Joe Biden was ready for this week's Democratic friendly fire. The former vice president hears every negative thing that's said about him, and responds to it, before dismissing that negativity as a way to bait him.
“Why do you think they'd attack me?” Biden said, smiling, when reporters at one of his Iowa stops this month asked about the Democratic candidates criticizing him for a light campaign schedule. “Why me? Why would they attack me? What do you think?”
The answer to that rhetorical question was that Biden was winning and they were losing; the bite marks on his ankles might surprise reporters, but they didn't surprise him.
The final week before the first Democratic debates has been the most negative of the primary so far and clarified the standards for Dem-on-Dem violence in 2019. Compared with the radioactive material Republicans hurled at each other in their 2016 primary, it's relatively mild; no one has accused a rival candidate of being unfit for the presidency or, as Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida once said of Donald Trump, that they should "should sue whoever did that to his face."
Instead, 2019's Democratic feuding (the public stuff, not the off-record snark of campaign staffs) has taken three forms. One has been theatrical (though not insincere) “disappointment” at something a candidate has done; this is what Biden's rivals did to him after he told donors how well he had been able to work with two segregationist Democrats in the 1970s. Another has been frustrated sighing at negativity itself, which is the only way Biden has attacked his opponents. A third has been a bank shot attack, criticizing people in the Democratic field without naming them; this is largely how Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has tried to portray every other candidate as compromised and unelectable. Less than a week before the debates, it's not clear how the fights have helped anyone; Biden and Sanders, the focus of and maker of a number of attacks, have both declined slightly in polling over the last month.
Jan. 24: Joe Biden versus a couple of west Michigan Democrats
Months before Biden entered the race, a New York Times story about his praise for Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan, a Republican, broke through the campaign noise. Biden had appeared at a nonpolitical event for Upton, praising the congressman's work on cancer research funding; Matt Longjohn, a Democrat making an unexpectedly close race with Upton, watched that praise cycle into the Republican's own campaign messaging.
Criticism of Biden came from pundits, not candidates, but Biden punched back at the U.S. Conference of Mayors. “I read in the New York Times today that if I run for president, one of my problems will be that I like Republicans,” Biden said, crossing himself. “Bless me, father, for I have sinned.”
The upshot: This set the tone for Biden's eventual campaign. He will get criticism; he'll tell an audience that the criticism was unfair; he'll move on after explaining that the thing he's getting hit over shows exactly why he should be president. The “Can you believe this?” response appeared again when Biden was criticized for skipping the Iowa Hall of Fame Celebration and the candidate said he was being unfairly attacked for attending a family event instead of coming to Iowa to “speak for five minutes.”
April 13: Bernie Sanders vs. the Center for American Progress
In early April, ThinkProgress, the reported blog of Washington's premier liberal think tank, produced a video about a micro-controversy: whether Sanders was less credible when he attacked “millionaires and billionaires” because he'd become a millionaire thanks to sales of his 2016 campaign book. Sanders wrote a letter to CAP, warning that they were making it impossible to work with him, and with other Democrats whom ThinkProgress had criticized over what he saw as minor issues.
“This counterproductive negative campaigning needs to stop,” Sanders wrote. “I will be informing my grass-roots supporters of the foregoing concerns that I have about the role CAP is playing.”
This kicked off a few days of negative coverage for CAP, whose president, Neera Tanden, is a frequent target of ire from grass-roots Sanders supporters. It was also the first Sanders proxy fight with the Democratic “establishment,” which was more diffuse than the one that focused on Hillary Clinton in 2015 and 2016.
The upshot: Quickly forgotten, the fight revealed just how much harder 2020 would be for Sanders without one figure to focus his “revolution” on.
