In this edition: What we learned from 2020 Democrats' past debates, the thing to watch when Joe Biden is onstage, and new ads trolling liberals in Iowa and elsewhere.
The Trailer's going to be a little different this week, with special editions midday Thursday and Friday to cover the debate aftermaths. And on Wednesday, I'll be hosting a live chat, to answer any and all questions about what we're about to get into. We have already established that Joe Flacco is an elite quarterback, so don't ask that. This is The Trailer.
MIAMI — Twenty Democrats, more than have ever been allowed into the party's presidential debates, will take the stage here Wednesday and Thursday. One of them, universal basic income enthusiast Andrew Yang, has never participated in a candidate debate. A few candidates, such as Marianne Williamson and Rep. Tim Ryan (Ohio), have never really appeared in a debate staged for live TV. (Williamson had a campaign theme song during a 2014 congressional run to make up for that.)
But the candidates polling highest right now have been here before, sweating under the bright lights of cable television, in debates that they tended to win. Over the past few days, The Trailer rolled back the tape to every debate a 2020 Democrat had participated in before.
It was a revealing exercise, but it didn't tell us everything. Not every 2020 candidate actually debated Democrats on the way to his or her current job. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York fended off primary challengers after being appointed, then dispatched a series of weak Republicans too far right to seriously compete in her state. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota scared a 2006 challenger out of her first statewide race; she went on to be the heavy front-runner in three elections against flawed, underfunded Republicans.
Elizabeth Warren. No candidate may be more ready for the most likely negative line of attack than Warren: What about the years when she claimed Native American ancestry? By a conservative count, across her debates with then-Sen. Scott Brown in 2012 and state legislator Geoff Diehl in 2018, Warren spent about 20 minutes talking about the controversy. That's more time than she's likely to get total this week.
How Warren handles the question is strongly related to who is asking. In 2012, she was apologetic when the question came from the media; when it came from Brown, who was relentless on the question, she asked whether he really wanted to call her family a pack of liars.
“I have a Native American background; that’s who I am,” she said, near the end of a long back-and-forth with both Brown and moderator David Gregory in 2012. Six years later, after she took a DNA test that backfired, Warren cited it as proof that she was “an open book,” a candidate with nothing to hide.
Apart from that, Warren's Senate debates tackled issues that probably won't come up the same way in Miami. In 2012, she needed to prove to voters that she could be an effective senator; in 2018, she largely talked about her record and tied Diehl to President Trump. The 2019 version of Warren, a fount of big plans that can be put in place only by a president, will make its debate debut this week.
Beto O'Rourke. No other Democrat talks quite like O'Rourke, an air-punching orator whose sentences can tumble from clause to clause to clause, gaining momentum or (more recently) leaving the audience a little lost. That style worked for O'Rourke in his 2018 debates with Sen. Ted Cruz (three were scheduled, but only two took place). His favorite tactic, then and now: tying every policy question to someone he met on his campaign road trips. Education? “I met an educator named Holly,” he said in one debate, to describe how far Cruz had gotten from constituents. Health care? It needed to be expanded, he said, “so I never meet another young man like Joey in Laredo,” a typical voter with crushing bills.
No candidate is as likely to dig into O'Rourke's ribs as Cruz was; the senator pushed O'Rourke on everything from a town hall where he had defended kneeling NFL players to his criticism of a police officer who had shot a black man in his own apartment.
Amy Klobuchar. The Cruz-O'Rourke debates resemble the ones the Minnesotan plugged through in 2006, 2012 and 2018, against weak candidates basically abandoned by their party. Like O'Rourke, she took every opportunity to emphasize how much she talked to voters and, by extension, how much her opponent didn't. In 2006, she drilled then-Rep. Mark Kennedy for saying that voters did not care as much about Iraq as the media did.
“I guess he didn’t talk to the mom up in Mahnomen, Minnesota, whose child is going on his second tour of Iraq and she can’t sleep anymore,” Klobuchar said. “Or Claremont Anderson in western Minnesota, who’s driven hundreds of miles to come to our events, and every time he cries when someone asks a question about Iraq because his child was killed over there.”
If there was a problem, Klobuchar had been in touch with someone particularly hard hit. Like O’Rourke, she has spent plenty of the 2019 campaign collecting stories of rural pain far away from campaign rallies, ready to be shared on TV.
Cory Booker. In 2013, he fought his way through a real four-way Senate race that included two longtime members of the House, a better analogue to this coming debate than most candidates have lived through. With wide-eyed discipline, he brought nearly every question back to his seven years of Newark and how it instilled him with hope.
