFT President Randi Weingarten, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said he would cut off federal contracts to companies that outsourced American jobs; later, he challenged every Democratic campaign to “renegotiate all of our unfair trade deals” and to label China a currency manipulator. It was issues such as those, Sanders has argued, that attracted union voters away from Clinton in 2016; it seemed as though Trump would act where she didn't.
But Biden's speech in Pittsburgh also hit those marks. He talked about the Stop & Shop strike in Massachusetts, where he was one of several Democratic hopefuls to address workers organized with UFCW. He perked up the crowd when he talked about the ongoing labor actions by hospital workers at Pittsburgh's UPMC.
“The SEIU is engaged in one of the most important organizing fights in this country,” he said. “Folks, what was 200 years ago in steel mills and coal mines is true today in our big hospital system . . . it's going to take a strong union to get justice for health-care workers.”
To Beth Mikus, the head of south Pennsylvania's coalition of labor union women, it sounded like Biden was making a direct play to SEIU workers. (Her coalition does not make endorsements.) He had a more promising path to their support than Sanders; the senator from Vermont's supporters, she said, “threw temper tantrums” that hurt Clinton in 2016 and left sour feelings with rank-and-file Democrats.
But other parts of the Biden pitch give union leaders pause. The former vice president did not attend a weekend forum organized by the SEIU and the Center for American Progress, and in an interview, SEIU President Mary Kay Henry said that workers bristled when candidates said that both parties simply needed to come together to get work done.
“It doesn't address the fact that our domestic policy and economy are way out of whack and that corporations and billionaires have way too much power,” Henry said.
In Pittsburgh, plenty of union members and labor leaders said that Biden had won them over. Some were still shopping for their candidate.
“I’m indifferent,” said Rick Rieder, a 42-year-old firefighter from Pittsburgh, before marshaling a reason to support the former vice president. “I like his support of workers.”
Lou Guzzo, a 49-year-old firefighter, cut right to the chase.
“I support Biden,” he said. “My union supports Biden.”
Matt Viser contributed reporting.
Joe Biden for president. The second video from the Biden operation is a big hug of Barack Obama, the man who tapped “Uncle Joe” to help win nervous white voters and who came to view him as a brother. There's not too much flash; it intersperses the speech Obama gave when he surprised Biden with a Medal of Freedom with some of Biden's own we're-in-this-together remarks. Biden's making a nostalgic pitch to voters who miss the Obama years and aren't particularly interested in hearing about what went wrong.
Tina Ramirez for Congress. Republicans narrowly lost Virginia's 7th District in 2018, blaming that largely on Republican Dave Brat refusing to believe they could lose the race until it was too late. The first serious Republican candidate to jump into the race positions herself very differently from Brat, a tea party-powered libertarian economist. “I will fight to defend the sanctity of every life, to defend religious freedoms, and to create jobs and opportunities for Virginians,” she says.
Two things to watch: Republicans have seriously stepped up the recruitment of nonwhite, non-male candidates in suburban seats that they lost last year, and Virginia Republicans continue to use Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam's too-clinical description of what happens to babies born unable to live outside the womb as an issue to rev up their voters.
Do you have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of Joe Biden? (CNN/SSRS, 1,007 adults)
Favorable — 51%
Unfavorable — 39%
The big story from CNN's first national poll in a month is a 24-point lead for Biden among all Democratic voters, nationwide. Why, seeing that, are other campaigns not sweating through their union-made T-shirts? One, as this newsletter keeps screaming into the darkness, there is no “national” Democratic primary: Hillary Clinton never lost her national “lead” in the runup to the 2008 Iowa caucuses, and look what happened.
Two, Biden's argument is premised on electability, and his favorable rating, after two years in the stratosphere, has settled back where it was in late 2015: positive, but with the usual negative core of opposition that every Democrat gets. Biden's advantage is that no other Democrat can report something better; the long shots polled here are mostly unknown, with more voters viewing Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) and Reps. Eric Swalwell (Calif.) and Seth Moulton (Mass.) negatively than view them positively.
The 2020 Democratic primary (Quinnipiac, 419 Democratic voters)
Who has the best chance of defeating Donald Trump?