June 1: John Hickenlooper vs. socialism
The former Colorado governor pointedly used his California Democratic Party convention speech to warn that “socialism was not the answer” in a race against Trump, facing boos from a crowd of activists generally to the left of the median Democratic voter. He would eventually pull Sanders, his obvious target, into a sort of argument; two weeks later, Sanders tweeted a video of a 1936 speech by Franklin D. Roosevelt in which he made fun of Republicans who were criticizing him while promising not to undo the popular New Deal programs. (Roosevelt does not mention socialism in the clip.)
The upshot: Hickenlooper succeeded in his goal: to get more attention for a candidate who was not breaking through; he also revealed what would become clearer later this month, that Sanders would fire back at any Democrat or entity who criticized his politics. Taking on “the establishment” meant taking on any Democrat who came at him.
June 2: Bernie Sanders vs. Joe Biden (by name)
In May, a Reuters write-up of Biden's upcoming climate plan quoted an adviser who said the vice president would seek a “middle ground” on the issue, not embracing the Green New Deal in full. That quickly came under fire from the left, and Sanders joined that attack at the California Democratic Party convention, repeatedly telling an audience that there was “no middle ground” on a host of issues. Sanders kept using the “middle ground” line in speeches for weeks afterward, even after Biden rolled out a climate plan that generally satisfied environmental groups.
The upshot: Sanders, who had been No. 2 behind Biden in polls, did not seem to benefit from attacking him indirectly. But he revealed that he was ready to, while other Democrats were unsure of how to go at the poll leader without damaging themselves.
June 13: Beto O'Rourke versus Joe Biden (by name)
For four months, the former Texas congressman had refused every chance to criticize a rival Democrat. That changed completely in one appearance on MSNBC's “Morning Joe,” when O'Rourke gamely accepted the premise of questions about Biden's age and voting record.
“You've got to ask yourself where Joe Biden is on the issues that are most important to you,” O'Rourke said. “Did he support the war in Iraq that forever destabilized the Middle East? Did he really believe that women of lower incomes should be able to make their own decisions about their own body, to be able to afford health care in order to do that?” (The latter line was a reference to Biden abandoning his support for the Hyde Amendment, which prevents taxpayer funds from paying for abortion.)
The upshot: This is one attack to which Biden never responded, which can be read as a statement on O'Rourke's shrunken status in the race. But the interview broke the seal on direct Democratic criticism of Biden.
June 19: Bernie Sanders vs. Third Way
The centrist Democratic think tank Third Way holds occasional policy conferences, inviting politicians and reporters to talk to experts. At this week's conference, in Charleston, S.C., two of the think tank's leaders and other conference attendees told Politico that Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) was catching on even with centrists who had warned, years ago, that she was too left-wing to win or govern. Politico tweeted the article with that angle, and Sanders responded that “the cat is out of the bag” and that “the corporate wing of the Democratic Party is publicly 'anybody but Bernie.' "
This didn't go over as intended. The Sanders campaign told reporters that, despite what the Politico tweet had said, the senator was not attacking Warren, only Third Way; but by that time, even some people sympathetic to Sanders thought he had blundered into an attack that wasn't credible. (Warren, like Sanders, has sworn off large fundraisers and support from corporate interests.)
“That tweet wasn't about Elizabeth Warren,” Sanders explained later on CNN. In between the tweet and that appearance, Sanders dared Third Way to commit to supporting the eventual Democratic nominee; the think tank, overjoyed to have the fight, said that it “strongly supported our nominee in 2016 against Trump” and asked whether Sanders could “say the same of your entire senior team.”
The upshot: Sanders's walkback suggested that he is still not interested in taking on Warren directly, only implicitly; his campaign is arguing that he is electable, implying that she is not. (Warren leads Trump in recent general-election polls, but by a few points less than Sanders.) And like the CAP feud, it showed that Sanders, whose favorable ratings have declined since February, is struggling to find a clear opponent in a multi-candidate field.
