In this edition: Democrats and the difficulty of "making it about Trump," the state of the race in Iowa before the state fair, and a Medicare fight that's going to happen sooner than later.

O'Hare Airport is a beautiful place that no one should ever criticize, and this is The Trailer.

DES MOINES — For nearly three years, Democrats have fretted that talking too much about Donald Trump would detract from their message and repeat the mistakes that undid Hillary Clinton. On Wednesday, Democrats mostly talked about Donald Trump.

Four of them delivered speeches that clearly labeled Trump a racist who was ripping the country apart. The main event, in terms of TV time, was Joe Biden's address in Burlington, Iowa — the only speech cable news broadcast live. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and former Texas congressman Beto O'Rourke also went to the microphones, with O'Rourke leading a rally while the president visited El Paso. 

“This president has fanned the flames of white supremacy in this nation,” Biden said. “His low-energy, vacant-eyed mouthing of the words written for him condemning white supremacists this week fooled no one.”

Democrats had been here before. In August 2016, after Steve Bannon was plucked from Breitbart to lead Trump's campaign, Hillary Clinton delivered a speech denouncing the GOP's nominee as a racist, “taking hate groups mainstream, and helping a radical fringe take over the Republican Party.” Trump's victory, with plenty of postgame celebration from Bannon, became seen as evidence that Clinton muddled her own message by focusing so much on Trump. Why would a new campaign to discredit Trump as a racist work, when the last campaign didn't?

“There's a real difference between warning people about how something will be, versus people being able to see it with their own eyes and hear it with their own ears,” said Rep. Brendan Boyle, a Democrat from Philadelphia who has endorsed Biden. “In 2016, you could warn people about this possibility and people would dismiss it. But now, having a mass murderer kill 22 people [and] quote Trump verbatim, it's different.” (The El Paso shooter used “invasion” language similar to Trump but did not quote him directly.)

Not every Democrat agrees, and other swing-state members of Congress, who did not want to criticize Wednesday's speeches, said they were unsure whether the new rhetoric would connect. But Trump's persistent unpopularity, alongside polls that show most voters believing that he holds racist views, has made the 2020 candidates bolder. And the four Democrats took markedly different approaches. Biden's tone was more sorrowful than angry, acknowledging that America had often been struck through with bigotry but saying it overcame when “courts, press, and, yes, presidents” fought back.

“Thomas Jefferson wrote what many believe is the most important document in human history,” Biden said. “But he was also a slaveholder. We’ve never lived up to our American ideals. Jefferson himself didn’t.”

Booker, who spoke at the Charleston church where a white supremacist committed mass murder in 2015, was less forgiving of the American past.

“Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, homophobia, xenophobia, misogyny — these tactics aren’t a new perversion of our politics. They’ve been ingrained in our politics since our founding,” Booker said. “Generations of politicians have used fear of the 'other' for political gain, and that is certainly the case today.”

O'Rourke, who bracketed Trump's appearance in Iowa with a rally and media interviews, pointedly called the president a “white supremacist.” Bullock, who spoke to a smaller group at the National Press Club, dealt more directly with the politics of 2020 and noted that white supremacists had killed more Americans since 9/11 than foreign terrorists.

“Here's a sentence I thought I would never utter: The president gives aid and comfort to the enemies of democracy abroad and incites the enemies of decency at home," Bullock said. Adding that he understood "gun country," the Montanan vouched for many Trump voters: "I know their hearts, and their hearts are not with the white supremacists and domestic terrorists."

Biden's speech drew the broadest praise of his campaign; Clinton's 2016 speech had been widely praised, too. Like Biden's, it had homed in on Trump's own rhetoric. With no Trump presidency to reflect on, it was less inspiring than predictive.

“He would form a deportation force to round up millions of immigrants and kick them out of the country,” Clinton said. “He’d ban Muslims around the world, billions of them, from entering our country just because of their religion.”

