In this edition: The busing wars, the five other guys who want to debate onstage, and Marianne magic.
“Only Nixon can go to China” is one of the few political cliches that's never wrong, and this is The Trailer.
Were the 2020 Democrats really ready for a fight about busing? On Thursday night, Joe Biden didn't seem to be. When Kamala Harris attacked him for working with conservatives to limit the practice of integrating schools by sending students to different communities, Biden said that she'd gotten him all wrong.
“I did not oppose busing in America,” the former vice president said. “What I opposed is busing ordered by the Department of Education.”
One day later, Biden was telling an audience at the Rev. Jesse Jackson's Rainbow-PUSH coalition that he had been right, and voters knew it, while Harris was telling MSNBC's “Morning Joe” that she was simply trying to explain why Biden's work with segregationists in his party still mattered. She was in the second Berkeley, Calif., elementary school class that was integrated by busing; had the segregationists gotten their way, she wouldn't have been.
“We have to understand the real impact on real human beings if we're going to have a meaningful discussion,” Harris said.
Since then, the Biden and Harris campaigns have been in a real fracas over busing, carried out in the medium best designed for people to sort out their differences: Twitter. There, Harris's national press secretary Ian Sams and Biden's national press secretary TJ Ducklo battled over what the candidates supported, with Ducklo trying to boil it down to a basic question: Where did the two candidates differ on busing policy now?
From time to time in this primary, Democrats look destined to founder over an issue that exposes the party's history and divisions on social justice. The easy take on this is that every Democrat-on-Democrat battle will benefit Republicans; for some analysts, every election is 1972, and every move to the left is going to reelect an unpopular Republican president. But the mandatory busing fight is only partly about mandatory busing.
Democrats are afraid to give Biden a pass. Biden's record of fighting forced busing was no secret. It was the subject of deep reporting in 2015, when Biden toyed with a third run for president; it came up again in 2019, when Biden decided to go for it and run again.
What happened in between, of course, was a 2016 presidential campaign that found Democrats struggling to re-create the support that Barack Obama got with nonwhite voters. It sounded inconceivable to many Democrats that Donald Trump, who had reentered politics in 2011 by questioning whether Obama was eligible to be president, would not turn out black voters against him. It sounded just as unlikely that he would not spur the biggest Latino backlash in political history.
In the end, Trump improved slightly on both of Obama's opponents, thanks in large part to a campaign that depressed minority turnout. Part of that, which Democrats could not control, was the passage of voter ID laws in some swing states; part of it was an effort by the Trump campaign to remind black voters that Hillary Clinton had supported “tough-on-crime” policies as first lady and once said that some young criminals were “superpredators.” In 2012, Obama got 93 percent of the black vote and 71 percent of the Latino vote; four years later, Clinton got 89 percent and 66 percent of the vote in those electorates. Simply hitting the Obama margins would probably have been enough for Clinton to win Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
This is what Biden's rivals are thinking about when they attack him on his long record. “What we've seen from the vice president, over the last month, is an inability to talk candidly about the mistakes he made, about things he could've done better, about how some of the decisions he made at the time, in difficult context, actually have resulted in really bad outcomes,” Cory Booker said in a “Meet the Press” interview that ran Sunday. “This is a bad culture, where you can't admit mistakes, where you can't speak to your vulnerabilities and your imperfections. We all have them. But when it comes to difficult issues with race, if you can't talk openly and honestly about your own development on these issues, I think it's very hard to lead our country forward, so that we actually can deal with our past and rise to a better common cause and common future.”
Biden wants to talk about Obama; his rivals want to talk about everything else. Biden's speech to the Rainbow-PUSH coalition was his most full-throated argument yet for his vision of civil rights. Last week, at forums organized by the Poor People's Campaign and by South Carolina Democrats, Biden raced through a new reform agenda that would get black men and women out of prison after serving unfairly long sentences. At the Friday speech, in Chicago, Biden went further, saying that he was tired of hearing other Democrats minimize what Obama did, then positing his time with Obama as the culmination of a career focused on human rights.