June 19: Cory Booker vs. Joe Biden
At a Tuesday fundraiser in New York, Biden riffed on his ability to work with anyone by recalling how well he'd gotten along with two segregationist senators, Mississippi's James Eastland and Georgia's Herman Talmadge. “We didn’t agree on much of anything,” he said. “We got things done. We got it finished. But today, you look at the other side and you’re the enemy. Not the opposition, the enemy. We don't talk to each other anymore.”
Biden had talked and written about his friendships with Dixiecrats before, and Democrats had not criticized him. This was different; Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey lit into Biden with his first negative comments on any Democrat all year. "Frankly, I’m disappointed that he hasn’t issued an immediate apology for the pain his words are dredging up for many Americans," Booker said, zeroing in on Biden's remark that Eastland had never called him "boy," a diminutive term more associated with how segregationists talked about black men.
Other 2020 candidates for the Democratic nomination, when asked, said Biden had been wrong to talk fondly about the segregationists; black Democrats in Congress generally gave Biden a pass. And Biden was unapologetic, telling reporters at another fundraiser that he could “not have disagreed more” with Eastland and that he had nothing to be sorry for.
“Apologize for what?” he said. “Cory should apologize. He knows better. There's not a racist bone in my body.” Booker had not called Biden a racist.
The upshot: Booker pulled out something that was not appearing in much coverage of Biden: his testiness at being criticized about anything in his record.
What about the rest of the Democratic universe? So far, they don't share any candidate worries that arguing with one another will hurt the party in 2020. Leah Greenberg, a co-founder of Indivisible, said none of the arguments of the past week had violated the group's pledge, taken by nearly every candidate, to avoid attacking each other.
“The pledge is about being constructive, not about being positive,” Greenberg said. “There are important debates to have within the Democratic Party, and we support candidates in having those conversations.”
Calling lots of things “socialist” isn't new, as this article and the above video lay out.
“Back home in South Bend, Buttigieg faces ‘his nightmare,’ " by Wesley Lowery
A police-involved shooting in his city pulled Pete Buttigieg into exactly the sort of crisis that can derail campaigns.
A long takedown of the political debate invoked by Biden's comments; the post-Civil-Rights-era sorting of the parties has effectively ended the sort of intraparty diversity that the candidate referred to.
" ‘Fuel in the president’s engine’: Trump collects $30 million in two days as he kicks off reelection bid, campaign officials say,” by Michelle Ye Hee Lee and Toluse Olorunnipa
Most Democrats fret about the optics of their fundraising; the president no longer does.
It's hardly a feud right now, but the Sanders campaign is being less subtle in arguing that Warren can't win the presidency — at least, not as easily as Sanders can.
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If Tiffany Cabán wins next Tuesday's election to become the new district attorney of Queens County, New York, 2.3 million Americans will live under a radically transformed justice system. People who jump subway turnstiles won’t be prosecuted; neither will recreational drug users, loiterers or sex workers. The cash bail system would be dismantled as quickly as possible. Resources that had been used to go after petty crime would be redirected toward abusive landlords.
“You can’t separate justice from housing, from health care, from education — from everything that stabilizes peoples’ lives,” Cabán said in an interview. “We have spent generations over-criminalizing our black and brown and LGBT citizens, when we should be going after the root causes of their problems.”
Cabán's campaign is the most important electoral priority of the American left right now; if that wasn't clear after Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) endorsed her last month, it was clear Wednesday. In the space of 15 minutes, both Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders endorsed the 31-year-old Cabán. “Like our campaign, Tiffany is taking on virtually the entire political establishment,” Sanders added.
Those endorsements boosted Cabán; Sanders used his email list, with thousands of members in Queens, to accentuate his support for the candidate. They also came with some controversy, though none of it touched Cabán.
