“We can't forget Obama's legacy,” said Florida-based immigrant rights activist Catalina Santiago, who was born in Mexico. “He promised the immigrant community papers, an ability to have a dignified life. Yet eight years later, he deported 3 million people, and Biden was complicit in that.”
Biden, who has made his eight years as President Barack Obama's vice president the centerpiece of his campaign, did not attend the Netroots conference. He was not missed. The largest annual gathering of liberal activists, which pulls everyone from electoral data gurus to disability rights activists into one loud space, had no nostalgia at all for a two-term president who, for a while, seemed to redefine the Democratic Party.
There were no Obama T-shirts; there was no “miss him yet?” swag. Conservative activists still celebrate Ronald Reagan, 35 years after he last appeared on a ballot; Netroots attendees, people once mocked by an Obama spokesman as “the professional left” had none of the wistfulness that animates Biden. No one griped about the wins Obama had gotten over eight years — Santiago, the Biden protester, received protections under the Obama administration's DACA program for some young undocumented immigrants — but they were fixated on what they hadn't gotten.
“There was a lot of good stuff that happened under Obama, but there was so much miscalculation,” said Alex Lawson, the executive director of Social Security Works, who in 2009 was part of a coalition pushing for health-care reform to the left of what was passed. “He behaved like there was someone working in good faith at the other end of the table, and there wasn't. Look at Medicare-for-all: The argument was that, hey, if we fight for that, they're going to demonize it as a government takeover and spend the next eight years running against it.' We negotiated against ourselves and they demonized the 'compromise' anyway.”
There was no enthusiasm in Philadelphia for Democrats who talked about compromise — there was even some skepticism when Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) said that much of the Green New Deal was bipartisan — so skipping Netroots probably saved Biden some trouble. While his campaign office was located just a few blocks from the conference, the former vice president spent the weekend in New Hampshire. Biden attended the event only once, in 2014, when he was interrupted by protesters furious at the administration's deportation policy — a policy designed to set up an immigration restructuring compromise that never happened.
“I respect your view and I share your view,” Biden told protesters.
Five years later, Biden held a formidable (if recently shrinking) lead over liberal candidates better liked by Netroots activists. Unlike some candidates who've tacked to the middle, Biden had not gone out of his way to dismiss liberals; he'd pleasantly surprised some activists by telling them, in rope-line conversations, that he had changed his views on abortion funding, that he supported a primary debate focused on climate change, and that he considered Israel's occupation of Palestinian territory “a real problem.”
Biden's problem at Netroots was more elemental: He came out of an administration that left activists demoralized, reducing Democratic Party power to its lowest levels in 90 years. Rick Smith, a liberal radio host and former Teamster, told the audience at one panel that Obama had “the softest hand I've ever shaken” and that he gave away the party's advantage on working-class issues by promoting free trade. Eric Holder, Obama's first attorney general and one of very few administration veterans who came to the conference, said that the National Democratic Redistricting Project he runs grew out of a too-late admission that the party was being locked out because its voters weren't turning up.
“There was a realization, certainly on my part, that we as Democrats needed to do more,” Holder said.
Although most Democratic voters adore Obama, and although he's far more popular than other former presidents, the thought of winding the clock back to before the 2016 election does not animate liberals. At a Saturday forum for presidential candidates, only Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) mentioned Obama's name; Julián Castro, who served as Obama's final HUD secretary, did not talk about him at all.
Biden inherited Obama's problems and came with some of his own. Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, who has endorsed Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) for president, said that the idea that Biden could inherit Obama's electoral movement was always flawed. Obama, in 2008, had lost many white Democrats in the party's primary, and Biden seemed like the man to win them.
“Biden wasn't put on the Obama ticket because he and Obama agreed,” Ellison said. “They put him on because they didn't. He was a ticket balancer. So he has to stand on his own two feet, right? And I think it's a mistake to think he's another version of Obama; he was on that ticket because he picked up a part of the electorate that Obama might not have necessarily be able to take.”
Some activists said that Biden was trying to distract from his Senate record by emphasizing the good feelings of the Obama years because his own record was toxic in a Democratic primary.
“He's done more harm to immigrant communities than good,” said Arielle Cohen, a Philadelphia organizer. “His record regarding busing and his position in segregation is really ugly. He's the author of the bill most responsible for the uptick in incarceration. So, so much of this conference is about undoing the years of things that he is responsible for, this nightmare of late capitalism and neoliberalism.”
