In this edition: The Medicare-for-all debate in Iowa, the DNC's Friday fundraising news drop, and the Gravel teens go out swinging.

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All last week, while Washington was preoccupied with the president's Fox News-inspired war against four left-wing congresswomen, the Democrats running for president made pilgrimages to Iowa. Seventeen of them sat down with the Des Moines Register and AARP for 25-minute interviews about health care and aging — the most substantive big “cattle call” so far.

It came at a critical time in the Democratic primary. Joe Biden kicked off the forums Monday by telling his audience that the Medicare-for-all plan supported by his highest-polling rivals would mean that “Medicare goes away as you know it.” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) closed the forums Saturday by warning that the former vice president was lying and that his plan would improve Medicare: “We should not have distortions of what Medicare-for-all stands for.” 

As usual, Sanders was outnumbered, in ways that will matter in the months to come. The AARP forums demonstrated how the entire party has shifted left since 2016; as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) pointed out, the days of Democrats pondering cuts to Social Security were over. They also put most of the Democratic candidates loudly on record against Medicare-for-all legislation, warning that it would disrupt a system millions of Americans were happy with. Most of these Democrats, obviously, will not win the nomination; if a Medicare-for-all sponsor does win the nomination, the words said in Iowa could haunt them through November 2020.

The candidates divided into three groups: Implement Medicare-for-all and eliminate most private insurers; create a public option that would eventually be too hard for private insurers to compete with, leading in effect to Medicare-for-all; and create a public option with no expectation of Medicare-for-all. Here's a basic breakdown of where the field stands after the AARP forums.

Medicare-for-all or bust. Six candidates for president have co-sponsored either the House's or Senate's Medicare-for-all legislation: Sens. Sanders, Warren, Cory Booker, Kamala D. Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard. At the forum, just two of them defended the text of the legislation, which phases out most private insurance in two to four years by replacing it with a single government plan. (Gabbard was not directly asked about it, and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who supports the legislation, canceled his appearance to deal with a heat wave.)

Both Warren and Sanders approached the plan as the fairest and most cost-efficient way to provide health care and argued that people, once they saw the price tags, could get used to it.

“It transitions people to more complete insurance coverage, more complete health-care coverage, at a lower cost, which I think is what we all want,” Warren said. “Our insurance companies are sucking value out of our system. Look at the basic business model: It’s 'charge the maximum amount in premiums, and pay out the least you can in health-care coverage.' And last year, following that model, insurance companies sucked out $23 billion from the system.”

Sanders, one of the last speakers of the week, was asked more details about the plan and said his opponents were simply lying about it. “Medicare does not provide all of the benefits that seniors need,” he said. “Seniors need dental care; Medicare does not provide it. Seniors need hearing aids; Medicare does not provide it. Seniors need eyeglasses; Medicare does not provide it. Under Medicare-for-all, we expand those benefits to seniors.”

That was one part of the defense; the other, for Sanders, was asking voters to imagine a world in which private insurers were mostly put to pasture. Asked about the bill eliminating Medicare Part D, which helps cover prescriptions, he scoffed: “If I told you that the most you would pay in a given year for prescription drugs is $200, how does that sound compared to Medicare Part D? Pretty good, right?” Asked about people working in the insurance industry, Sanders said they would be “transitioned” to more useful labor.

“If somebody is sitting there in an office, calling and telling you that sorry, you're not going to get covered for what you thought you had covered, that is not health care,” he said. “I want as many of them as possible to get trained in health care, not billing.”

Medicare-for-all, eventually. The other Democrats who've put their names and reputations behind Medicare-for-all swatted away the question about making most private insurance illegal, emphasizing instead the long process of creating something that the private industries would struggle to compete with. This group thinks a public option gets America to a place in which insurance companies don't handle most health-care claims — but doesn't think they should be phased out legislatively. 

“The way you get to universal coverage that's permanent, that's a basic human right, is you let people buy into Medicare at a price they can afford,” Gillibrand said. “It creates competition with the private insurers who have to worry about their shareholders and their high CEO pay.”

Harris, whose January town hall with CNN marked the first time a Democrat had been thrown off by a “ban private insurance” question, added a line to her pitch: “Under my vision of Medicare-for-all, there will be supplemental insurance.” That's true of Sanders's own plan, though he gives it a smaller emphasis, and Harris does not describe an insurance-conglomerate-free future. And Booker focused on the political impossibility of getting Democrats to agree, flat out, on the Senate's Medicare-for-all bill.