“People said manufacturing was dead in America,” he said, rattling off all the companies that had moved to the city, with cheap real estate not far from New York City.
When he punched back, he tended to sound incredulous but ready. When two liberal congressman went after his support for school vouchers, Booker noted that “both of them voted for the D.C. scholarship act,” positing them as the opportunists who only took a position to win an election.
Jay Inslee and John Delaney won by emphasizing their work in the center of American politics.
Inslee's 2012 and 2016 runs for governor of Washington were also largely about job creation; the theme mostly likely to reappear this week was that the government could regulate industries and protect green spaces without killing jobs. And Delaney, who won the first of three terms in the House in a district drawn to force out an elderly Republican congressman, spent much of his first big debate defending an idea that has disappeared from Democratic politics: the Bowles-Simpson deficit reduction plan.
“It’s a balanced and measured approach to deal with the deficit,” he said. To demonstrate how serious he was, he even described how he could tack in Social Security: “We can raise the cap, modestly, and produce more revenues for the program, and we can extend the retirement age.”
Anything could happen at this week's debates — anything except a Democrat on one of these crowded stages saying the party needs to think about raising the age when people can get Social Security.
Joe Biden. At 76 years old, the former vice president has never run for president while leading in the polls. That changes Thursday night, when Biden's center-stage placement will give him the respect he never got in his 1988 and 2008 runs.
“I wish I'd get to talk about something I know about, like foreign policy,” Biden told moderators at one debate in 2007. “You ought to count me in on this debate a little bit!”
In that run, Biden presented himself as the real candidate of ideas and experience, an alternative to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, someone who had really put forward plans to fix the Middle East. He endorsed public financing of elections, “if you want to end all this money” in politics, a position he has not taken in his better-funded 2020 bid. And he often steered his answers toward stories of the men he worked with in the Senate, as he did in a 2007 debate when he said he had the most credibility to save Social Security, because he'd been part of a 1983 deal to do just that.
“I was in that room with Pat Moynihan,” he said. “It was Joe Biden, Pat Moynihan, Bob Dole — it was also George Mitchell — when we made that deal. And I'll never forget Bob Dole turning to Pat Moynihan and saying, 'We all got to jump in this boat at the same time.' "
Some of Biden's résumé rundowns played better in 2007 than they would play in 2019. In several debates, with no pushback, he cited the 1994 crime bill as a prime example of how he would govern.
“The crime bill, which became known as the [Bill] Clinton crime bill, was written by Joe Biden, the Biden crime bill,” Biden said at one 2007 debate. “That required me to cross over, get everyone together. No one's civil liberties were in any way jeopardized.”
At the time, no Democrat was interested in disagreeing with Biden. Twelve years on, every Democrat disagrees with him, and it’s up to them whether to say so.
Bernie Sanders. No other candidate, obviously, has more recent experience with the modern, multimedia debate format. But Sanders, who never ran in a Democratic primary of any kind until 2015, has spent most of his stage time in one-on-one debates, nothing like the format planned for Thursday.
That matters, and not just for the amount of time Sanders got then versus how much less he'll get now. Sanders, who truly dislikes the “corporate media” and the way it often covers politics, preferred to criticize Hillary Clinton by way of saying that he was making substantive critiques and the media was making silly ones.
“I've known Secretary Clinton, how long, 25 years?” an exasperated Sanders said at a 2016 debate in New York, after being asked about an article covering his campaign's strategy to go negative. “We worked together in the Senate. And I said that in response to the kind of attacks we were getting from the Clinton campaign.”
Sanders preferred to make contrasts, something that prepares him for the way he'll be pushed to criticize Joe Biden. He would explain why he was right about a key issue, then explain why Clinton, with all her claims of experience, was wrong.
“I voted against the first Gulf War, which set the stage, I believe, for the second Iraq War,” Sanders said at one of the first candidate debates. “And what I believe right now, and I believe this is terribly important, is the United States of America cannot succeed, or be thought of as the policeman of the world.”
But Sanders was at his most comfortable when he saw moderators, not opponents, attack his theory of politics. He lit up when he heard them argue that “democratic socialism” would be a campaign-killer in a general election.
“What democratic socialism is about is saying that it is immoral and wrong that the top one-tenth of 1 percent in this country own almost 90 percent — almost — own almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent,” he said.
What Sanders didn’t do then, and might do now, is tie that to his expanded argument that a true “democratic socialist” is more electable, not less, than liberal Democrats.