“We all know that the 30 or 60 seconds of a campaign debate exchange cannot do justice to a lifetime commitment to civil rights,” Biden said. “I never, ever, ever opposed voluntary busing, such as the program that Senator Harris participated in, and that made a difference in her life. I did support federal action to address the root causes of segregation in our schools and in our community, including taking on the banks and redlining, and trying to change the way that neighborhoods were segregated.”
On Sunday, former HUD secretary Julián Castro told “Meet the Press” that the administration did indeed make steps toward desegregation. But he did not defend Biden.
“What I took as his position [was] that he allowed local communities to make a decision, essentially relying on states' rights,” Castro said. “I think he's going to have to continue to explain why that was a good position, because we've had very painful history in this country of trying to desegregate communities. When I was at HUD, one of the things I'm most proud of is that we passed the most groundbreaking rule since the Fair Housing Act in 1968 to further help desegregate American communities, called Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing. And so that pain is still there in this country."
What Castro was doing, and what most of the field has been doing, is trying to separate Biden from the good feelings that Democrats still have about the Obama years. Most of them were around for Obama's presidency; none of them were casting the same votes as Biden in the 1970s and 1980s. Biden's defenders are ready to fight back on that, pointing out that his busing position was supported even by prominent black politicians who saw better ways of reversing segregation.
The left, not the president, is shaping the Democratic primary. Twelve days ago, the Wall Street Journal reported that the president was “tentatively planning to live-tweet the debates” once the Democrats got onstage. In the end, as he traveled to international meetings, the president wrote a total of three tweets over four hours of debates: one calling the first debate “boring,” one making fun of technical problems, and one saying the race was over because Democrats raised their hands at the idea of undocumented immigrants getting Medicare.
The president, in other words, was not very relevant in Miami. The race is instead being shaped by the activists who make up the most mobilized part of the Democratic Party. In 2015, facing the high likelihood that Hillary Clinton would be the nominee, they pressured her either through direct action or by supporting the Bernie Sanders campaign; Clinton indeed moved left over the course of the primary.
In 2020, activists have many more tools and tactics available to them and are generally shaping the party's discourse. The busing fight came less than a month after Bernie Sanders rolled out a “Thurgood Marshall Plan” for education that includes huge investments in ending segregation, forcing other Democrats to answer with their own plans; Biden's response to criticism has been to defend his record while adopting much of what the left is asking for.
This is happening in part because Democratic activists expect the president to call any party nominee a socialist who supports “open borders,” reducing the risk of left-wing policies. In 2016, Clinton ran on a robust criminal justice overhaul agenda and pledged to “expand access to affordable health care to families regardless of immigration status by allowing families to buy health insurance on the health exchanges regardless of their immigration status.” The ensuing campaign showed that Trump would attack any Democrat on cultural and "elite” grounds more than any particular policy.
This section incorrectly said Harris was in the first Berkeley High School class to be integrated; it has been corrected to say elementary school.
When Kamala Harris identified herself as “black” on the debate stage, it woke up a community of trolls trying to do everything from raise doubts about her citizenship to suggest that her half-Jamaican heritage does not make her black.
By correcting the problem that alienated some key voters in 2016, Democrats have set up two primary debates (each of them over two nights) that have pushed their leading candidates to the left.
“Buttigieg seeks a relaunch after his candidacy gets mired in fallout from police shooting,” by Amy B Wang and Wesley Lowery
The reviews for Mayor Pete's highest-profile trip back home have been mixed, at best; so far it has not hurt his support with white Democrats.
“Trump consultant is trolling Democrats with Biden site that isn’t Biden’s,” by Matthew Rosenberg
The old trick of buying a candidate's possible domain name is usually overrated; voters who really want to find out information about candidates rely ever more on Facebook and Twitter. But the Trump campaign's relationship with this gag says a lot about its online-first strategy.
“Biden’s spin doctors, Beto’s flop, a sea of sweat: The madness after the Miami debates,” by Manuel Roig-Franzia
If you weren't in the room, here's what you missed.
MIAMI — On Thursday morning, a little less than a mile from the site where 20 of his peers would participate in the Democratic presidential primary debates, Rep. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts gathered a half-dozen reporters to tell them what was missing from the stage. It would have been nice, he said, to really explain why Elizabeth Warren was wrong to raise her hand when asked whether she supported a Medicare-for-all system that replaced most private insurance with a government plan.