Joe Biden — 56%
Bernie Sanders — 12%
Pete Buttigieg — 4%
Elizabeth Warren — 3%
Cory Booker — 3%
Beto O’Rourke — 3%
Kamala Harris — 2%
Who has the best policy ideas?
Joe Biden — 23%
Elizabeth Warren — 19%
Bernie Sanders — 16%
Pete Buttigieg — 9%
Kamala Harris — 7%
Beto O’Rourke — 2%
There are many ways to ask voters how nervously they consider “electability” in their votes, and this is a good one. Warren has regained some footing after weeks of ambitious policy rollouts; Democratic primary voters now see her as one of the “idea” drivers in the field. And Democrats remain utterly panicked about the chance of their nominee defeating Trump unless he happens to be an avuncular former vice president.
Amy Klobuchar. She announced that she'd use the president's power to create commissions and to grant clemency in the creation of a “clemency advisory board.” The goal, if it worked: Streamlining the pardon and sentence commutation process for nonviolent offenders.
Pete Buttigieg. He released 10 years of tax returns, which start the year he left McKinsey to run for Indiana state treasurer; he pulled in $136,129 that year and has never topped it.
Eric Swalwell. He hit the first qualifying marker for the presidential debates by reaching 1 percent in three early polls.
Andrew Yang. He called for 18-year term limits on Supreme Court nominees, the latest in his list of structural changes.
Elizabeth Warren. From the Senate, she called for the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general to investigate reports that Glass Cyber Solutions, a private intelligence firm, had been handing information on immigration protests to DHS.
Cory Booker. He took a rare (for him) swing at another candidate in an interview with PBS, saying that “if Bernie Sanders wants to get involved in a conversation about whether Dylann Roof and the marathon bomber should have the right to vote, my focus is on liberating black and brown people and low-income people from prison.”
John Delaney. He delivered foreign policy remarks at the Brookings Institution, saying he'd reestablish trade agreements and climate treaties but would not seek cuts to military spending.
What's in a pledge? Five days ago, just as Joe Biden was launching his campaign, the liberal grass-roots Indivisible Project announced a pledge for the 2020 Democratic candidates. It was three short sentences.
Make the primary constructive. Rally behind the winner. Do the work to beat Trump.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) signed it right away, with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee following right behind. Since then, all of them have attacked another candidate — some of them for the first time.
Sanders and Warren have both turned their guns on Joe Biden, though only when asked. Warren told the AP that “at a time when the biggest financial institutions in this country were trying to put squeeze on millions of hardworking families,” she got into the fight against them, while “Biden was on the side of the credit card companies.” Last night on CNN, Sanders told Anderson Cooper that he offered a clear contrast with Biden; he'd been right on key issues, and the vice president had been wrong.
“I helped lead the fight against NAFTA; he voted for NAFTA,” Sanders said. “I helped lead the fight against [permanent normal trade relations] with China; he voted for it. I strongly opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership; he supported it. I voted against the war in Iraq; he voted for it.”
That interview happened a few hours after Inslee's campaign torched Beto O'Rourke for his $5 trillion climate plan, arguing that the Texan had no credibility with which to make climate change promises.
“Climate change needs to be the top priority of the next president, and we will not defeat climate change with empty rhetoric, borrowed rhetoric, or by taking fossil fuel money,” Inslee's campaign manager Aisling Kerins said in a statement. "Beto O'Rourke will need to answer why he did not lead on climate change in Congress and why he voted on the side of oil companies to open up offshore drilling."
These all sounded like attacks, but Indivisible never blew the whistle. The group explained why in an email to supporters, saying that it was by no means a violation of the pledge if Democrats disagreed on policy.
“We are not asking for that: in fact, our vision of a constructive primary relies on a robust debate of ideas and approaches that produces a thoroughly vetted, strong nominee,” the group wrote. “We know there are important differences among presidential visions, platforms and proposals in the primary, and we are excited to learn more about them as the field grows and debates near.”
… 18 days until Joe Biden’s “unifying America” event in Philadelphia
… 57 days until the first Democratic debates