In this edition: Democrats after El Paso, the Cory Booker quasi-breakout, and Avenatti renaissance.
There is no social problem that can't be fixed by people yelling at each other on TV, and this is The Trailer.
Saturday's mass shooting in El Paso was not the first since the Democratic primary began. There was the May 31 rampage in Virginia Beach, in which a city engineer killed 12 of his colleagues. There was the shooting rampage at the annual garlic festival in Gilroy, Calif., which claimed three lives. As each breaking news story sunk in, the 2020 Democrats condemned the violence, called for gun control and praised first responders.
But the El Paso shooting was different: It was the third attack this year inspired by racism and the latest accompanied by an online manifesto that warned about white majority rule being imperiled by immigration. As more details have been confirmed, the 2020 Democrats have increasingly tied the shooting to the president of the United States.
“We've had a rise in hate crimes every single one of the last three years, during an administration where you have a president who's called Mexicans rapists and criminals,” former Texas congressman Beto O'Rourke told reporters after returning to his city Saturday. “He is a racist, and he stokes racism in this country. And it doesn't just offend our sensibilities; it fundamentally changes the character of this country, and it leads to violence.”
The El Paso shooting could be a defining moment in the Democratic primary and the presidential race — not because the candidates are scrambling for an advantage but because they're in agreement. The 2020 Democrats share the same agenda on gun control, and they've confidently called the president a racist and handed him the blame for white supremacist violence.
“We have a president of the United States who is savagely fraying the bonds of our nation by speaking consistently words of hatred, words of division, words of demonization and demagoguery,” said Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) in an interview with CNN's Jake Tapper. “He is fueling a climate that is tearing at the fabric and fueling an environment where white supremacists and people who have ill will are finding more and more license to strike out against the vulnerable, to strike out against the immigrant, to strike out against 'the other.' "
After years of nervousness about “identity politics” and its role in their surprise 2016 defeat, Democrats have returned to an argument Hillary Clinton made in that campaign's closing months: that Trump is energizing white nationalists. The old nervousness has been fading as Trump has become more brazen and as polls have found most voters willing to believe that he holds bigoted views.
In a poll last week from Quinnipiac University, 51 percent of all voters said that Trump was a racist. One week earlier, a Fox News poll found just 34 percent of voters saying that Trump “respected racial minorities” while 63 percent said that he had “crossed the line” with tweets attacking nonwhite, female, left-wing members of Congress. In 2016, just 43 percent of white voters had opposed Trump and picked another candidate; according to Quinnipiac, 46 percent of white voters now consider him a racist.
Republicans have pushed back hard on the idea of presidential blame for El Paso. “I blame the people who pulled the trigger,” acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney said on “Meet the Press” on Sunday. “Goodness gracious, is someone really blaming the president?” And in a tweet, RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel condemned O'Rourke for the way he was talking about Trump.
“A tragedy like this is not an opportunity to reboot your failing presidential campaign,” she wrote.
But McDaniel wrote that as the RNC wrapped up its summer meeting in Charlotte, the city that will host its 2020 convention — a city whose Democratic-leaning government had officially condemned Trump for “racist and xenophobic” comments. The Republican response to the Democratic rhetoric about Trump and racism has typically been to predict that it won't work.
“They've got nothing left to attack,” wrote Trump ally Newt Gingrich on Saturday, before the shooting, “except for occasional comments from President Trump that they distort.”
Yet Democrats are avoiding Hillary Clinton's blunder when she said that “half” of Trump's supporters could be called “deplorables” because of their racist beliefs. The Trump campaign, at that time, used Clinton's words to insist that she was attacking average Americans.
The 2020 Democratic candidates have made this more personal, from former vice president Joe Biden focusing his campaign launch on Trump's equivocating about neo-Nazi and anti-fascist protests to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) beginning speeches by calling the president a “racist, sexist, homophobe.” Over the years, they've separated the president from his voters; their only debate is whether he's the result of decades of racist politicking or whether he is himself making things worse.