Looking at both speeches, Democrats argued that today's candidates had two advantages: Trump's presidency was no longer a theory, and the media no longer covers “racism” accusations as a he-said, she-said. When Clinton delivered her speech, Trump's response was to call her a bigot, bending the discussion into yet another day of campaign attacks. “Trump and Clinton hurl the R-word,” read one headline, analyzing how the “war of words went nuclear.” Trump suggested that Clinton was trying to distract from negative coverage, which wasn't wrong, but which clouded the speech's effectiveness.

“I think his racism is more widely acknowledged by the press compared to 2016,” said Brian Fallon, Clinton's 2016 spokesman. The 2016 speech, he said, “got a lot of 'trade barbs' headlines.”

Trump's campaign tried out a similar fightback on Wednesday, sharing opposition about Biden's past conflicts on civil rights. Biden was comparing Trump to George Wallace, but he, unlike the president, had known George Wallace and even called for a “liberal George Wallace” to guide the Democrats of the 1970s past the backlashes to busing and other civil rights programs.

This proved far less effective than it had three years ago, with few stories about the Biden speech playing up Trump's attacks. The Muscatine Journal and the Quad City Times, the two newspapers that cover Burlington's media market (with a shared owner), gave dual headlines to Trump and Biden, under a banner about the mass shootings. While Clinton's speech was conceived as a way to change and control the news cycle, Biden's dug out a space in a Trump-centric news cycle. As rhetoric, it also repackaged some of his campaign themes — “America is an idea,” a “fight for the soul of this nation” — with high drama. 

But there are several schools of thought about what to do when the national conversation lurches toward Trump and racism. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren, who were also in Iowa on Wednesday, kept to their plans for the week by telling small-town audiences about their economic plans; but when asked by the New York Times, Warren called Trump a “white supremacist.” Her speech in Council Bluffs, a suburb of Omaha, did not make the front page.

READING LIST

“The Iowa State Fair can make — or break — a presidential candidate,” by Holly Bailey

A walk-up to the next five days in presidential politics.

“Elizabeth Warren's classroom strategy,” by Rebecca Traister

Do voters really want to be led by an academic? The answer has been changing over time.

“Democrats turn to emotional language on gun issues,” by Sean Sullivan

The continuing shift on an issue the party used to shy away from.

“Joe Biden is coming for your legal weed,” by Chris Roberts

Most of the 2020 Democrats want to legalize marijuana. Most of them.

“Biden, Booker attack Trump with scathing words — and different messages,” by Cleve R. Wootson Jr. and Matt Viser

The state of the “we're in trouble” speeches.

“How a criminal investigation in Georgia set an ominous tone for African-American voters,” by Jon Ward

The backstory of a case that made it harder to vote in a swing state.

ON THE TRAIL

DES MOINES — The Iowa State Fair, which began this morning and will roll through Aug. 18, is one of the great, strange crucibles of primary politics. Every serious candidate for president, minus the current president, will be there. Every one will make remarks and take questions at an official soapbox sponsored by the Des Moines Register. Every one will be asked, multiple times, whether he or she will see the Butter Cow.

This year's fair also marks the halfway point in the long battle for Iowa; it began on Dec. 31, 2018, when Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts announced her presidential bid, and it will conclude with the caucuses on Feb. 3, 2020. This is as good a time as any to look at what has changed since Warren walked into a bowling alley in Council Bluffs and kicked this off.

No one is truly dominating the race. Iowa has been polled by just a few trusted pollsters, just a handful of times: by the Des Moines Register-CNN Iowa poll, by CBS News-YouGov, by USA Today/Suffolk; and by Monmouth. Only twice have those pollsters found any candidate — Joe Biden — breaking the 30 percent mark. Only two candidates, Biden and Sanders, have polled higher than the mid-teens.

