The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Trailer: Michael Bennet is sick of watching Democrats lose

In this edition: The fed-up centrism of Michael F. Bennet, the impeachment bubble, and a talk with the antiabortion Democrat who could be governor of Mississippi.

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HUDSON, N.H. — On Wednesday morning, shortly after the Democratic National Committee announced rules that could slash candidates like him out of most presidential primary debates, Sen. Michael F. Bennet of Colorado walked into a small bakery for an hour-long meet-and-greet with local Democrats. He had intended to win his party's nomination in rooms like this, a dozen people at a time. Wouldn't that, he asked, be better than what was happening outside the room?

"The people that spend a lot of time watching cable news at night, and the people that are associated with Twitter in their politics — they're very well represented in Washington every day," Bennet said. "You can predict what's going on in D.C. by what's on cable the night before, or what's coming on cable tonight. It's just 12 million Americans who watch that. I do not think that's what most Americans want."

Bennet, by his count, was the 21st Democrat to announce a primary bid. There will be at most 20 microphones at the first two double-header debates, in June and July. Bennet's entry meant that at least one of the people in the field wouldn't make the stage for the first debates.

Twenty-four Democrats (including former senator Mike Gravel) are making a real effort at getting on the debate stage, which means that four of them — perhaps the senior senator from Colorado, perhaps the mayor of America's largest city — will be declared less relevant than Marianne Williamson, a self-help author who lost a 2014 run for Congress and who has met both the donor and polling thresholds for the debates. 

Few people are more irritated by this than Bennet, a serious-minded favorite of Washington editorial pages who could not believe what the race had turned into. ("I'm not going to get a haircut to get attention," he joked here, referring to a Beto O'Rourke clip that went viral in the wrong way.) His initial pitch, that his party risked going too far left and embracing "policy proposals that have no basis in reality," didn't seem to differ much from Joe Biden's. Demand Justice, founded last year to urge Democrats to reverse conservative appointments to the courts, ran ads in New Hampshire that asked why the senator voted for "67 percent" of the president's nominees.

The backlash has actually helped Bennet carve out a niche. If Biden is the pragmatist who wants to turn the clock back, Bennet is the pragmatist who says the clock is broken, smashed by right-wing Republicans in the House Freedom Caucus. While Biden refuses to speak ill of other Democrats, Bennet is happy to tell his intra-party critics that they're fools. The senator, whose low-key style can resemble a podcast played at 3/4 speed, would use his time on a debate stage to warn his party against disaster.

Take the issue of judges. Bennet's first problem with the "67 percent" attack is that it's wrong; to get to that number, he says, opponents added up his vote for one-third of contested Trump judicial nominees to his votes for the many unanimously confirmed nominees. The people criticizing him now, he says, were the ones who pushed Democrats to loosen filibuster rules in the first place, taking away the party's ability to block conservative judges. When they argue that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) would have blown up the rules anyway, as he did to prevent Barack Obama's final Supreme Court appointment, Bennet scoffs.

"For the people who say it was inevitable anyway, I say to them: Why did you lose to Mitch McConnell?" Bennet said. He recalled a conversation with the late senator John McCain, who believed McConnell "wanted [Democrats] to take the first step" in changing rules so that Republicans could change more of them with impunity. "All we did was just make it easier for more convenient for him." 

There's more to Bennet's campaign than friendly fire; last week, he unveiled a climate plan with $1 trillion in infrastructure spending and several zero-emissions targets. But when he discusses what other Democrats have done wrong, he pounds the table.

In an interview, when reminded of Sen. Bernie Sanders's education plan and its phase-out of charter schools, Bennet said that Sanders would be condemning some students to a poor education and that the senator from Vermont knew he wouldn't get the plan passed anyway. 

"That's not 'going far,' " Bennet said. "That's pandering. That's what he's doing." When the topic of health care came up, Bennet lit into Sanders again. "He says that Medicare-for-all is supported by 75 percent of the voters; well, that's only true until voters know the first thing about Medicare-for-all." (Polling has found support for universal Medicare falling if voters are told that it would end most private insurance plans.)

Yet Bennet is one of the few Democrats in the race who will do what comes naturally to Sanders: criticize the Obama administration. Asked how the Obama-Biden team had erred in their eight years, Bennet brought up the "fiscal cliff" deal of 2013, in which Biden played a major role. 

The White House team, said Bennet, gave Republicans an extension of tax cuts that they couldn't have passed on their own, plus a trigger for automatic spending cuts that went on to hurt the Democrats and the economy.

