In this edition: The missing foreign policy fight, an Ohio gerrymander overturned, and the Democrats worry about how much to worry.
I remember when political “gaffes” could take over a news cycle for more than 90 minutes, and this is The Trailer.
When Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) wants to argue with Joe Biden, he usually starts with Iraq. In a Sunday interview with ABC News, Sanders pointed out that he had broken with the former vice president on whether to invade the country in 2002.
“Joe voted for the war in Iraq; I led the effort against it,” Sanders said. A few days earlier, in a CNN interview, he was less concise: “I helped lead the opposition to what turned out to be the worst foreign policy disaster in the modern history of America. Joe voted for it.”
But so far, casting a vote for war in 2002 hasn’t hurt Biden’s appeal to Democrats, and voting against it hasn’t materially helped Sanders. Biden has put his foreign policy résumé at the center of his 2020 pitch, promising to fix the ties frayed by the Trump administration. Sanders is coming off a year-long fight to end American support for war in Yemen — and finding foreign policy pretty far from the minds of primary voters.
The nonexistent foreign policy debate inside the Democrats’ primary is frustrating to many in the party. On the left, there’s real concern that Biden will yoke the party to an agenda that voters turned against in 2016, while allying with hawkish anti-Trump Republicans. On the other end of the party, there are worries about the 2020 Democrats ducking foreign policy fights with a president they see as a loser on the subject.
“I think Trump’s foreign policy is much more vulnerable than the appearance, and Dems don’t call it out enough,” said Ben Rhodes, a former deputy national security adviser to President Barack Obama who now co-chairs National Security Action, a liberal think tank. “His North Korea diplomacy has yielded exactly nothing, his Venezuela policy has made things worse, [and] the Chinese are supplanting U.S. leadership in many parts of the world. I also think the possibility of a war involving Iran or Venezuela is higher than people think; better to be talking about these things now, so that you’re not flat-footed when something could blow.”
The president is happy to talk about all of it, from speculating that his North Korea talks will get him a Nobel Peace Prize to touting embargoes designed to drive the leaders of Iran and Venezuela out of power.
Few Democrats are talking about foreign policy, though, and the nature of the primary — with lots of questions from interest groups and more questions from voters — has not done much to center the topic. According to Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s campaign, which keeps track of what gets asked at public appearances, just 14 of the 354 questions the senator from Massachusetts has taken at town halls have concerned foreign policy. Four of those questions have focused on Israel. None have focused on Yemen, though Warren and every 2020 Democrat joined Sanders in the push to end that war.
That has left space for Biden talk about changing America’s approach to the world, in very general terms. At a gathering with South Carolina donors this weekend, Biden reiterated something he'd been telling interviewers since early 2017 — that leaders of other countries worry about America's drift under the Trump administration.
“I’ve literally had a chance to meet virtually every major world leader,” he said. “I have had, just since he’s been president, at least 14 heads of state contact me, including very, very conservative heads of state.”
In 2016, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton had been able to say much the same thing about Trump and warned voters that if they put him in office, their lives would be at risk. According to the exit poll, most voters who heard that argument agreed with Clinton; she did best among voters who said foreign policy was the “most important issue facing the country,” enjoying a 27-point lead over Trump.
What hurt Clinton was the idea that the Obama administration was leaving Americans more vulnerable to terrorism. In the same exit poll, just 13 percent of voters called foreign policy, in general, their top issue; 18 percent said “terrorism” was a bigger issue, and they broke by 17 points for Trump. Fifty-three percent of voters thought “the fight against ISIS” was going badly; those voters backed Trump by 43 points. That mitigated some questions about Trump’s experience, as just 38 percent of voters said he was “qualified to be president,” compared with 52 percent who said so of Clinton.
In 2020, Democrats expect Trump to run on his military success against the Islamic State (the organization still exists but has lost its territory) and on his ongoing negotiations with North Korea. Even if they're not fruitful, they clash with the image that Clinton painted of Trump in 2016, of a reckless leader who could precipitate a war.
By this point in 2007, Obama had already delivered a major foreign policy address, arguing that “the position of 'leader of the free world' [remained] open” while George W. Bush was president. Several candidates this time, such as Sanders, had addressed foreign policy topics before running; only two, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) and Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), had entered the campaign focused on the topic. Steve Israel, a Truman Security Project board member and former congressman from New York, said that he hadn't heard much from Democratic candidates; that would change, he surmised, only if there were some crisis.