Other activists were more worried about Biden on electoral grounds. On Friday, a number of liberal organizers organized an ad hoc panel to deal with the question of Biden's electability, and in front of a small audience of reporters they warned that the Biden campaign would leave their party less able to motivate the base and unready for an onslaught of Republican attacks.
“Right now Joe Biden is talking as if the only problem in America is Donald Trump,” said Democratic media strategist Rebecca Katz. “But what we saw for eight years under Obama is that Republicans in Congress, Republicans at the state level, do everything they can to restrict our power.”
The primary debate did not dominate any one session of the conference, but it simmered. At one session, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, who has become a national leader in the effort to unwind “mass incarceration,” said that one of the most important political steps activists could take would be to block Biden from the nomination. At a keynote session, Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio (who flirted earlier this year with a presidential run) seemed to nod at the idea that the party would have to settle for an “electable” candidate, a term usually applied to Biden, who performs slightly better than his rivals in polls.
“I called Donald Trump a racist, because he was and he is,” Brown said. “And I won the swing state of Ohio by seven points. Elections aren't about some 'electability' question. They're about the question, whose side are you on?” He did not mention Biden by name.
With Biden absent, activists explored some ways to force Democratic candidates to adopt their positions, or at least talk about them. It would not be enough to promise a restoration of the Obama years. Shortly after Warren took the stage for Saturday's presidential primary session, organizers with CREDO Action and Movimiento Cosecha unfurled a banner referring to the 11 million undocumented immigrants estimated to be in the country and shouted questions about how Warren would legalize them.
“I'm already there,” said Warren, whose immigration plans include a pathway to citizenship.
After the disruption, organizer Thais Marques explained that she was trying to send a message to every candidate. They had not made enough demands on previous Democrats. They were making those demands now.
“We know that she was one of the most popular candidates,” Marques said. “If she commits to an executive action on Day One, the other candidates will follow.”
Annie Linskey contributed reporting.
"They used to be Beto O’Rourke fans. But Texans’ allegiance to him has vanished as quickly as ‘Beto-mania,’ " by Jenna Johnson and Emily Davies
The quiet and occasionally pathetic retreat of a candidate's fan base.
A close look at the first big state-of-the-world address of the Democratic primary.
A columnist reports from Thursday's Latino meeting in Milwaukee, where lot of activists worried that their presidential candidates were pandering too much.
“Sanders skips Netroots as Warren strengthens her hold on progressives,” by Alex Seitz-Wald
No other Democratic candidate could really compete with Warren for the love of America's biggest progressive convention, and here's why.
“AOC's chief of change” by David Montgomery
Saikat Chakrabarti, the man who drives moderate Democrats batty.
“For Democratic presidential hopeful Steve Bullock, it’s all about the ‘dark money,' " by Michelle Ye Hee Lee
The Montana governor will probably be on the debate stage this month, and money in politics is his signature issue.
DEMS IN DISARRAY
This was the week when tensions between senior House Democrats and the “squad” of newly elected left-wing women tumbled into public view. President Trump's tweet on Sunday morning urging the women to “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came” might have rallied Democrats behind them. But that came after days of backbiting, from a public dismissal by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.) attacking the “disrespectful” Pelosi comment, to anonymous Democratic staffers trashing the congresswomen and leaking polls that suggested they hurt the party.
How did it begin? The June 26, 2018, victory of Ocasio-Cortez is as good of a starting point as any. More than simply defeating Joe Crowley, the well-liked chairman of the House Democratic conference, Ocasio-Cortez became an international sensation. A candidate who had never appeared on cable news was suddenly a sought-after guest for all of them, and for late night TV
That was not as irksome to Democrats (who didn’t mind the idea of electing the youngest-ever female member of Congress) as Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign tour, which took her from Kansas to Michigan to Missouri to Hawaii to stump for other insurgents. All were endorsed by Justice Democrats, the left-wing group founded after the 2016 campaign to replace “corporate” incumbents in Congress. And all of them lost.
Two losses resonated in particular. The first was the defeat of Cori Bush, a St. Louis activist, by Rep. William Lacy Clay, a former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. The other was the victory of now-Rep. Sharice Davids, one of the first Native American women elected to Congress, over Brent Welder, a labor lawyer and Sanders supporter who happened to be white and male. (Davids was actually considered as a Justice Democrats candidate, but Welder, who had announced long before, got the nod.)