“That's what she and a lot of other people in our party have been saying for a long time, all people who don't have single-payer health care themselves, like I do,” Moulton said, referring to the care he gets from the Department of Veterans Affairs. “It's wrong. And I think it's not going to be popular with much of this country. This is a great example of where the party has careened to the left in a way that is not good for policy, is not good for electability, and is not good for a majority of Americans. … Every Republican strategist who heard that last night was salivating.”
Moulton, one of the last candidates to enter the race, did not meet either of the debate standards enforced by the Democratic National Committee. He had not polled at 1 percent or above in at least three surveys; he had not gotten more than 65,000 individual donations.
Next month, when Democrats fight for space in their second presidential primary debates, Moulton and four other Democrats are trying to take one of the lecterns for themselves. One of them, former Pennsylvania congressman Joe Sestak, has been running for a few days and may never get close to the debate threshold. Another one, Miramar, Fla., Mayor Wayne Messam, has a bare-bones campaign that's been enough to get him onstage at a couple of “cattle calls” but has been largely invisible on the trail. Another candidate, Mike Gravel, is running from his patio, eschewing public events as two teenagers try to get 65,000 donations for a July debate berth. The “Gravel teens” used the former Alaska senator's seats at this week's debate to get close to Beto O'Rourke and call him a “shill.”
That has left Moulton and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock in their own category, as scrappy center-left Democrats who warn that the party sounds weaker when they're not onstage. Bullock, who campaigned in Iowa and New Hampshire on the two debate days, told interviewers that he would have liked to join the chorus against the party's moves left.
“We can't have debates that seem disconnected from what people want in their daily lives,” Bullock told the hosts of “Morning Joe” on Friday. “I would not be providing insurance for those who are coming to the country without documentation.” Asked about Medicare-for-all, he was against it: “Health care can be accessible and affordable without disrupting 160 million folks.”
Moulton, who unlike Bullock cannot say he won in a red state, emphasizes that he won a sometimes-red district. (Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, a liberal Republican, carried it in a landslide.) Without him onstage, Moulton argues, the party does not have as credible a voice making the foreign policy case against President Trump, and it does not have someone comfortable attacking the party's left for losing elections.
“There's a couple of people who tried going to the left, just purely turning out the base vote in the 2018 midterms,” Moulton said. “Go look at how that worked for them. Beto O'Rourke, Andrew Gillum. That was their strategy, right? And all the people who won the tough seats we needed to flip to take back the House all appealed to independent voters.”
Moulton and Bullock are running the sort of campaigns that the party often prefers; staying away from anything too left-wing, emphasizing policy changes that can pass, focused on big, popular issues such as veterans' mental health care and shrinking the role of private contributions in politics. And they are going to keep pointing out what sorts of campaigns they're running until someone lets them onstage.
"Bernie free,” from JimBurke.com. The image is familiar, but clearly something is awry. We first see an empty (and clearly fake) convention floor; a man who looks like Bernie Sanders is giving a speech. “Alabama, are you ready for a radical new idea?” he asks. “Wait, wait: Okay, there is a place that is fundamentally changing your car maintenance. You don't have to pay for it!”
Yes, it's a car ad, appropriating the image ad rhetoric of America's leading democratic socialist. The impression is not quite there, heavy on the raspiness but with not much of the senator from Vermont's Dodgers-era Brooklyn twang. But the point is made: The deals you get at Jim Burke's car dealerships are so good, they might as well have been implemented by an all-powerful state.
The “politician sells you cars” spot is a rare one in the big, bold and cheap genre of car sales advertising. To work, these ads need a candidate who inspires huge, cheering crowds; nobody wants to emulate a 30-person town hall in Ottumwa or Pahrump. In 2016, Texas's Pruitt Ford imagined a “Pruitt Party convention” that would “make car buying great again,” and handed the impression to a bad-on-purpose actor wearing a Trump wig over hair of a completely different color. In 2008, the genre hit an early (perhaps too early) peak, with a spot for Texas's Central Kia that turned Barack Obama's “yes, we can” cheer into a “yes, you can” affirmation for car buyers. (“Do you have a job? Do you have $199? Do you want $3,000 for your trade?).