Pete Buttigieg. When he was 35 — two years ago — the mayor of South Bend, Ind., made a surprisingly robust run for DNC chairman. Even then, he was working out the themes that would make up his presidential campaign. At a forum for nonwhite voters, Buttigieg said that Republicans had stolen the concept of “freedom” and that Democrats needed to take it back: “Who can say you’re free if you’re not able to use your right to vote?”
With no real party organizing experience, Buttigieg's 2017 debates were largely about generational change and his work in South Bend. One of those topics should remain potent on Thursday; the other, obviously, is complicated by last week's shooting of an African American man by a police officer in his home town. At that same forum, Buttigieg described South Bend as a place where “police abuse was down” after his changes and where he managed to win by uniting people, which was “not something we achieved through ideological centrism,” by something that came from his results.
Kamala Harris. She had to debate a Democrat — then-Rep. Loretta Sanchez — to win her Senate seat three years ago. The result was one of the cycle's strangest faceoffs, with Sanchez frequently interrupting her and, at one point, dabbing. (The camera did not capture that, showing voters an image of a baffled Harris looking to her left.)
Still, Harris's most recent Democratic debate showcased the themes she'd eventually take into a presidential race. “There is a need to speak truth,” she said near the start. “There is a need for transparency.” Long before she was getting attacked over her record as a prosecutor, she was reframing it around criminal justice reform: “I have long believed we need to be smart on crime.”
Sanchez simply didn't attack the points that have become problems for Harris in 2019; she will have tougher opponents Thursday night.
Kirsten Gillibrand. In 2010, the first year she had to defend her Senate seat, Gillibrand faced no real threat from Republicans but spent lots of time describing how she worked with everyone to get out of the recession.
“Government doesn’t create jobs; people do,” she said. “We can see Made in America again if we have the right strategy.”
By 2018, when she cruised to a third term, Gillibrand was more confidently punching through a big, liberal agenda. Her opponent set out to show that the senator had not accomplished much in Washington, because her name was not on some marquee bills, such as the Stock Act that banned congressional insider trading.
“If you don’t believe me, just ask Chris Collins if the Stock Act was passed into law,” said Gillibrand, referring to the congressman from New York who had been charged with insider trading. “If you don’t believe me, just ask any first responder who was responsible for passing the 9/11 health bill.” It was an effective counterpunch that shut down her opponent.
John Hickenlooper and Michael Bennet. Both of them will be onstage with Sanders. Both have denounced “socialism” and said that their party cannot win if labeled “socialist.” Neither has been a particularly aggressive debater, but both come alive when there's a chance to portray their opponents as too extreme. Bennet, whose 2010 and 2016 Senate bids pitted him against far-right candidates who won the GOP nominations in upsets, lit into them for opposing legal abortion (2010) and supporting Donald Trump (2016). Meanwhile, he positioned himself as a centrist who could admit that Democrats had made mistakes.
“We had huge problems with our health-care system before we passed the Affordable Care Act, and we have huge problems today,” Bennet said in 2016.
Hickenlooper, who also drew a weak opponent in 2010, had a tougher race in 2014. His debates that year with Republican Bob Beauprez found him getting visibly irritated by interruptions (“come on, let me answer"), and outraged by the negative ads Beauprez had run despite their pledge to stay positive. The Hickenlooper strategy this week, to tell Democrats that Colorado was a liberal wonderland under his watch, is new for 2019; in past debates, he tended to talk about opening opportunities for business.
"How a grieving mom changed Kirsten Gillibrand’s stance on guns,” by Robert Samuels
The backstory of a conversion narrative that has not, so far, helped the candidate.
“Julián Castro can’t catch a break,” by Nolan D. McCaskill
He's the other candidate spinning out new position papers, some on issues other Democrats won't touch, but who's reading them?
He has been much more cautious on the lecture circuit than Hillary Clinton was, but after his vice presidency ended, Biden got his first real taste of the good life.
“Can Democrats win back the internet in the age of Trump?” by Peter Hamby
The bold and sometimes head-scratching efforts underway to restore the party's old advantage.
With all eyes on his party, the DNC's chairman keeps getting two questions: How do you prevent this from getting out of hand again, and why can't you raise more money?
COLUMBIA, S.C. — Long after Rep. Jim Clyburn's fish fry was over, Joe Biden was working the rope line, taking pictures with voters and answering their questions. Some candidates move quickly when voters are asking for their time. Biden does not. And at one point, when a voter asked him about gun laws, the former vice president went into a history of his career that would have slotted right into a debate.