“There’s no way, even if we have 60 Democrats [in the Senate], that we’re going to have some kind of massive transformation of our system,” Booker said. “If you change Medicare to make it better in its reimbursements, better in its funding; if you lower the eligibility age to 55; these are steps that are going to help Americans move into Medicare. And you know what it’s going to do to the private insurance plans. … Ultimately, you could end up with a Medicare-for-all solution, but it would be an evolution, not a revolution, and it would take 10 or 15 years. That type of approach is better than 180 million people giving up their private insurance. Many of them don’t want to.”

That was the same tone taken by South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg. “I think what will happen over time is that this will become a very natural glide path toward a Medicare-for-all environment,” Buttigieg said. “Not by flipping a switch and banishing the private sector, but just by putting something better on the table and letting people figure it out for themselves. We're always going to have some private insurance as part of the American health-care system.”

A public option, but never universal Medicare. Most of the Democrats who made it to the AARP forum stopped short of endorsing universal Medicare as even an endgame goal; like Biden, they suggested that adding the public option that was stripped out of the Affordable Care Act by hand-wringing Senate moderates would get every American covered. Former HUD secretary Julián Castro emphasized that even European countries that control their health-care costs with universal plans have private insurance options. Other Democrats, like Biden, went harder at Sanders.

“Medicare-for-all takes insurance away from 180 million people who get it from their employer,” said Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, who has become one of Sanders's chief antagonists on the trail. “It takes Medicare Advantage away from 20 million Americans. Medicare-for-all means that every single union that's negotiated for health benefits would lose those health plans. I don't see any reason why we have to do that.”

Sen. Amy Klobuchar and former congressman John Delaney also warned that the text of Sanders's bill would be electoral poison.

“You could do it with Medicaid; you could do it with Medicare,” Klobuchar said of making health care a human right. “Basically, it’s an option that doesn’t rely on insurance companies but still does not dismantle our entire hospital system and our entire way of covering people. It would concern me to kick half of America off our insurance in four years, which is what the other plan specifically says.”

Delaney, pitching his “Better Care” plan, said that describing a market-free health-care future made no sense; not when every American could get either a government plan or a tax credit for private insurance.

“You have basic federal health care, but people have options,” he said. “If we run on telling half the country that we're going to make [private insurance] illegal, and we're going to have to get some new kind of program, they're not going to trust us, and they're not going to vote for us. They're not going to believe it's better than what they have. And there's no reason to do that.”

Both Booker and former congressman Beto O'Rourke discussed their conversations with Nevada's powerful culinary workers union and its defense of the health plan it negotiated for workers; Booker said it was a reason why any Medicare-for-all phase-in had to be slow, and O'Rourke said it made the argument for his middle-path plan.

“We avoid the false choice between what we have today, the Affordable Care Act, and something that would force tens of millions of Americans off their insurance, and towards Medicare,” O'Rourke said.

Even Marianne Williamson said that Sanders's idea gave her some pause.

“I want to be an agent of change. I don’t want to be an agent of chaos,” she said. “I’m afraid if we go in there with things like Medicare-for-all, throw out private insurance, etc., I’m afraid the brakes are going to lock. I believe that [we can] have the Medicare option, add it to the Obamacare exchange.”

The lesson of all this? Sanders has shifted the center of gravity in the Democratic Party, and a public option that was too much for Joe Lieberman 10 years ago is now the “conservative” position. Sanders himself is happy, verging on delighted, to turn the Medicare debate into a fight to demolish the insurance industry. Warren and de Blasio are with him . . . and practically nobody else. One of those three, if they got the nomination, would be asked to respond to the defeated Democrats who warned that they would ruin voters' insurance.

READING LIST

"How a racist tweet became a Trump rally chant in three short days,” by Ashley Parker

The birth of “send her back.”

“Anxious Democratic governors urge 2020 field not to veer too far left,” by Jonathan Martin

The biggest victors of the 2018 Democratic comeback say their base is making problems.

“Joe Biden isn’t the only ‘electable’ candidate. Here’s what Democratic primary voters are thinking — and how to change it,” by Regina Bateson

A political science gut-check on the idea that nominating anyone but a white guy will reelect Trump.

“There’s a new movement trying to create an intellectual strain of Trumpism. It just doesn’t know what exactly that means,” by Rosie Gray

Inside the “national conservatism” confab, which was bookended by a racist tweet and a racist rally chant from a man who inspired the proceedings but did not attend.

“The Detroit debate: Is there any candidate who doesn’t have something at risk?” by Dan Balz

The answer is no, they all have something to lose.