"This is a perfect example of Washington dysfunction masquerading as empty bipartisanship," Bennet said. "The deal that was struck by the White House and by the Republicans in Congress was heralded as this great bipartisan victory. It was a complete fleecing by the tea party."

At the time, Bennet voted against the deal. But he was just as flummoxed by Republican strategies. In 2014, Bennet chaired the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which raised plenty of money but crashed into disaster. Democrats tumbled into the biggest loss of seats in a single election in 20 years, setting up McConnell's eventual victories on judges. The lesson Bennet took away was that the party simply got out-politicked, out-messaged, and burned by the backlash to the Affordable Care Act's implementation, with voters furious that the law was leading insurers to cancel some plans.

"In 2014, we're on the way to passing immigration in the House because of the weakness of the Republicans, because of the shutdown," Bennet said. "And then we have the failure in health care. And then [Republican House Majority Leader] Eric Cantor lost [to a tea party challenger running against immigration reform]. And then by Election Day, Rush Limbaugh was basically making the argument that there were ISIS guys infecting themselves with Ebola and dressing themselves up as Central American children to to cross the border."

Bennet's argument for 2020 is that Democrats, preferably led by him, need to inoculate themselves against the most dishonest attacks. He didn't think "the fever will break," as both Obama and Biden repeatedly predicted of Republican campaign tactics. But surely, his party needed to break a pattern.

"As we sit here today, this country does not know what the national Democratic Party stands for," Bennet said. "I think the DNC should be on the side of having as vigorous debate as possible about what we stand for."

TonightBennet will appear in a CNN town hall, making an argument to the cable news audience that he sometimes minimizes. In two weeks, he'll learn whether he gets to do the same in a debate.


"Tougher new debate rules could dramatically winnow Democratic presidential field," by Michael Scherer

The DNC's new standards will dramatically cut down the number of candidates who make the stage in September; the candidates on the brink are furious.

"How Bernie Sanders accidentally built a groundbreaking organizing movement," by Ryan Grim

The nitty-gritty details of how innovative, inexperienced organizers built the tools that expanded Sanders's volunteer base.

"Louisiana passed an abortion ban. Its Democratic governor plans to defy his party and sign it," by Jacqueline Kantor and Reis Thebault 

John Bel Edwards, the only Democratic governor defending his seat in 2019, is one of many Louisiana Democrats agreeing to new abortion restrictions.

"Libertarian Presidential Candidates, on a Possible Justin Amash Run: 'That Would Be Amazing,' " by Matt Welch

If Amash does run, he won't have the libertarian field to himself.

"Revolution stalled? Bernie Sanders struggles against a double bind," by Sean Sullivan

The difficulty of running an insurgent campaign when Democrats have new (and largely liberal) alternatives.


GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — The image that made the evening news was a standing ovation, a crowd of hundreds applauding Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) for having called for the impeachment of President Trump. On social media, Amash won praise from liberals; if a Republican congressman was welcomed home like a hero, what was stopping Nancy Pelosi from endorsing impeachment? (Did you miss Tuesday's Trailer, about Amash and his place in the Republican Party? Read it here.)

In the room, other moments spoke more loudly about Amash’s decision and about how unmovable public opinion about the president really is. Diane Luke, who arrived at the event wearing a “Make America Great Again” cap, went back and forth with Amash — and the audience — for several minutes, asking how he could truly be a Republican if he was helping “the deep state” attack the president.

Later in the evening, Amash got an earful from Anna Tinner, who said she had worked to elect Amash, only to be betrayed.

“You’ve spent the last two years failing to do your job, which is to directly represent the popular will of your constituents,” she said. “If you care about the Constitution so much, why didn’t you say anything about the violation of the Fourth Amendment rights of the Trump campaign? We are talking about year-long spying on an entire group of people, FISA abuse that is currently under investigation.”

Amash pushed back, pointing out that he has tried to rein in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and been stopped by the Trump administration. Soon, a Democrat thanked him for reading the Mueller report. But just minutes later, he heard the same complaint, from another voter. Why was the president being hounded, when the real scandal was that his campaign was monitored by the FBI in the first place?

The congressman stuck to his position but met the questioner halfway: “I have no problem with investigating the FBI or others on the honest points.” Crowded into the same room, Amash’s Democratic and Republican constituents were working with entirely different sets of facts, and Amash was going to try to deal with all of them. 