"Look at my record, man,” Biden said. "I'm the only guy that beat the NRA. I'm the guy that limited assault weapons. I'm the guy that passed the Brady Bill everybody's talking about. If you have background checks for everybody, and you have biometric prints for the guns, no Second Amendment problems, and no one can use that weapon. All those kids that got killed in Sandy Hook, and I met every one of their parents, it was because the mother left the weapons out, and the kid was able to take them.”
Heading into Thursday night, Biden's biggest advantage is his experience; Democratic voters, unlike the Republicans of four years ago, say they prize this in a candidate. His biggest risk is in how he talks about that experience. Biden, who knows he has achieved more in Washington than anyone he's running against, has a tendency to say so.
In his campaign so far, that has occasionally made it sound like Biden is reversing himself. In January, not yet a candidate, Biden told a Martin Luther King Jr. Day event crowd that he "may not have always gotten things right” and that lawmakers "made a big mistake” when they created stiffer legal penalties for crack possession than cocaine possession. Since then, he has more resolutely defended the 1994 crime bill, which did not alter the sentencing disparities created by earlier legislation.
This month, Biden abandoned his old position in favor of the Hyde Amendment, which prevents taxpayer funds from being spent on abortion, in a matter of days. When pressed about it after a speech in Iowa, Biden didn't hide his irritation at a reporter who asked why his new position was "more clear to you at the at the end of last week than it was at the beginning of last year.”
"Don't be a wiseguy," Biden said. "I didn't consult with anybody but me in that decision, because I was sitting on the way down [to a speech] finalizing the plan. And what hit me was, we're in a situation where when we saw what was going on in Georgia, what's going on in Alabama, Missouri, is just outrageous.”
Biden was saying that new antiabortion laws in red states helped change his thinking, but he rebelled against the idea that he'd done so lightly, or too late. When he gets on a roll, Biden begins describing the totality of his career, suggesting that anyone who thinks another candidate has done more, or fought harder, hasn't heard his whole story. And it's something to watch when he gets on a debate stage.
The Club for Growth, “Dumb Things.” Iowa Democrats have gotten used to the conservative Club for Growth. In 2003, the Club bought airtime in Iowa to run a spot in which two voters (played by actors) tell Gov. Howard Dean to “take his tax-hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating” ideology “back to Vermont, where it belongs.” Earlier this year it ran an overloaded two-minute ad against former congressman Beto O’Rourke, telling Democrats that “white privilege” had gotten him too far in politics.
These were two very different strategies — one hit from the right, one from the left — and the Club’s new ad attacking Joe Biden is closer to the anti-O’Rourke script. “He sided with racist Dixiecrats against measures to desegregate schools,” a narrator says. “Later, he wrote the infamous crime bill expanding the mass incarceration of a generation of black men.”
The last faux-woke ad left the Club feeling good; O’Rourke has fallen far out of the pack in Iowa, though it’s impossible to rate the role of one TV spot.
Judicial Crisis Network, “Release the List.” The somewhat mysterious nonprofit organization specializes in TV ads, turned around quickly, that pressure Democrats to vote for conservative judges or, when a Democrat is in the White House, to leave the bench open. JCN's newest national spot does something different, spinning off a recent New York Times story about liberals' plans to confirm more judges if they win in 2020. In JCN's hands, this has become a “secret list of liberal judges,” one that Democrats must reveal.
“President Trump was open and honest with the American people and has kept his promise,” JCN's counsel Carrie Severino said in a statement that rolled out the ad. “He released his list of judges.”
Easy to forget now: Trump was the first presidential candidate, perhaps ever, to publish a list of potential Supreme Court nominees. That list grew from a unique problem: mistrust from the party's base, with some worried that his old liberal beliefs would lead him to appoint unreliable judges. No Democrat had ever run with such a list, and the “Building the Bench” project referred to in the ad is separate from any presidential campaign. The JCN ad, nonetheless, calls on voters to demand that Joe Biden release “his list.”
2020 election in Florida (Mason-Dixon, 400 Hispanic voters)
Donald Trump — 34%
Someone else — 56%
On Tuesday, the White House dispatched the vice president to Miami to headline a “Latinos for Trump” launch; on Wednesday, RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel will hold her own event in the same city to denounce “socialism.” All of that is happening in a climate where the president’s Latino support in Florida is basically flat; in 2016, according to exit polls, 35 percent of Florida Latinos backed Trump.