“National security is a campaign issue in rare environments, [such as] after 9/11, or in 2006, when the war in Iraq was deeply unpopular,” Israel said. “The only issue that’s animating the Democratic primary base right now is President Trump. It’s possible that some candidates will try to cast Russia’s interference in our elections as a national security issue, but at the end of the day it’s all about Trump.”
The nature of the Trump presidency, with a fresh news cycle being spun up every few hours, might explain the lack of a Democratic foreign policy debate. No one has been more frustrated than the Trump administration at the lack of interest in victories against the Islamic State. In the new WSJ-NBC News poll, just 11 percent of voters said that “national security and terrorism” should be the government's first priority, down from 21 percent in the same poll four years ago.
But crises keep emerging, and Democrats are not grappling with them as aggressively as they had in the past. Gabbard, who endorsed Sanders in 2016, has dedicated much of her campaign to attacking “neocons and neolibs” who favor “regime change wars.” She has not gotten much traction in the primary, as much of the left has gotten behind Sanders.
And Sanders, whose foreign policy is oriented around opposition to authoritarian nationalism in every country, has broken with the left as he’s put that into action. In an interview with the New Yorker, he said that American recognition of Venezuela's political opposition made sense, as the country was controlled by a “failed regime” that took power after a “fraudulent” election.
The Iraq question was simpler, and only a few of the 2020 candidates had been around to take a position on it. Biden was a yes, though he regretted his vote as early as 2005; Sanders and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D.), then both congressmen, had voted no. Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), who began his career as an anti-Iraq War candidate and who co-chairs the Sanders campaign nationally, said that a foreign policy debate would reveal which version of the Democratic Party was ready to take on Trump and which one wasn't.
“Donald Trump will claim falsely that he was against Iraq and is against endless wars,” Khanna said. “To prevail, our nominee needs to have the credibility to debunk Trump’s false claims and convince Americans that they have a better track record to get us out of bad wars. This will be one of the most important questions of electability in the 2020 primary.”
“Electability” has been a major discussion of this primary. But not Iraq — not yet, at least.
Even as polls find most voters believing that the president acted wrongly during the election and the Mueller probe, the president's campaign is well ahead on its base-first response strategy.
“The Only Republican Running Against Trump,” by Erick Trickey
Bill Weld is running for president and finding that his old party really isn't keen on a contested primary. He has a solution: “I’ve always done better with Independents than I did with Republicans.”
The fight continues over whether Florida felons will have to pay court debts in order to vote again; in most states, felons get the franchise back without having to pay anything.
“Davids feels heat from the left as activists push her to support Medicare-for-all,” by Jason Hancock and Bryan Lowry
The saga of a 2018 Democratic star in Kansas — defeating a Bernie Sanders-backed candidate from the center, then being lumped in by Republicans as yet another left-winger — says plenty about the stalled progress toward the left's health-care dream.
“Can a Woman Win? 2020 Candidates Offer an Easy Answer: ‘I Have’," by Astead W. Herndon and Lisa Lerer
Did you know that Pete Buttigieg and Beto O'Rourke have never won an election in a red state? You will, if the female candidates for president get their point across.
|You are reading The Trailer, the newsletter that brings the campaign trail to your inbox three times a week.|
|Not a regular subscriber?|
No one in the room missed Joe Biden's point about China. At a Wednesday morning stop in Iowa City, the former vice president went on a riff about the immutability of American ideas and the strength of its workforce. Anyone who thought China would own the future, he said, was dreaming and discounting American greatness.
“China is going to eat our lunch? Come on, man,” Biden said. “They can't even figure out how to deal with the fact that they have this great division between the [South] China Sea and the mountains in the east, I mean, the west. They can't figure out how they're going to deal with the corruption that exists within the system. I mean, you know, they’re not bad folks, folks. But guess what? They’re not competition for us.”
Within 24 hours, Biden's remarks had been reshaped into a kind of gaffe. More importantly, they previewed how Republicans might cut into Biden's appeal as an elder statesman — by portraying him as naive or confused. That's a loaded accusation that has proved effective against older candidates in the recent past.
Biden's comments, part of his patriotic boilerplate meant to show faith in U.S. strength, were quickly bent into evidence that he didn't see China as a threat. Biden's successor, Mike Pence, used a CNBC interview (one that was otherwise tough on the administration's difficult trade negotiations with China) to suggest that Biden was ignorant about Chinese strategies.
“While we hear one of the latest candidates for president say that China doesn’t represent a competition of the United States, you know, they’re half of our international trade deficit,” Pence told CNBC. “Forced technology transfers and intellectual property theft are a reality.”