“He’s a racist, there’s no question in my mind,” Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) told reporters Sunday in Las Vegas. “I think that’s pretty well-defined when you just look at all of the evidence from the very beginning. We can go through the list, but at this point we’ve all recited it so many times we’ve almost memorized it.”
After El Paso, even Democrats who were cautious about labeling Trump had become bolder. Two weeks ago, after Trump had told nonwhite members of Congress to “go back” and fix the places they came from, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) had held back when reporters asked whether Trump himself was racist. This weekend she did not.
“We need to call out white nationalism for what it is — domestic terrorism,” she said in a statement. “It is a threat to the United States, and we've seen its devastating toll this weekend. And we need to call out the president himself for advancing racism and white supremacy.”
“He made a choice to divide people for his political benefit,” Julián Castro said in a Sunday statement. “Now we see the result: a rise in white nationalism and domestic terrorism directed at people based on their race, ethnicity, and religion.”
Warren, Castro and other Democrats were in sync with major Latino groups — a change even from a week ago, when there was worry that they might be proposing immigration policies that made it harder to win. The League of United Latin American Citizens, which hosted a number of 2020 Democrats last month, released a statement directly blaming Trump for the radicalization that led to the shooting.
“The xenophobic hate speech of President Trump continues to fan the flames of hatred in this country,” said Domingo Garcia, LULAC's national president. “President Trump's xenophobic rhetoric and policies inspired the killing of innocent women, children and men at a Walmart in El Paso.”
But the specter of 2016 lingers over Democrats; the rewards for calling Trump a bigot in that election never showed up. Democratic pollsters have also found that opinion about Trump and race, while negative, is largely locked in. Messaging that emphasizes Trump's racist statements does not move votes as much as messages that emphasize his mistakes or ineffectiveness. Some Democrats have already merged the two lines after El Paso, arguing that Trump is not simply exhausting, not simply insensitive, but that those traits are risking public safety — and that mass shootings that take place while he is at one of his golf properties make their case.
“We cannot keep America safe from this threat to the American people if we’re not prepared to name it and confront it,” South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg said in an interview on Fox News. “We can’t keep pretending that this is just random or this is something we can’t confront.”
Chelsea Janes contributed reporting from Las Vegas.
"Ohio’s Hamilton County may test whether Trump’s divisiveness will help or hurt him in 2020,” by Josh Dawsey, Cleve R. Wootson Jr. and Laura Hughes
This week's presidential rally was the first in some time that took him outside an electoral comfort zone.
“Tulsi Gabbard is this election’s Ron Paul,” by Rosie Gray
Supporters of the last true outsider presidential candidate see similarities, but fewer openings, for the new one.
“As Biden rises, Lucy Flores watches from a distance,” by Holly Bailey
The woman whose complaint about Biden's hands-iness rattled Democrats has largely been sidelined.
Details from a closed-door meeting between the AFL-CIO and the 2020 Democrats' campaigns, where they were put on notice about trade.
“Why a race-baiting Trump is courting black voters,” by Reid J. Epstein and Jonathan Martin
The below-the-radar campaign to reach voters who, above the radar, feel very insulted and scared.
DETROIT — “We're going to dance,” said the DJ, “before it gets too crowded in here.”
It was late Thursday afternoon at a downtown club, with Cory Booker (N.J.) just a few minutes away from his first post-debate rally. There was still plenty of space to roam, or dance, or head to the open bar, under a screen that urged voters to text “JUSTICE” to join the senator from New Jersey's campaign. Some in the crowd still had doubts about supporting Booker over a candidate such as Joe Biden.
“America has shown that it's got some real problems,” said Michelle Lawson, 58, a local university administrator. “There's a lot of racism in this country that's become even more obvious than it was. I think we're back to asking, 'Is America ready for another black president?' I really worry about that.”