Why did that matter? It turned Clay, a voice many Congressional Black Caucus members listen to, into an implacable enemy of Justice Democrats, and it gave Ocasio-Cortez’s enemies a club to hit her with. Had Kansans listened to her, a history-making candidate (Davids) would have been replaced by a white man. Ocasio-Cortez’s win demolished the idea that the new left consisted of entitled “Bernie Bros,” but some in the “establishment” held up the center-left Davids as an example of what the left wanted to stop.
What happened next? Just 10 days after the midterms, Ocasio-Cortez joined her incoming chief of staff Saikat Chakrabarti on a call, organized by Justice Democrats, urging would-be candidates to run against incumbents in primaries. “We need new leaders, period,” he said. “We’ve got to primary folks.”
Justice Democrats’ shift to avoiding swing seats was beneficial to the “establishment.” Their greatest 2018 successes had been Ocasio-Cortez, with no electoral experience, and three women who had some legislative experience and support beyond Justice Democrats: Rashida Tlaib (Mich.), Ilhan Omar (Minn.), and Ayanna Pressley (Mass.). (This is “the squad.") All had won in deeply blue districts, two of them places where Republicans did not even bother running candidates. The first Justice Democrats to sign up for 2020 were challenging Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas and Rep. Elliot Engel of New York, both of them in safe seats.
But the call made a name for Chakrabarti, a founder of what became Justice Democrats, for Washington Democrats. Capitol Hill has an inscrutable code; part of the code is that chiefs of staff do not make headlines for themselves.
When did it get ugly? Really not until April 1, when House Republicans persuaded a rump of moderate Democrats to back language in a background checks bill that would alert ICE if undocumented immigrants attempted to buy guns. Most Democrats opposed that language, but Ocasio-Cortez ended up voting against the entire bill, too. It was the beginning of the dynamic the “squad” remains trapped in. They do not command enough votes to block or change legislation, but moderate Democrats do. When moderate Democrats take a stand against the rest of the party, and the “squad” rebels, it's the latter group that gets the negative attention.
And what was that “House Democrats” tweet about? Oh, yes. So: Two weeks ago, when the House passed a border supplemental bill that the “squad” opposed (for lacking any restrictions on the Trump zero-tolerance policy), Chakrabarti compared the moderates who jammed that bill through to Southern Democrats.
“I mean would you say this to your colleague Sharice Davids?” asked Julian Brave Noisecat, who works with the liberal group Data for Progress. “I’m a big lefty and fan of your work, but this feels a little harsh to some in that tent.”
“They seem to consistently vote as a block to criminalize immigrants (though really only brown ones)," Chakrabarti said. “What should I call that?”
“I mean Sharice got arrested with the Dreamers back in 2017, so there’s that too,” Noisecat said.
Chakrabarti deleted the tweet but said his point still stood. “I don't think people have to be personally racist to enable a racist system,” he said. “And the same could even be said of the Southern Democrats. I don't believe Sharice is a racist person, but her votes are showing her to enable a racist system.”
All of that happened June 27 and did not get many retweets. (A staffer at the National Republican Senatorial Committee had retweeted the deleted “Southern Democrats” tweet.) Suddenly, on July 12, the official Twitter account of the House Democratic Caucus tweeted the final Chakrabarti item, cutting off the conversation about Davids, making it looked like he had pounced on her for no reason.
“Who is this guy and why is he explicitly singling out a Native American woman of color?” the tweet read. “Her name is Congresswoman Davids, not Sharice. She is a phenomenal new member who flipped a red seat blue.”
What was the point of that? It's a good question. Many House Democrats dislike the Justice Democrats and Chakrabarti, seeing them as selfish campaigners for politics that could not win in swing districts. (That they are no longer competing in swing districts is beside the point.) Davids has been politically hurt in Kansas by the debate; it's not good for her to be branded as an ideal Pelosi Democrat, and not good for local liberals to see her as their enemy. But the message sent was that Chakrabarti was hurting the party and needed to tack in.
“Everything I tweeted 2 weeks ago was to call out the terrible border funding bill that 90+ Dems opposed,” he wrote. “It gave Trump a blank check to continue caging people in horrendous conditions. Our Democracy is literally falling apart. I'm not interested in substance-less Twitter spats.”
And before the story could take another turn, Trump tweeted about the “squad” members needing to go back where they came from. Even if this causes a respite, this fight isn’t over, because it puts two fundamentally different theories of political power against each other.