In a more pointed op-ed, Curtis Ellis, a longtime protectionist who's now a policy adviser for a pro-Trump super PAC, wrote that Biden “has learned nothing and forgotten nothing” about China after a career of trying to open up trade. Ellis pulled a Biden quote from the long floor debate over normalizing trade with China, 20 years ago: “Nor do I see a collapse of the American manufacturing economy, as China, a nation with the impact on the world economy about the size of the Netherlands, suddenly becomes our major economic competitor.” The lesson: Biden “slept for decades” as the threat grew.
By Saturday, Biden had expanded on the remarks, making it especially clear that he was talking about beating China and not underestimating it. "I'm the guy that told the Chinese that when they set up these air defense zones, we’re not going to pay attention," Biden told a South Carolina news station. But he hadn't said that initially, which Republicans such as Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) exploited to ask whether Biden was simply going to let the Chinese roll over him.
“Vice President Biden seems to have lost touch with reality,” Scott said. “His comments downplaying the threat China poses to our economic and national security interests were stunningly naive and frankly dangerous.”
When Rick Scott describes someone as confused, pay attention. In his 2018 Senate win, Scott's campaign repeatedly mocked Bill Nelson, a three-term senator who's just two months older than Biden, as “confused” and unable to focus on his job. That was widely seen as a way for Scott to bring out what voters might be too nice to say: their senator may have lost a few steps. Look for further attacks on Biden's rhetoric — in this case, just a misreading of what he was saying — to ask whether the 76-year-old candidate has gotten a little confused.
Bidenworld is not all too worried about this tactic, for a simple reason: Any age attacks would be in the service of America's oldest president, whom even Republicans have criticized for losing focus on some policy priorities, of starting late-night tweet fights, and of live-commenting on cable television news shows. And they pointed to what Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said about Biden on Fox News last week: “If you travel with Joe Biden, you won't think he's too old.”
Should Congress impeach the president? (WSJ/NBC News, 900 adults)
Congress should impeach — 17%
Congress should continue investigating — 32%
Congress should let Trump finish his term — 48%
The question needs to be asked, sure, but we've reached a point of diminishing political returns on the answer. Consistently, voters are uncomfortable with how the president handled the investigation into the 2016 campaign; they are also uncomfortable with impeachment, because in their understanding “impeachment” means that a president will be removed from office. (In reality, only two presidents have been impeached, and neither was removed from office.)
The Democratic National Committee is not raising as much money as the Republican National Committee. It was lagging behind even before the 2016 election, but long-lasting bitterness about that year's outcome has done long-term damage to the DNC's brand, while the RNC jointly fundraises with a president who breaks party records in his support from small donors.
The Democrats' latest work to change that, reported first by Ruby Cramer, includes asking each candidate to pay $175,000 for access to its voter file while also repeatedly encouraging voters to support the DNC. Presidential candidates who purchase the file, without which it's much more difficult to target voters in early-voting states, must also agree to sign at least one DNC fundraising email per quarter, to speak at one DNC “signature event” per quarter, to continue raising money for the DNC if they lose the nomination, and to participate in a big Aug. 7, 2019, fundraising push.
Republicans were deeply entertained by the conditions, pointing out that they didn't require “hostage videos” for candidates to access their 2016 data file. But this should all be viewed in the context of the DNC trying to rehabilitate its image after the last nomination fight. The new rules that allow candidates access to debates if they pull more than 65,000 donations are also designed to widen the party's network of small donors, then reintroduce them to a DNC that they don't have reason to resent anymore.
(DNC finance chair Hector Muñoz also stepped aside this week, replaced by former Hillary Clinton fundraiser Chris Korge).
Ohio. This week, it became the fifth state to see federal judges rule its maps unconstitutional, arguing that gerrymanders slanted election results toward the party that drew lines after 2011. (Maryland's map is the only one of the five that was drawn by Democratic legislators.) Three states expected to be contested in 2020 — Ohio, Michigan and North Carolina — may now have new congressional maps. If they do, those maps will last for just one election; everything's getting redrawn after the next census.
Bernie Sanders. He unveiled his plan for rural America while campaigning in Iowa. It builds on some of the populist ideas Barack Obama ran on in 2008 — among them, to use antitrust powers to block new agribusiness monopolies, to protect farmers from patent lawsuits, to redirect farm subsidies to smaller farms, to enforce anti-pollution laws against industrial farms, and to “restrict” (if not ban) foreign ownership of American farmland.