With the special counsel's probe over, Republicans have urged Democrats to drop all other investigations into the Trump administration and the 2016 campaign. At the same time, three ongoing investigations have been spurred by Republican questions about the investigation — the Justice Department’s internal study (referred to in that last question to Amash) and probes into whether the Justice Department let Hillary Clinton off the hook in 2016 and into the origins of the Russia investigation.

On Monday night, the Democrats asking Amash about impeachment spoke generally about what to do with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s findings. The Republicans referred to counter-narratives that had dominated conservative media. Democrats groaned loudly as the Republicans went into their grievances; Republicans shook their heads as Amash, to their eyes, repeated the lies being told about the president.

“He doesn't want to talk about anything else that was done to Trump by the other side,” Tinner told reporters when the town hall was over. “He didn't want to talk about how the dossier was paid for by the DNC and Hillary Clinton's campaign. It was compiled by a foreign source and he doesn't want to talk about that. He does want to talk about how the FISA warrant was signed in a way that's very different from how they usually are signed.” The last claim wasn't true, but it was impossible to watch Fox News without hearing it.

Amash’s town hall and Wednesday’s statement from himself were covered on cable news as potential watershed moments — a complicated and dramatic set of allegations against the president finally breaking through. But they underscored just how little Republicans have moved and how completely convincing the presidential pushback has been for his base.

Washington Post/ABC News polling, which shows most of the country opposed to impeachment, finds that a majority of voters have not changed their view of Trump because of the Mueller investigation, while Republicans say their opinion of the president grew more positive.

Some of the loudest Democratic boos at the Amash town hall came when another Republican voter mentioned former attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr.  and former president Bill Clinton, asking why Amash had not been so outraged when, for example, Holder rebuffed questions from Congress.

“Some of the people you just mentioned, like Holder — I called on them to resign,” said Amash. “I don’t think we should make decisions about our own side based on whether the other side was hypocritical.”

The questioner suggested that Amash was looking into a “smokescreen.” He was allying with, and excusing, Democrats who were surely going to vote against him.

“Many of the people here clapping for you today, when it comes to principles — are they going to pull a lever for you in the election booth?” he asked.

The crowd broke into more applause, as if to answer. But at least two Democrats running against Amash were in the crowd.

“We’re happy to have him on our side, and if he’s reelected, we’ll work with him,” said Gary Stark, the Democratic chairman in Kent County. “But we don’t expect him to be reelected.”


2020 primary. Bernie Sanders, who built an impressive video and social media operation after the 2016 primary, has been releasing digital ads about as long as the average commercial break. The most successful in the new batch: a recap of his trip to Denmark, S.C., where he commiserated with locals whose running water had been made toxic by pollution runoff. "Gasland" director Josh Fox, a 2016 Sanders delegate, helped put together a clip that quickly cleared 1 million views.

Montana Senate. If Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock's presidential campaign falters, he may be pressured again to run against Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.). The Senate Leadership Fund, the GOP's main super PAC in these races, is spending money now to make any comeback harder; in "New Job," old and recent news stories about Bullock's use of state resources on political trips flash across the screen. "Running for president on Montana's dime?" the ad says.

Bullock, like many governors, is accompanied by security at most public appearances; his current campaign travel is paid for through his presidential committee. Some of the travel questions were also aired during Bullock's 2016 reelection bid, which he won narrowly.

"It’s no surprise that D.C. Republicans funded by special interests are desperately attempting to distract from the governor's strong record of accomplishment," said Galia Slayen, a spokeswoman for Bullock.


Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, is preparing to sign "heartbeat" legislation that would ban abortions as early as six weeks of pregnancy. It would go into effect only if a similar law, passed this year in Mississippi, survives a legal challenge.

Mississippi's defense is being handled by Attorney General Jim Hood, a Democrat, who happens to be the party's candidate for governor in November. Hood, who has said that "the Bible states that God knows us in the womb," is defending the state not just because it's his role; he doesn't oppose the law.

Both states, reliably red in presidential elections, are setting up competitive gubernatorial races between Democrats and Republicans who oppose abortion. None of the Democrats running for president share that position, or anything close to it; several have proposed legislation that would codify current abortion laws, making heartbeat bills (to say nothing of full abortion bans like the one signed in Alabama.) impossible.