The second fundraising quarter ends in just a few hours. Campaigns don't have to reveal their donation info from April through June until a bit later, by July 15. But the latest sprint to “win” on fundraising begins at midnight; in the past, campaigns have strategically previewed their hauls to get well-timed headlines about their momentum or hidden those hauls in the hopes that nobody notices how little they raised.
What do we know right now? Every campaign expects Joe Biden to raise well more than $20 million, because he told an audience of donors that he had hit that $20 million mark two weeks ago. They expect Pete Buttigieg to join the eight-figure club, too, as he raised $7 million just in April. The campaigns of Kamala Harris and Julián Castro both claimed huge fundraising surges in the wake of their debate performances, with Harris's team saying they put up $2 million in 24 hours, and Castro's team saying they had their best fundraising yet.
The other candidates will fall into three categories.
The small-donor Dems. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have eschewed traditional fundraisers and bet their candidacies on low-dollar, committed donors. Three months ago, that put Sanders at $18.2 million and Warren at $6 million for their first quarter. Both campaigns view total donor numbers as just as relevant, if not more relevant, than the top-dollar number, as does Andrew Yang, whose campaign is based entirely on viral, small-dollar support, and Marianne Williamson, whose small donor support got her a debate berth.
The big donor Dems. Some of the Democrats who'd won statewide races before were able to tap their old donor networks to get a head start on the presidential race: Jay Inslee, Amy Klobuchar, Cory Booker, John Hickenlooper and Kirsten Gillibrand among them. None have been able to break out nationally since then. Historically, these are the candidates who see a small drop in total fundraising as the race goes on and have to explain it. Tulsi Gabbard and John Delaney are in a similar situation, having started their campaigns without the small-donor network; Gabbard tapped her congressional account, while Delaney has largely self-funded.
The other ones. Nine Democratic candidates, Biden included, got into the race after the first quarter of fundraising was over; this is the first time we'll get any sense of how Tim Ryan, Steve Bullock, Seth Moulton, Eric Swalwell, Michael Bennet, Joe Sestak, Bill de Blasio and Mike Gravel have been doing out there.
The Democrats who’ve reacted to President Trump’s historic steps across the Korean DMV have spoken with one voice: Who cares?
“He keeps having these summits and meetings that really don't produce anything,” said Amy Klobuchar on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday. “There's been a number of them now, and this time, you know, you just can't look at this as going over and talking to your dictator next door and bringing them a hot dish over the fence.”
Other Democrats stayed on Twitter, criticizing Trump from there. “This President should take the North Korean nuclear threat and its crimes against humanity seriously,” Kamala Harris wrote. “This is not a photo-op. Our security and our values are at stake.”
“Our President shouldn’t be squandering American influence on photo ops and exchanging love letters with a ruthless dictator,” Elizabeth Warren tweeted. “Instead, we should be dealing with North Korea through principled diplomacy that promotes US security, defends our allies, and upholds human rights.”
Grappling with Trump on the Korea strategy comes with risks. It’s not popular on the left, where attacking Trump for anything that looks like a stab at peace is perceived as Democrats trying to prove their bona fides as hawks. It’s not popular on the right; conservatives portray Democrats as jealous of Trump for his ability to do what Barack Obama never did, or, echoing the left, as supporters of military action who’d disrupt efforts to end a war.
As soon as the Miami debates were over, several 2020 contenders headed to Chicago, where the Rev. Jesse Jackson's Rainbow-PUSH Coalition was holding its annual convention. It was the biggest black audience the candidates had faced since the winter gathering of the Rev. Al Sharpton's National Action Network, and it suggested how the territory had begun to shift.
Joe Biden. Just a day after the showdown with Sen. Kamala Harris, Biden emphasized his long history and his decision, as a young man, to leave a private law firm and become a public defender. The debate seemed to challenge Biden's civil rights record, and the candidate was not having it.
“We all know that 30 seconds on a debate exchange can't do justice to a lifetime committed to civil rights,” Biden said. “Jesse knows my state very well. He knows that when I say I got raised in the black church, I'm not kidding.”