Booker, one of very few Democrats seen to have performed strongly at both Democratic debates, is trying to direct that buzz and energy into votes. It has been harder than many people expected. No other candidate has hit the traditional metrics — Iowa staff, endorsements, media hits and good debates — with so little reward in the early polls.
The next few weeks for Booker could answer one of the primary's big questions: Do moderate Democrats want an alternative to Joe Biden? Multiple campaigns, Booker's included, have been surprised by the resiliency of Elizabeth Warren, who has embraced more left-wing policies than Booker has and who has definitively fought back from single digits into contention in early states. Some of those same campaigns have been looking for voters inclined to pick an “electable” candidate to look away from Biden.
That hasn't happened yet. Some of the voters who came to see Booker in Detroit were longtime fans; some were looking for electability but didn't know more.
“We need somebody to bring us together, whether it's Mr. Booker, whether it's Amy Klobuchar, whether it's Joe Biden,” said Dan Navejar, 50, as he waited for Booker to arrive. “I heard Michael Moore say that the only candidate who could unite everyone would be Michelle Obama, but she don't want it because she saw what her husband went through. If she was to announce tomorrow, I think all these candidates would drop out and they'd be on their knees begging to be her VP.”
Biden's argument for his candidacy — that America needs to return to decency and that when it does it can lead the world in innovation and quality of life — is echoed by a number of candidates in the middle of the field. Booker's stump in Detroit, intended as the first stop of a three-city “Rise” campaign, was a reminder that other candidates had been talking like Biden even before the former vice president entered the race.
“Other nations do things that we used to brag about,” said Booker, in a riff on how America had fallen behind on high-speed rail. “We need to have leaders in our party not just speaking about what we're against; we need a vision of what we are for. It's not enough to say 'I want to beat the Republicans.' "
Twenty-two hours before he arrived at his rally, Booker had been the most effective of multiple Democrats who took on Biden at the debate. New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand had gotten tangled in an argument about an old Biden op-ed that she said was critical of women working outside the home; Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) had not landed a blow in exchanges about health care or Biden's flip on the Hyde Amendment, which bans taxpayer funds for abortions.
But the voters who assembled for Booker said he'd attacked Biden without looking too mean or desperate; one brought a packet of Kool-Aid, as a reference to a line Booker dropped on Biden when the former vice president repeated negative data on Newark's police department.
“He came after Biden the same way Kamala came against him in June,” said Arthur Augustus, 32. “Joe Biden ran for president multiple times and lost. Hillary Clinton lost twice and people told her: Go away. I actually think Biden would suppress turnout, like she did.” Asked about the idea that Democrats were attacking Barack Obama's legacy when they grappled with Biden, Augustus shook his head. “If he can't stand up on his own merits, why is he on that stage?”
People around Booker were satisfied with the debate, even if they had learned not to expect a breakout, even if they were frustrated that Harris had one in that June debate.
On Saturday, Booker and Biden appeared back-to-back at AFSCME’s candidate forum, making no attacks whatsoever on each other. As Biden left the stage, co-moderator Jon Ralston told Biden that he had won, in a way; he’d gone over his time even more than Booker.
The mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio, wrenched the nation's attention away from other news, and it redirected the candidates, too. Rep. Tim Ryan pf Ohio told MSNBC that he was returning to Ohio and “suspending” campaigning to focus on his district; his campaign did not immediately clarify what came next. On CNN, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) called for Republicans to end the summer recess and “let us sit down and work on the kind of legislation that we need.”
The rapid, tragic turn did something else to Democrats: It hit “pause” on a debate over whether they were being too negative about President Barack Obama and his political legacy. The idea that Democrats were bashing Obama came first from his former vice president, Joe Biden, as he diverted a question from New York Mayor Bill de Blasio about Obama-era deportations of undocumented immigrants.
“The president came along, and he's the guy that came up with the idea the first time ever, dealing with the 'dreamers,' " Biden said, referring to a group of young adults brought to the country as children “To compare him to Donald Trump, I think is absolutely bizarre.”