In an interview, Hood did not go into detail about his personal beliefs, citing the lawsuit. Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, the front-runner for the Republican nomination, has accused him of not being "passionate" enough about abortion, arguing that the GOP would do more for the cause. Asked if he wanted Mississippi to be the state that undid much of Roe v. Wade (an unofficial race is underway to be the state that does this), Hood said that, frankly, he'd "rather some other state pay the cost" of an expensive case.

"There are other cases way ahead of ours that will decide the issue," Hood said. "It's for the Supreme Court to decide; it's not a matter who gets it there. It would be nice to have some peace, so we can focus on the things that really matter to families."

In the meantime, "peace" also meant letting national Democrats sort themselves out. Republicans, said Hood, would try to "nationalize" his race. But he wasn't watching or responding to Democratic presidential candidates.

"I don't keep up with what they're saying," Hood said. "The folks that watch Fox TV, they're more caught up with what the liberals are saying. I don't follow a lot of what their policies are."

Hood would, however, accept support from the Democratic Governors Association or other national Democrats, even as they face questions from activists about whether antiabortion politics should be given a haven in the party. Liberal voters uncomfortable with Hood's abortion views would have to think about the stakes, he said. A Republican governor would refuse to expand Medicaid, while he'd work on it as soon as he was sworn in.

"I'd say, do you agree with me on the vast majority of the issues?" Hood said. "I'm quite certain they do. And just for that one issue that affects them, there's a whole lot other issues they would agree with me on."


Joe Biden. He'll keynote the Human Rights Campaign's dinner in Columbus on Saturday; after the weekend he'll make his second campaign trip to New Hampshire.

Cory Booker. He joined the chorus of (still outnumbered) 2020 Democrats who believe the House should begin impeachment proceedings now.

John Hickenlooper. In an interview with MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, he said he would implement a national version of a Colorado birth-control program, which subsidizes the cost of IUDs.

Kamala D. Harris. She announced the endorsement of 33 Democratic members of the California State Assembly, one day before candidates arrive in her home state.

Beto O’Rourke. He introduced an immigration plan that begins with an executive order — day one of his presidency — that would require only immigrants with criminal backgrounds to be detained by law enforcement. It would also take immigration courts out of the Justice Department and zero out federal funds for private prisons.

Elizabeth Warren. She appeared on "The View" to debut a child-care cost calculator, a promotion for her latest reform plan; she also faced critical questions about her decision not to do a town hall on Fox News.

John Delaney. He has asked the DNC to explain how it came up with the rules that will cut down the size of the third primary debates — rules that might eliminate him. (Delaney is the only candidate self-funding much of his campaign and is far from the donation totals set by the DNC.)

Pete Buttigieg. The Young Turks network obtained a leaked excerpt of a report that appeared to contradict some of what the South Bend, Ind., mayor has said about a former police chief.


The Trump administration’s proposal to put a citizenship question on the next census questionnaire got a fairly friendly hearing in front of the Supreme Court. The argument against it has come from two sources — fear of radical disruption of federal funding schemes (which are based on the census) and the accusation that the proposal is mostly designed to elect Republicans.

Democrats making that second claim got a boost Thursday, as an unrelated lawsuit turned up a memo from Thomas B. Hofeller, an attorney who helped Republicans draw favorable maps. In a 2015 analysis, never published, Hofeller wrote that counting only voting-age citizens to draw congressional districts “would be advantageous to Republicans and non-Hispanic whites” but wasn’t possible unless the census asked citizenship questions. 

Undercounting or not counting immigrants would leave immigrant-heavy cities with less electoral clout, something that would reduce Democratic prospects for at least 10 years.

In 2016, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that total population could be used to draw political maps. But before he died, Hofeller advised the Trump administration on the power of a citizenship question. The question now: whether Hofeller’s memo, in an irony for the ages, hurts the cause he spent the end of his life on.

“As these documents make clear, this administration’s effort to add a citizenship question to the census was nothing more than a nefarious attempt to lock in power for Republicans and white voters while damaging the electoral and political power of Democrats and Latinos,” Kelly Burton, president of the National Redistricting Foundation, said after the memo was released.

Rick Hasen, a liberal voting rights analyst, suspects that the memo won’t hurt, even though it directly contradicts the Trump administration’s legal rationale. In their 2016 concurrences, Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote that states should be allowed to draw maps based on eligible voters (i.e., citizens); if they persuaded the court’s other conservatives to come along, the goal of helping Republicans by undercounting immigrants will be complete. 


... 27 days until the first Democratic debates
... 61 days until the second Democratic debates
... 105 days until the third Democratic debates