Do you prefer a candidate with views close to yours, or a candidate with the best chance to win? (NBC/WSJ, 400 Democratic primary voters)
Views close to mine — 79%
Can win the election — 20%
Views close to mine — 51%
Can win the election — 45%
The mystery of Bernie Sanders's falling support really begins in the 2015 election, which took place in a state of Democratic hyper-confidence. Democrats began that cycle confident that Hillary Clinton would be their nominee. By the summer of 2015, they were practically giddy at how Donald Trump was disrupting the Republican primary; at worst, he was driving his party toward polarizing issue stances, and at best, an unpopular reality TV star would be their nominee. For a lot of Democrats, that turned their 2016 primary ballot into a “free” vote; they could send a message about the party, and move it toward their own preferences, without throwing the election.
Then came 2016. Other polling has found that Democrats do not see Sanders (or Warren, or Harris) running as strong in a general election as Joe Biden. Sanders leads Trump in swing-state polls, but that data is not universally known by primary voters; and some who know it remain rattled by what happened in 2016. (A two- or three-point lead was what Hillary Clinton had in key states before the election.) Democrats remain more happy to “settle” than they were in 2016.
2020 general election (NBC/WSJ, 800 registered voters)
Joe Biden — 51%
Donald Trump — 42%
Bernie Sanders — 50%
Donald Trump — 43%
Elizabeth Warren — 48%
Donald Trump — 43%
Kamala Harris — 45%
Donald Trump — 44%
Speaking of electability: This is the latest of several polls that finds the president with low and generally unmovable support, as every leading Democrat has a chance of beating him. The Sanders campaign quickly blasted out the results with its “Bernie beats Trump” battle cry; the Warren campaign did not react. While Sandersworld believes he is in a strong position to win voters focused on “electability” if Biden sinks, other campaigns believe that those voters will scatter and that in the meantime any focus on “electability” helps just Biden.
Bernie Sanders. He’ll deliver a speech Wednesday in Washington, making the case for Medicare-for-all — specifically, defending it from the latest round of misleading criticism that it would rip away care from people who have it.
Kamala Harris. She’s teaming up with Washington Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington state to introduce a National Domestic Worker Bill of Rights, codifying standards and wages for a labor population of around 2.5 million people.
Elizabeth Warren. She’s returning to Iowa on Thursday for an AARP forum and a campaign stop in deep red Sioux County.
Beto O'Rourke. Like Warren, he's campaigning in “Siouxland” after the AARP forum in Sioux City.
Amy Klobuchar. She’s headlining a Tuesday event at the National Press Club, in Washington, to emphasize an agenda for the first 100 days of her presidency.
Tim Ryan. He raised $895,000 in his first quarter as a Democratic presidential candidate; more than he has raised in campaigns for his safe House seat, from around 13,000 donors, putting him on track to be cut from September's debate.
Jay Inslee. He used his Netroots appearance (made before a crowd shrinking quickly after Elizabeth Warren finished speaking) to criticize most of the senators running for president; only Warren, he noted, had come out against the filibuster.
Julián Castro. He added a rally with Fight for $15 campaigners to his Sunday-Tuesday Iowa swing.
EVERYBODY IS WRONG
. . . about Bernie Sanders and the Netroots. Over three hot days in Philadelphia, the senator from Vermont's absence from the year's biggest liberal conference definitely got noticed. Nina Turner, the senator's campaign co-chair, rallied workers and patients outside nearby Hahnemann Hospital, demanding that it not be closed to make way for development. And Sanders himself will be in the city Monday for another rally in support of the downtown facility.
But Sanders never made it to Philadelphia for the three-day conference, spawning lots of speculation about the snub. Was he afraid of getting upstaged by Warren? Was he irritated by Markos Moulitsas, the founder of Daily Kos and frequent Sanders critic, who co-moderated the presidential forum?
In the end, Sanders's campaign decided to draw a contrast between the candidates who showed up to an event that costs hundreds of dollars to attend (though discounted passes and day pass are available) and a labor rally that was very relevant and very free. Heather Gautney, a senior policy adviser to the campaign, chastised reporters for not covering the hospital rally the way they'd covered the conference.
“When you report on this coming rally, ask which candidates were reached out to during Netroots — to show up to help Hahnemann just 2 blocks away — but alas, couldn’t make it,” Gautney wrote. “The candidates appearing at Netroots were 2 blocks from Hahnemann — why didn’t they come to the rally?! They’re 'progressive' but can’t stand with workers? Why don’t the headlines report their conspicuous absence?”