First, there was a short real-time argument over who really endorsed Cabán first. Sanders, who has campaigned for (and spoken alongside) several of the reformers who've taken over district attorneys' offices around the country, spoke to the candidate for the first time Tuesday morning. He came away impressed, giving the campaign his support and letting them decide the timing of the endorsement. When Warren's tweet went out first, Sanders's campaign manager Faiz Shakir tweeted “for everyone’s general awareness,” that Sanders “waited to roll it out until it best suited the campaign strategy.” The campaign was not thrilled by a few minutes of coverage that suggested Warren had gotten ahead of Sanders.
But Warren's support for Cabán had been brewing for months. Both campaigns confirmed that Cabán, at the time a heavy underdog in the D.A. race, met Warren when the senator made a campaign stop in the borough, in March. “Our teams have been in touch since,” said Warren spokeswoman Kristen Orthman. “They plan to talk again soon.”
More importantly, Cabán's candidacy gave both Warren and Sanders reasons to come out on an issue that had not broken into presidential politics: decriminalizing sex work. Both candidates had voted for the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, which was written to crack down on trafficking but created massive problems for sex workers by making Internet providers liable if ads for prostitution appeared on their sites.
In statements, both campaigns clarified that they were open to decriminalizing sex work. “Bernie believes that decriminalization is certainly something that should be considered,” said Sarah Ford, a spokeswoman for Sanders. “Other countries have done this and it has shown to make the lives of sex workers safer.”
The Warren campaign sent The Trailer a statement from the senator herself. “I'm open to decriminalization,” Warren said. “Sex workers, like all workers, deserve autonomy but they are particularly vulnerable to physical and financial abuse and hardship. We need to make sure we don't undermine legal protections for the most vulnerable, including the millions of individuals who are victims of human trafficking each year.”
Cabán said that she had not discussed this particular issue with Warren or Sanders but that the conversations with national candidates were instructive — and that the attention could help win a low-turnout primary.
“In Queens, it’s horrifically low turnout,” Cabán said. “There are 2.3 million people in this borough, and the highest turnout we’ve had in a primary is 220,000. The biggest challenge we faced, initially, was getting out and telling folks: Hey, did you know that you vote for your district attorney? People know the district attorney’s presence and what it meant. But at a lot of the doors we knocked, they said that this was the first they were hearing about it, and that this is the first time a campaign knocked on their door at all.”
On Sunday, Cabán will campaign alongside Ocasio-Cortez. Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), the chairman of the Queens County Democratic Party, attacked both Warren and Sanders for intervening in the race, when most black leaders have endorsed rival candidate Melinda Katz over Cabán. Meeks took over the party after former congressman Joe Crowley lost a 2018 primary to Ocasio-Cortez.
One Nation, “Signs.” There have been ads attacking single-payer health care for decades; the popularity of “Medicare-for-all” has inspired several new waves of commercials warning voters that radically changing the health insurance system would wipe out the coverage they have — and probably like.
The newest spot, from the conservative One Nation 501(c) (4), simply shows glum-looking actors holding signs that describe how long they've been waiting for various treatments under a Canadian health-care system.
“How long will you wait for care?” a female narrator asks. “In other countries with socialized health care, people wait weeks, even months, for treatment.”
The group is putting $4 million behind the ad, with a national cable buy and some targeting in states. Before most people see it, Sanders attacked it, tweeting the names of specific people with health insurance horror stories and adding that "30,000 Americans a year die waiting for health care because of the cost,” a point he makes whenever “rationing” is used as a case against single-payer.