The bulk of Biden's speech focused on “the Obama-Biden administration,” and an argument that the first black president was not getting credit for what he did.
“He was one of the great presidents in American history,” Biden said. “He had a backbone like a ramrod.” Biden told the crowd that the administration “worked like the devil to make sure that you shouldn't allow police departments to buy military equipment,” and “commuted more sentences than the previous 13 presidents combined.” Criminal justice overhaul, which he had begun to talk more about, was achievable: “If you make the case to ordinary people, they figure it out.”
Elizabeth Warren. The senator from Massachusetts spoke Saturday to an enthusiastic church crowd, though some empty seats could be seen on a live stream. “It is great to be in the house of the Lord!” said Warren, who repeatedly quoted from the Bible and remembered communing with God “every Sunday at the Methodist church.” Warren, heavier on her own story than she usually is, reintroduced her agenda for housing and prison reform and talked in more detail about making it easier for black people to start businesses. “I know our fight is a righteous fight,” she said.
Amy Klobuchar. She got a quieter reception than Warren but described her own success as a legislator (and before that, activist) getting more access to health care for people without means. She centered the president in her own criticism of racism. “We have a president right now who refuses to acknowledge racism in this country, right?” Klobuchar said. “Who says after Charlottesville that there were two sides, right? Well, we know there is only one side, and that is the American side.”
Tulsi Gabbard. She told the crowd that she grew up in a “multifaith” family, getting stories from both the New Testament and the Bhavagad Gita, but she quoted from the Book of Luke: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” Of the candidates appearing on the early side of the conference, she spent the most time talking philosophically. “It's love that inspires a soldier to put her life on the line; it is love that inspires us to take care of each other.”
Julián Castro. He returned from the debates to Texas, where four days of campaign events began with an event at an Austin bar just a few blocks away from one where Beto O'Rourke was rallying. “A few months ago, they were writing me up as the other Texan,” he said. “But that is no more. I am the Texan.”
Beto O'Rourke. He didn't respond directly to Castro, but his spokesman Chris Evans did: “There are two Texans, but only one has taken the time to visit each of the 254 counties of the state, and only one has received more votes than any Democrat in the history of Texas while building a grass-roots movement that increased young voter turnout by more than double.” Castro, semi-famously, was encouraged to run for one of Texas's statewide offices in the 2018 midterms but opted not to.
Bernie Sanders. He spent the weekend in New Hampshire, opening up a campaign office and crowing at a Wall Street Journal editorial that claimed he had won both debates. “How do you win a debate you weren't even participating in?” he said in Hudson. “Because of New Hampshire and 21 other states that supported our agenda [in the 2016 primary], other Democratic candidates understand they have to speak to the needs of the working class in this country. That's how you win both debates.”
Williamson's conservative posse. Jeff Roe, the Missouri-based strategist who ran Ted Cruz's presidential campaign, was so amused by Marianne Williamson's debate performance that he donated to her campaign and on Twitter encouraged fellow conservatives to join the #HarnessLove movement. “Donate $1 to keep this vibrant democrat on the debate stage," he wrote.
Williamson is already in the running for the second debate; to qualify, all she needed was 65,000 donations, and she got that already. To qualify for the third debate, in September, Williamson would need at least 130,000 donations — and she'd need to score at least 2 percent in three public polls validated by the DNC. The Roe campaign is shoring up Williamson for a repeat performance in July (which was likely) but won't get her into the third debate unless she gains with Democratic voters who answer calls from pollsters.
Even then, the paradox of Williamson's campaign is that she is not altering the Democratic primary in a way that swing voters could recoil from. On policy, Williamson is to the right of Bernie Sanders; she does not support a full transition to single-payer health care. Onstage, her only criticism of the Democratic field was that it was not focused enough on a powerful slogan; her criticism of moderators was that they did not ask about American disinvestment in Latin America.
. . . five days until 2020 Democrats speak at the National Education Association meeting in Houston
. . . six days until 2020 Democrats speak at the Essence Festival in New Orleans
. . . 17 days until the cutoff for inclusion in the next Democratic debates