Unsurprisingly, but importantly, Floridians of Cuban origin back Trump far more strongly than other Florida Latinos. A hearty 57 percent of Cuban Americans support the president for a second term, compared with only 18 percent of other Latinos. It’s that latter number, increased by Puerto Ricans leaving the island for Florida, that tantalizes Democrats. Last year, Republican Sen. Rick Scott only narrowly won a first term, after a campaign that heavily emphasized how he’d work for Puerto Ricans. That pushed him to 45 percent of the Latino vote; Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who picked a Latina running mate, got 44 percent of that vote.
The upshot is that a 2016 performance with Latinos, in a race without major third-party candidates, would not be enough for Trump to hit his win number. The table-pounding about socialism, together with a harder line against Cuba and Venezuela, is winning over conservative Latinos, but the smoother path to a Trump reelection is higher turnout of white voters.
The MoveOn straw poll. Every few months, the massive grass-roots liberal group MoveOn polls its members about a possible endorsement. In 2008, they backed Barack Obama; in 2016, they backed Bernie Sanders. MoveOn was reinvigorated by protests against the Trump administration, so this straw poll means a little more than most, and the latest edition showed Elizabeth Warren in the lead with their members. The numbers, compared with December:
Elizabeth Warren — 38% ( 32)
Bernie Sanders — 17% ( 4)
Joe Biden — 15% ( 0)
Pete Buttigieg — 12% ( 12)
Kamala Harris — 7% (-3)
Beto O'Rourke — 2% (-14)
Andrew Yang — 1% ( 1)
Jay Inslee — 1% ( 1)
Cory Booker — 1% (-2)
Amy Klobuchar — 1% (-2)
Tulsi Gabbard — 1% ( 0)
Marianne Williamson — 1% ( 1)
There were two big trends here: the collapse of O'Rourke, of Texas, who has never matched the interest he got after his Senate loss, and the resurgence of Warren, a longtime favorite and ally of MoveOn who late last year was still damaged by the aftermath of her Native American heritage saga. If you want a nice, concise example of liberal consolidation around Warren and the resilience of the hardcore Sanders base, here it is. Warren, who was the subject of a MoveOn-led draft campaign in 2014, has reclaimed her place as the group's favorite.
The multicandidate “cattle calls” don't stop when Democrats leave Miami. Next week, most of the 2020 field will gather in Houston for a forum at the National Education Association conference. The week after that, some of the field will head to Philadelphia for the 14th annual Netroots Nation and its third-ever presidential forum.
But that might turn out to be one of the most selective forums yet. First, the July 15 forum will be limited to eight candidates. Second, the candidates will be invited based on their strength in the Daily Kos straw poll, an occasional survey by the group blog that started Netroots Nation; candidates polling under 1 percent aren't getting called in. And third, the candidates might not jump to attend the conference, which is well-known for activist disruptions of speeches and even candidate forums. In 2015, both Martin O'Malley and Bernie Sanders had their forums (Q&As with moderators, neither candidate onstage at the same time) interrupted. That led to Sanders building some closer ties to activists, but it's still not something candidates love living through.
“Each candidate will appear onstage one at a time with two moderators (Cheryl Contee and Markos Moulitsas)," Netroots Nation spokeswoman Mary Rickles said in an email. “Netroots and Daily Kos solicited questions this past week from our communities, and many of the questions they ask will come from those questions. Each candidate will also be asked a question or two from an organizer onsite (pre-seeded, those folks will have a question prepped and will come onstage to ask the question).”
At the moment, just Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and former HUD secretary Julián Castro are locked in to appear at the forum. While Netroots Nation will be in Philadelphia, Joe Biden, whose campaign is based there, is not confirmed and is not expected to come.
Bernie Sanders. Joined by Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington, he unveiled a plan to forgive all student debt, paid for by new fees on Wall Street: 0.5 percent on stock trades, 0.1 percent on bond trades and 0.005 percent on derivatives trades.
Beto O’Rourke. He released a plan to boost veterans’ economic power, with the centerpiece of a “war tax” that civilians will have to pay and veterans won’t.
Elizabeth Warren. She put out a plan to federalize elections and make it easier to vote, incorporating some ideas that Democrats passed in their first major House bill.
Jay Inslee. He's loaded up with campaign appearances in Miami, talking to community leaders Tuesday morning and appearing in a town hall and podcast Tuesday night.
Seth Moulton. He’s maximizing his media time around the first debate, which he missed the cutoff for, with a Washington Post Live interview in Washington on Wednesday and then a trip to Miami on Thursday.
. . . one day until night one of the first Democratic debate
. . . two days until night two of the first Democratic debate
. . . 11 days until the National Education Association hears from 2020 Democrats
. . . 17 days until Netroots Nation