Pete Buttigieg. He attended the Sunday sermon that Jimmy Carter still gives in Plains, Ga., and, unlike other candidates who've visited, was invited to read from the Bible.
Kamala Harris. She is swinging through Michigan on Sunday and Monday, joining American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten for a forum (Weingarten's second with a 2020 Democrat) and making the argument that “electability” questions are meant to crowd some candidates out of the race.
Andrew Yang. He tweeted this.
Joe Biden's entry into the 2020 primary pushed Bernie Sanders into second place or worse in national polls. Some Sanders supporters have responded by questioning whether the polls can be trusted, and they've zeroed in on last week's CNN survey that put Biden up by 24 points nationally. Why? Because its national sample did not include enough voters under 50 to be broken down in the cross tabs. An edit of journalist Jordan Chariton's tweetstorm explains:
Not a large enough sample of Dems/Dem-leaning independents for those age groups were polled. CNN gets to Joe Biden 39% and Bernie Sanders 15% by wildly oversampling Democrats and Dem-leaning independents age 50-64 and over 65 and UNDERSAMPLING age 18-34 and 35-49 . . . the age groups @BernieSanders has major advantage.
The starting assumption of this and other theories about the polls is that media pollsters want to undermine Sanders; a poll that sampled more young people would show him doing better. It's true that Sanders, who won young voters in the 2016 primary, does better with them now. But he's still lagging behind Biden with them. Last week's Quinnipiac poll, which had a larger sample than CNN's, found Biden at 48 percent with older voters and at just 25 percent with younger voters. Sanders pulled just 6 percent with older voters and just 16 percent with voters under 50, good enough for second place in the latter group, and third place in the former.
Over the weekend, two very different Democrats made two overlapping arguments, both aimed right at the party's activist base.
In a New York Times interview, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) suggested that her party nominate a candidate who can “own the center left and own the mainstream,” to win as big an electoral victory as possible. One reason: The president would question the integrity of an election that he lost only narrowly. “We have to inoculate against that,” Pelosi said. “We have to be prepared for that.”
In an interview on NBC's “Meet the Press,” Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) went after Demand Justice, a punchy liberal judicial campaign group that had given him an “F” for voting to allow Justice Neil Gorsuch's nomination to proceed to a vote and for backing two-thirds of Trump judicial nominees.
“The reason I said we shouldn't filibuster Gorsuch was very simple,” an animated Bennet said. “Gorsuch was a trade of Scalia for Gorsuch. And we allowed Mitch McConnell to invoke — not only allowed him, gave him every opportunity to use the nuclear option on Gorsuch, instead of waiting for it — forcing him to wait, for Kavanaugh. And my argument was, that's going to be when Roe versus Wade is at stake. That's going to be when the president's going to be even more popular. That's going to be when the Russian investigation's going to have taken up. We didn't have the discipline, unlike Mitch McConnell. We didn't have the discipline to play it strategically. We were non-strategic.”
The upshot of both arguments is that Democratic strategy must consider how Republicans will respond to it, even if the response isn't fair. And this gets to the new tension in the Democratic primary. One faction, represented by Biden (and to a lesser extent Bennet), sees a chance to “break the fever” of contemporary politics if President Trump is removed from it. The other faction, represented by most other Democrats, sees the GOP as a malignant force that needs to be defeated or minimized, not negotiated with.
At the moment, the militant faction may have the stronger case, because the other faction can't explain how de-escalation would allow the party to win. Pelosi's nightmare scenario, of the president casting doubt on an election's outcome, has already happened: After taking office, the president created an Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, to investigate a conspiracy theory that millions of fraudulent votes had been cast, denying him a popular vote majority. Bennet's argument for “strategy” skips past the reason even moderate Senate Democrats voted to kill the filibuster on most nominees; even after reelection, President Barack Obama was being prevented from filing vacant court seats by Republicans who argued that it would be better to reduce the overall number of judges than to let a Democratic candidate replace them.
“Bennet continues to support two out of every three Trump judges, even though they will be awful on climate change, health care and reproductive rights,” said Demand Justice's executive director Brian Fallon in a statement. “Donald Trump is rigging the courts, and Michael Bennet is helping him do it. We need Senate Democrats to understand the stakes of what is happening to our third branch of government, not turn the other cheek to Mitch McConnell.”
. . . three days until the next Trump rally, in Florida
. . . 41 days until a BET forum for Democrats
. . . 52 days until the first Democratic debates