Do you want this Democrat to drop out of the presidential race? (USA Today/Suffolk, 350 Democratic voters)
Bill de Blasio — 42%
Bernie Sanders — 35%
Kirsten Gillibrand — 27%
Cory Booker — 27%
Beto O'Rourke — 25%
Julián Castro — 24%
Tulsi Gabbard — 24%
Elizabeth Warren — 24%
John Delaney — 23%
John Hickenlooper — 22%
Seth Moulton — 22%
Eric Swalwell — 22%
Andrew Yang — 22%
Tim Ryan — 22%
Joe Biden — 21%
Steve Bullock — 21%
Michael Bennet — 20%
Kamala Harris — 19%
Amy Klobuchar — 19%
Mike Gravel — 19%
Pete Buttigieg — 18%
Jay Inslee — 18%
Marianne Williamson — 18%
Wayne Messam — 18%
This isn't the first poll to confirm that many Democrats want their presidential choices to thin out fairly soon. But the way the question is asked creates a couple of categories in the large field. A whopping 17 Democrats have, at the moment, more voters in favor of them dropping out than voters who say they'd be “excited” if they were the nominee. That leaves just seven Democrats for whom base voters are at least interested in them carrying on, and there is a ranking in that category. At the top is Joe Biden, as 51 percent of voters say they're “excited” by him and 21 percent want him to quit. Right behind him are Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren; by 22, 20, and 14 points, there are more voters rooting for them than hoping they quit. Three more candidates — Cory Booker, Beto O'Rourke and Bernie Sanders — have positive support in the single digits.
2020 Democratic primary in Virginia (Hampton University, 1,126 Democratic Voters)
Joe Biden — 36%
Bernie Sanders — 17%
Elizabeth Warren — 13%
Pete Buttigieg — 11%
Kamala Harris — 7%
Beto O’Rourke — 3%
Cory Booker — 2%
Julián Castro — 2%
Andrew Yang — 1%
Steve Bullock — 1%
Kirsten Gillibrand — 1%
Black voters tend to make up around 35 to 40 percent of the vote in Virginia’s Democratic primaries. Much of Biden’s strength in the state comes from black voters; 58 percent support him. The question for Kamala Harris and Cory Booker here, as in every Southern primary with a large black population, is when and how they can persuade that electorate to switch from Biden, as black candidates in 1988 and 2008 were able to pull black voters from the “establishment” to their campaigns.
Maine. The state's all-Democratic government has officially ended what had been a staple of modern party contests — a weekend caucus that served as a bridge between higher-profile New England primaries. Maine Democrats will now vote in a Super Tuesday primary, likely to bring much higher turnout and likely to weaken candidates depending more on grass-roots mobilizing than mass appeal. In 2008 and 2016, Hillary Clinton badly lost Maine's caucuses, though polls that assumed a bigger electorate showed a closer race. The ongoing death of caucuses — just a few states will still hold them in 2020 — remains the biggest under-the-radar factor making an Obama- or Sanders-style candidacy more difficult.
Michael Bennet. He introduced a wide-ranging package of electoral reforms, some of it mirroring what other Democrats have rolled out: a constitutional amendment to limit campaign donations, a lifetime ban on lobbying by members of Congress, automatic voter registration and other small changes to the voting system.
Bernie Sanders. In a series of TV interviews, Sanders criticized Joe Biden's comments about working with segregationists, then suggested that some of his decline in the primary polls came from voters seeking more youth and diversity. “I think that there are certain number of people who would like to see a woman elected, and I understand that,” Sanders said on CNN. “There are people who would like to see somebody who was younger, and I understand that also. There are a lot of factors out there.”
Cory Booker. He has said he'd give clemency to 17,000 nonviolent drug offenders; if elected, and if he put that into effect, it would amount to the biggest mass presidential clemency since Gerald Ford's partial amnesty for people who dodged the draft in the Vietnam era.
Kamala Harris. She scored the endorsement of Rep. Al Green (D-Tex.), a member of the Congressional Black Caucus best known (recently) for sponsoring articles of impeachment against President Trump; he will chair her campaign in Texas.
Marianne Williamson. She told an audience that mandatory vaccination was “draconian” then recanted with a tweet, calling vaccines “life-saving.”
Andrew Yang. He endorsed the idea of using taxpayer money to fund local journalism, the first candidate to support it.
. . . one day until Jim Clyburn's Famous Fish Fry
. . . six days until the first Democratic primary debate
. . . 257 days until the U.S. Senate primary in Alabama