POLL WATCH

 

Will this candidate fight for you “a great deal?” (CBS Battleground Poll, 8,760 registered voters)

Elizabeth Warren — 56%
Bernie Sanders — 54%
Kamala Harris — 45%
Joe Biden — 38%
Pete Buttigieg — 34%

One of the most revealing questions a pollster can ask is whether voters think a candidate will “fight for” them or “cares about people like” them. It's a little amorphous, but candidates who score poorly on this measure end up struggling. CBS's poll limited the question to Democrats in battleground states. Here, most Democrats think the nominees polling highest right now believe the candidates will “fight for them,” but there's a notable gap in voters who believe that intensely about Warren and Sanders and those who believe it about the more conciliatory-sounding Biden and Buttigieg. Biden's overall strength, a lead of five points over the field, is mostly tied to his “electability.” At the same time, while 56 percent of Democrats favor a Sanders-proposed and Warren-backed Medicare-for-all, 63 percent preferred that it coexist with private insurance, as a competitor.

MONEY WATCH

The Democratic National Committee dropped its second-quarter fundraising total Friday night, the unofficial holiday of people (and party entities) that don’t want to make news. The haul: $22.9 million, less than half the $51 million raised by the Republican National Committee. The DNC tried to soften the blow by highlighting an uptick in June, with $8.5 million raised; the RNC, benefiting from the Trump campaign’s official launch event, raised $20.8 million that month.

That did represent some improvement for the DNC from two years ago and from the midterm cycle. But it represented a boost for the RNC, too; two Junes ago, it raised $13.5 million to the DNC’s $5.5 million. Nothing on the short horizon suggests that Democrats will catch up, and as Vice’s Cameron Joseph reports, it’s hurting the DNC’s long-term strategy of handing money to state parties for early voter engagement.

And there’s not much the DNC can do to alter this for the next year, until the party has a presidential nominee. Its lagging fundraising is a legacy of the 2016 primary, including unhappiness with how longtime chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz ran the DNC and the anger from supporters of Bernie Sanders who believe the contest was slanted against him.

For many left-wing Democrats, the DNC — which does not endorse in primaries — is a synecdoche for the “Democratic establishment.” In the six minutes it took to write the first paragraphs of this item, three Twitter users sent messages alleging that Sanders had been “screwed” by the DNC, which “cheated” him and “rigged everything” to help Hillary Clinton.

The party has not recovered and is not, as in 2015, letting candidates to allow joint fundraising agreements with it; that idea, which allowed Democrats running for president to kick money to the party, was retroactively denounced when Donna Brazile took over the committee from Wasserman Schultz. Even an arrangement to let candidates use the DNC’s data file if they participate in fundraisers has been sparking controversy, as when a donor’s gift on behalf of DNC skirted Warren’s no-big-money-fundraiser pledge.

DEBATE SEASON

Mike Gravel's one-of-a-kind “patio campaign,” created by two teenagers in the hopes of getting the 89-year-old retired senator from Alaska into the presidential debates, appeared to run out of tile Wednesday. Twenty slots were available for the second debates, in Detroit, hosted by CNN. Six Democrats qualified for a spot onstage because they hit 1 percent or higher in at least three polls; Gravel qualified because he got more than 65,000 unique donations. Because the DNC's rules prioritize polling over donations, Gravel got the boot and CNN set up the two debate nights without him.

But the “Gravel teens,” Henry Williams and David Oks, did not pack up and go home. After the cut, they embraced the hashtag #DropOutDelaney to urge John Delaney, the former Maryland congressman who is largely self-funding his campaign, to … well, to drop out. 

“John's been running for two years and can't get 65,000 donors; we got that in a few months,” the teens tweeted. “Stop wasting our time and leave the race!”

Delaney, who indeed entered the presidential race two years ago this month, was not amused. No two campaigns are more different. Delaney has opened campaign offices in Iowa and New Hampshire and held hundreds of events; Gravel has not left his Northern California home. Delaney has argued that Democrats can “own the middle” if they are willing to reject some left-wing policies; Gravel has endorsed, on his behalf, a stunt designed to move the party to the left.

The campaign planned to wind down if it missed the debates, but it was not closing the door until it tried something: Could any candidate be shamed out of a debate slot?

So far, no. “The Gravel Campaign should be embarrassed by the behavior of their staff," said Michael Starr Hopkins, Delaney's national press secretary, when asked about the Gravel teens and their "drop out" campaign. "Whether it’s their inappropriate comments regarding the physical appearance of our female staffers or their childish antics on social media, it’s all beneath the dignity of a former United States senator. The only people that they have to blame for their inability to make the first two debates is their own campaign.”

Oks and Williams replied in kind. “The fact that the Delaney 'campaign' is responding at all shows just how desperate they are,” they said in a Twitter direct message. “We do want to commend them for making us all laugh for a good two years, and we hope that when the movie comes out Hollywood can get John C. Reilly for the part of Mr. Delaney. (We should note that we never attacked the physical appearance of a female staffer, just said that she sounded like she was in a hostage video. This is a matter of public record.) Of course, when the Delaney staffers can get more of a fraction than our 67,000 donors, they may have a wider audience for their pathetic foibles. We look forward to John getting cut from the September debates and this whole episode being summed up as half-sad, half-funny. And to Delaney's staffers: we hear Pete is hiring!”