That suggests a lot more indecision that we've seen at similar points in recent primaries. The first few months of 2007 were a scrum between three candidates, and at this point in the race, Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and Barack Obama were roughly tied in the mid-20s. At this point in the much less crowded 2016 race, Clinton's support in Iowa was close to 50 percent, which is exactly where it ended up on caucus night. There were Clinton voters, and there was a pool of “anti-Clinton” voters, who had different motivations but wound up united behind Bernie Sanders. Biden is running about as strong as Clinton did 12 years ago, but the alternatives are further behind him.

Democrats like most of their candidates but have grown to like Warren more. In the December edition of the Iowa poll, Biden enjoyed a 67-point net favorable rating; Sanders, a net 52-point favorable rating; Warren, a net 44-point favorable rating. In June, both Biden and Sanders had taken on a little water but remained wildly popular with Democrats; Biden held a 48-point favorable rating, Sanders was at 45. Warren, meanwhile, had risen, with a 54-point favorable rating. Monmouth's polling found the same trend, albeit with a steeper decline for Sanders. Harris, even after two debates where she stayed on the offensive, has retained high favorables, though lower than Biden's and Warren's.

It's not clear if Warren's popularity is sustainable; she may have been helped, in the short run, by a random debate stage scatter that kept her from direct confrontation with Biden, a candidate she has a history with. (They were on the opposite sides of several financial restructuring issues.)

The “endorsement primary” is a mess. When Barack Obama touched down in Iowa in 2007, he had two statewide elected Democrats ready to endorse him: Attorney General Tom Miller and Treasurer Michael Fitzgerald. Eight years later, shortly after she announced, Hillary Clinton scored the same endorsements.

This year? Fitzgerald is still neutral, and Miller has endorsed Steve Bullock. There is no clear pattern in state legislative endorsements, which resound more in Iowa than in some other states; Cory Booker picked up another one on Thursday, the day that Monmouth's poll showed him slipping to 1 percent.

Not every campaign is serious, but every serious campaign is contesting Iowa. It's not like some years, when candidates who found no traction in Iowa pivoted to focus on New Hampshire or later states. Biden has 75 paid, full-time staff; Warren and Harris both have more than 65; Buttigieg has “more than 60"; Sanders has 52; Booker has “nearly 50"; O'Rourke has 44; Gillibrand has 35; and John Delaney, who entered the race before most people were paying attention, has 20. (Delaney is still at 1 percent in the latest Monmouth poll.) The few candidates that have risen out of the doldrums since January, such as Julián Castro, responded by staffing up in Iowa.

Still, eight months in, we can see who can and can't draw crowds without a local party or organization drumming up support. Sanders, Biden, Warren, Harris and Buttigieg have all drawn crowds in the high hundreds, sometimes nudging past 1,000. No one else has done this in Iowa. Two candidates, the first-to-announce Delaney and the almost-last-to-announce Joe Sestak, are outpacing everyone else in retail campaign stops. But both are in weaker positions than the last candidates who turned time on the ground into votes. At this point in 2007, future caucus-winner Mike Huckabee was inching into the high single digits; at this point in 2011, future caucus-winner Rick Santorum was in the mid-single digits. Delaney and Sestak barely register.

AD WATCH

Kamala Harris, “Me, Maya, and Mom. This not the first ad from a Democratic presidential candidate in Iowa; John Delaney was first to the airwaves, followed by Tulsi Gabbard, Eric Swalwell and Tom Steyer. But it's the first buy from a campaign that has raised enough money to compete through the caucuses and from a candidate who has polled in double digits. It's a two-fer: a short biographical story about growing up with a mother who would “sit up trying to figure out” how to pay the bills, then a rundown of her basic ideas. A middle-class tax cut, Medicare-for-all and equal pay — after eight months of noise, that's the pitch. 

“That's what I'm fighting for,” Harris says. “Real relief for families like yours, not in 20 years, not in 30, starting on my first day as president.” That line could be read in several ways, but in its criticism of incremental change, it echoes what voters have been seeing in Steyer's ads and rebuts what they have heard from Biden on the trail.