The argument here, one that Sanders has made since Day 1, is that his campaign is a true “grass-roots movement” and others are not. That bristles some Democrats — Warren and Beto O'Rourke, in particular, have described their campaigns as “movements” — but it reflects how Sanders has tried to link his own campaign with labor and left-wing causes. He has used his email and text message lists to publicize strikes; he has distributed warnings about ICE raids; he has marched with striking workers.
“What we need in this country is a mass movement of millions of people, which I am prepared to lead as president, to take on Wall Street, to take on the drug companies who are ripping us off every single day, to take on the insurance companies, to take on the fossil fuel industry, which is literally destroying this planet,” Sanders said on “Meet the Press” on Sunday. “I think I am the only candidate who has been clear about that, who has the capability of doing that and defeating Donald Trump in the process.”
Sanders, in other words, saw no cost to skipping the conference, where Warren was an icon. She has attended most years since 2010, when she was first pushed to run in the 2012 Senate race back in Massachusetts, and the liberals who make up most attendees do not completely overlap with the new, young left that powered the Sanders campaign.
So Sandersworld saw no cost for skipping Netroots apart from a few days of ignorable media chatter. What may also be forgotten is that the first hospital rally, on Thursday, took place when both Sanders and Warren were in Milwaukee for the annual LULAC meeting; activists did not blame candidates for skipping that. The message Sanders wanted to send was that his campaign amplified and engaged in its own direct actions; elect him, and he would personally lead rallies to shame developers into backing off their plans and companies into raising wages. If Warren is seen as the candidate of activists, and Sanders is seen as the candidate of working-class Americans who might not otherwise vote, the campaign is happy.
It nonetheless struck Netroots attendees, many of them deep in the labor movement or in other rights campaigns, to be portrayed as the Democratic Party elite. A jokey betting pool on “who will drop out next,” which displayed the faces of 24 Democratic candidates on a wall near the convention's entrance, ended up with a few dozen check marks on Sanders and none on Warren.
On Friday night, Mike Gravel’s “patio campaign” for the presidency announced that it had collected 65,000 unique donations — enough to qualify for a spot in the upcoming Detroit debates. The news was accompanied by an animated GIF of a giant-sized Gravel scaling a mountain and, more importantly, by a statement promising to fight for a place onstage.
“The campaign has retained counsel and is currently in talks with the DNC over the validity of the polling method of qualification, given that well over half of DNC’s approved polls methodically and consistently excluded Sen. Gravel despite the campaign’s documented, repeated outreach to both pollsters and the DNC for inclusion,” said campaign manager David Oks.
The point of contention is this: The DNC’s debate rules privilege polling numbers over donors. The rules shared with candidates say that “if more than 20 candidates all qualify under both the Polling and Grassroots Fundraising Methods, such candidates with the highest polling averages will be included in the debate.” As of today, 21 candidates qualify for the debates; a number of them have hit the mark only because they hit an average of 1 percent in DNC-validated polls.
“It would be absurd if the Gravel campaign, standing at more than 65,000 donors with significant grassroots enthusiasm, is excluded based on polls that categorically refused to engage with us in good faith, while candidates like John Hickenlooper — at 13,000 donors, with no real support, and losing most of its staff — are taken ‘seriously’ and invited to the debate,” Oks said in the statement.
The DNC’s rules, announced more than six months ago, were designed for a moment like this. The 65,000-donor rule was a way to involve candidates who were not polling well but were putting in real work; it nonetheless carried the risk of being gamed by a stunt campaign. At least one conservative pundit asked for donations to “crash” the debates, which went nowhere. The Gravel campaign is sincere, but unusual; the candidate has not traveled to any early states, and most of his public statements are written by Oks and Henry Williams, teenagers who want to shift the Democratic conversation to the left.
The “Gravel teens” did what sounded like fantasy: They persuaded 65,000 people to donate to an 89-year old former senator who wants to be on the debate stage to attack Joe Biden’s record. But unless they win a legal argument, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, who has qualified for a debate slot only because of polling, will probably take the debate slot vacated by Rep. Eric Swalwell of California.
. . . one day until every campaign reveals its second-quarter fundraising
. . . two days until the cutoff for the second presidential debates
. . . 16 days until the second two-night debate starts