Over the weekend, Oks and Williams addressed the Young Democrats convention in Indiana, pronouncing themselves proud Democrats who simply wanted the party to learn and move left and, yes, who were miffed that Mike Gravel didn't make the debates.

“We, too, cannot wait for the sublime points made by Tim Ryan and John Hickenlooper,” Williams said, mockingly referring to two of the race's moderates. “They're truly the leading lights of our time.”

2020

Bernie Sanders. He’s returning to California before the Detroit debates, with a town hall and a fundraiser in the Los Angeles area.

Tom Steyer. He held his first event in his adopted home of San Francisco — previously he'd swung into South Carolina for campaign stops — with curious voters wondering whether a presidential campaign was really the best use of $100 million.

John Hickenlooper. He'll spend most of this upcoming week in Iowa for RAGBRAI (Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa), biking from West Des Moines to the small eastern Iowa town of Sigourney.

John Delaney. He, too, will participate in a leg of the RAGBRAI ride, on Wednesday, part of his latest multiday trip across Iowa.

Steve Bullock. His Iowa-focused campaign took him to the small southeastern town where some of his relatives settled.

Elizabeth Warren. She’ll join striking workers at Reagan National Airport this week before heading to the NAACP’s presidential forum in Detroit.

Julián Castro. He made a repeat trip to western Iowa and to Storm Lake, the best known among the small towns that have been reinvigorated economically by immigrants.

WAIT, WHAT?

Next week in Indianapolis, the National Urban League will hold its annual summit and invite 10 candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination to address the audience. Among them will be Joe Biden, Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar and … Ami Horowitz.

Who? If you've been watching the candidate debates and forums, or following campaigns as they barnstorm early states, Horowitz's name won't be familiar. The conservative filmmaker announced May 8 that he was running for president to make the televised debates and, in his words, “throw an intellectual hand grenade on the stage.” Getting there, he explained in a launch video, meant getting 65,000 individual donations.

Horowitz made appearances across conservative media and said in an email that he collected 10,000 donations in his first week as a candidate. “We were on track to make the threshold,” he explained, “but the DNC denied us any air. I think we topped out at about 25,000 or so donors (in less than a month). I stopped taking donations once it seemed clear we weren't going to make it.”

According to Horowitz's FEC filing, he raised a bit less than $60,000 from May 8 to June 20. The deadline to make the second debates was July 16, and inclusion in the next debates, in September, will require candidates to collect at least 130,000 donations and score 2 percent in a series of polls.

So, why will he be appearing at a conference as part of a presidential forum? Because he was asked. At the end of an interview two months ago on the web-based Bold TV, National Urban League president Marc Morial personally invited Horowitz to the conference.

“I’ll see you at the National Urban League in Indianapolis,” Morial said.

The invitation was still good after Horowitz's effort wound down. Tess Candori, a spokeswoman for the NUL, said that the presidential forum would be “the same for everybody,” giving Horowitz and others “time to make a presentation and answer questions about urban America and racial justice.”

Horowitz's campaign was less about those topics than it was about what he saw as the Democratic Party's gallop toward a left-wing fringe. After the first debates, Horowitz appeared in a segment on the conservative BlazeTV news network, demonstrating what he could have said had he been onstage.

“Most of you hold beliefs that are dangerous and radical and profoundly damaging to our country,” Horowitz said. 

According to Horowitz, his ability to relay a message based on what he sees as the dangers of abortion, liberal immigration policies and socialism was thwarted by the Democratic establishment. He had contacted organizers of other candidate forums and been turned away.

“Act Blue denied us entry onto their platform,” he said, referring to the premier liberal fundraising platform and adding that he believed the snub “came on orders” from the DNC. “That also hurt us because we had to scramble to find another platform and Act Blue is really the only game in town when it comes to Democratic fundraising. We received some national attention, but the DNC was keen to keep me out of the race.” (Horowitz has no record of recently working to elect Democrats and described himself as a conservative.)

Horowitz has little in common with the 20 Democrats who'll be onstage at the end of the month. Much of his work has appeared on Fox News, with videos ranging from man-on-the-street compilations that embarrass liberals, to a documentary about the effects of Muslim immigration to Sweden.

“I am going to say some things that no other Democratic candidate will say and I am sure it will be controversial,” Horowitz said of his upcoming appearance in Indianapolis. “I suggest checking out my speech.”

COUNTDOWN

. . . three days until the NAACP's candidate forum
. . . four days until the National Urban League's candidate forum
. . . nine days until the second Democratic debates