For the next 48 hours, the idea that Democrats were focusing more on Obama than on attacking Trump percolated throughout cable news. MSNBC's Joe Scarborough and Joy Reid accused Democrats of losing their focus: “Hit Trump, not Obama,” Scarborough said. On Saturday morning, Biden's campaign emailed donors to ask for help defending Obama from Democratic turncoats.
“Democrats onstage seemed more determined to criticize President Obama’s record than President Trump’s,” the email read. “As Joe always says: President Obama was a great president. We don’t say that enough.”
In reality, Democrats on the debate stage never attacked Obama by name and criticized his policies only when asked by moderators whether Obama's deportation policy was egregious. The overall narrative was Biden's; he had been accusing Democrats who wanted to implement single-payer health care of destroying the system Obama had created, and for the first time in a while, he was shaping the party's debate. On Saturday morning, at a labor forum in Las Vegas, Biden leaped up and turned back to the moderators when they began pushing him on the appeal of Medicare-for-all.
“I'll tell you what: I'm against any Republican who wants to get rid of Obamacare,” Biden said. “I'm against any Democrat who wants to get rid of Obamacare.”
This story line was obviously good for Biden, but some Democrats were finding effective answers. Asked in Las Vegas about Democrats criticizing Obama, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) poured credit on the former president for fighting to create the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau even when “advisers,” whom she did not name, said that it was not worth it. At the AFSCME forum, Julián Castro, HUD secretary under Obama, rejected the idea that he was criticizing the last Democratic president; he was, he explained, praising him for evolving on deportation.
“The administration got better over time on immigration,” he said. “I joined the administration in July of 2014. By that time and through the end of the administration, as you all know, what happened was that the number of deportations went down significantly … so there is no comparison between Obama and Trump.”
Eight Democrats have qualified for the party's next debates, in September, after Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota announced that she had received more than 130,000 donations. Klobuchar had notched 2 percent or better in more than four polls, so she is guaranteed to join Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Beto O'Rourke, Pete Buttigieg and Cory Booker onstage.
In the wake of Wednesday's debate, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii announced that she, too, had crossed the 130,000-donation mark, after tens of thousands more people gave to her campaign. But she's hit 2 percent in just one poll; Julián Castro and Andrew Yang, who have also hit the magic donation number, have each reached 2 percent in three polls.
The 2020 field is shrinking again, with former senator from Alaska Mike Gravel — an 89-year-old iconoclast who ran a “patio campaign” to win access to the televised debates — beginning his exit from the race.
“As the campaign ends, we're going to help build institutions on the left which can grow power, shape policy, and create strong activists for the long haul,” Gravel wrote on his Twitter account. “To do this, we are donating our funds to charity and forming the Gravel Institute, a leftist think tank.”
The “we” in those statements referred to Gravel's young campaign volunteers, led by Henry Williams and David Oks, who discovered the former senator's table-pounding 2008 debate appearances online then talked him into running. Gravel, who had been writing a revised version of his book “Citizen Power,” never made a campaign appearance; he instead loaned his name and identity to teenagers with slogans such as “compost the rich.” Their pitch: Get at least 65,000 donations, of any size, to put Gravel into at least one debate.
Gravel hit that mark shortly before the second debate but never got his shot onstage; DNC rules allowed candidates to hit the magic donor number or hit 1 percent in three polls, and in any tiebreaker, polls counted more than donors. And after July, any debates would require candidates to cross both polling and donor thresholds.
So Gravel will not get the confrontation he wanted, a chance to face down Joe Biden and other candidates he doesn't trust. The one-of-a-kind campaign did reintroduce him to young left-wing voters, though, and in May, when he talked with The Trailer, he suggested that he wanted to help the campaign of Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii when his campaign was over.
“She's got such gravitas,” Gravel said. “This is a funny word for me to use, but she's a serious person. She's unflappable. She addresses these issues head-on without any flinching. She took on Obama when he was president and he she was just a House member, then she had the courage to resign from the leadership of the Democratic Party because Debbie Wasserman Schultz was dealing from the bottom of the deck against Bernie.”
Gabbard and the other 23 Democrats remaining in the race will be back on the trail this week.
Beto O'Rourke. He scrapped most of his weekend schedule to return to El Paso after a mass shooting claimed the lives of at least 20 Texans; he'll return to the trail, pending further changes, with a Thursday trip to Iowa.
Bernie Sanders. He's returning to Southern California after the weekend's swing through Nevada, with town halls on immigration and housing followed by a rally in Long Beach. The issue-specific town halls have taken a larger role in Sanders's schedule; at this point four years ago, his campaign was more focused on mass rallies, to break through the impression that he was a fringe candidate.
Joe Biden. He returns to Iowa on Wednesday for his longest trip so far: nine appearances, including one at the Iowa State Fair.
Amy Klobuchar. She headed to California after Nevada's AFSCME conference, with a Sunday speech in Orange County and a Monday address in San Diego to the UnidosUS Annual Conference.
Cory Booker. On Monday, he'll be the sole presidential candidate at the National Funeral Home Directors and Morticians Association National Convention and Exposition.
Andrew Yang. He's back in New Hampshire for a Monday meeting with voters in Keene.
Elizabeth Warren. She's making the Iowa State Fair into one stop on a multiday bus tour, starting out Wednesday in Council Bluffs and finishing Saturday at the Des Moines Register's fair “soap box.”
John Delaney. He's barnstorming Iowa all week, in the run-up to the state fair, with multiple events each day with county Democratic parties; on Sunday alone that meant stops in Fremont, Ringgold, Union and Madison counties.
John Hickenlooper. He returns to Iowa on Tuesday for a series of talks with county Democrats and an ethanol informational tour.
It's the hottest trend in presidential politics: announcing that you're not going to run, then changing your mind months later. Tom Steyer did it last month, and according to CNBC's Brian Schwartz, attorney Michael Avenatti has begun thinking anew about the White House.
“I have the name ID,” he told Schwartz, “and everyone knows I’m one of the few effective fighters that the Dems have.”
Almost a year has passed since Avenatti's only major political speech — an address at the annual Democratic Wing Ding, where he urged his party to “hit harder” when the president and Republicans attacked them. Four months later, he announced that he not run, explaining that his family was not behind him.
For the next nine months, he went through a tabloid scouring, from his ex-wife serving him with a judgment debtor's notice, to being arrested on charges of allegedly trying to extort Nike, to federal prosecutors charging him with fraud to divert money that was intended for his most famous client, Stormy Daniels.
Why consider another run? Avenatti claimed two things: Even Donald Trump had started from behind in the polls and that the current candidates were too wimpy. “Why don’t they call it like it is and call Trump out for his rhetoric and its consequences?” he tweeted after Saturday's mass shooting in El Paso.
But the tone and momentum of the Democrats' campaigns has demonstrated why they don't want, or need, an Avenatti candidacy. Taking Avenatti's argument seriously, and not as a stunt, his main claims just aren't true.
Avenatti claimed that Donald Trump was polling in single digits “two years” away from the 2016 election. While most polls didn't even ask for voters' opinions on Trump in November 2014, it's hardly relevant; at this point in 2015, at a similar distance from the Iowa caucuses, Trump polled at 20.3 percent in that state and 23.2 percent nationwide. He was, by this point, the clear “front-runner.” And as this newsletter has discussed before, Republican voters in 2015 had a keenness for non-politicians that Democratic voters in 2019 do not.
Technically, there is nothing stopping any Democrat from seeking a spot on a primary ballot until December. If and when a new candidate jumps in, he or she will have to start paying states for ballot access; lining up delegate slates; and the other grunt work of campaigning. Anyone can threaten to run, but after a point, the threats stop being serious.
. . . four days until presidential candidates start arriving at the Iowa State Fair
. . . 24 days until the cutoff for the September debates
. . . 31 days until CNN's climate forum