POLL WATCH

Iowa Democratic caucuses (Monmouth, 681 registered voters)

Joe Biden — 28% ( 1)
Elizabeth Warren — 19% ( 12)
Kamala Harris — 11% ( 4)
Bernie Sanders —- 9% (-6)
Pete Buttigieg — 8% (-1)
Amy Klobuchar — 3% (-1)
Tom Steyer — 3% ( 3)
Kirsten Gillibrand — 2% ( 1)
Andrew Yang — 2% ( 1)
Steve Bullock — 2% ( 2)
Cory Booker — 1% (-2)
John Delaney — 1% ( 0)
Tulsi Gabbard — 1% ( 1)
John Hickenlooper — 1% ( 1)

Monmouth had not polled Iowa since April and before Biden officially entered the race. But this poll provided the latest evidence of Warren growing her base as Democratic voters begin to view other candidates less positively; she is now the Democrat with the highest favorability rating among her party's voters, narrowly edging Biden, and she's the top second choice. The warning signs for her, or any other Biden challenger, are in the health-care crosstabs; by a 35-point margin, Democrats prefer a plan that would allow people to “opt into Medicare or keep their private coverage” to a Medicare-for-all plan that would eliminate private insurance. The good news for the anti-Bidens: Voters aren't sure who supports which plan. And the good news for Andrew Yang is that he now has a fourth poll qualifying him for the September debates.

Pennsylvania Democratic primary (Franklin & Marshall, 295 Democrats)

Joe Biden — 28%
Elizabeth Warren — 21%
Bernie Sanders — 12%
Kamala Harris — 8%
Pete Buttigieg — 6%
Cory Booker — 2%
Beto O’Rourke — 1%
Steve Bullock — 1%
Tulsi Gabbard — 1%

The same pollster finds President Trump heading into 2020 with low favorable ratings in Pennsylvania, with 50 percent of independents saying they will oppose him no matter who Democrats nominate. The Democratic poll has a smaller sample size, which could explain why Biden did so much better in a recent Quinnipiac poll of the state. But the relative weakness for Sanders, seen in that aforementioned Quinnipiac poll, too, is important: Pennsylvania is one of the largest “closed” primary states, where independents cannot cross over. Sanders's biggest wins came in states where any voter could pull a Democratic ballot, like Michigan, Indiana and Wisconsin. 

DEMS IN DISARRAY

Last weekend's Democratic forum in Las Vegas, sponsored by AFSCME, was quickly overshadowed by the news coming from El Paso and Dayton. But it was the first place where a new debate got hashed out: one between candidates who warn that single-payer health care would tear up the health plans unions had fought for, and unions that support that model in the long run. AFSCME, for example, had endorsed “Medicare-for-all” two years earlier.

“I'd love to have an honest dialogue about what our health-care system looks like and what we need to do about it,” AFSCME President Lee Saunders said in an interview. “I mean, we are very clear about our position. We support single payer. We believe in that. We believe that every American has the right to decent, affordable, quality health care, period.”

The conversation about health care and unions is not too complicated. Most major unions, including the AFL-CIO and its affiliates, support an end goal of single-payer health care; the wrinkle is over what happens to their own plans in the meantime. In a 2017 resolution during the last major Medicare-for-all debate, the AFL-CIO affirmed its “long-standing goal” to “move expeditiously toward a single-payer system, like Medicare-for-all, that provides universal coverage using a social insurance model, while retaining a role for workers’ health plans.” Indeed, that had been the group's position since 2009; universal health care would mean one less thing for labor to worry about when bargaining.

The Las Vegas forum brought some of the tension in that position — and the differences Democrats had with it — to the fore. HuffPost's Amanda Terkel repeatedly grilled the candidates, such as Joe Biden and John Delaney, who had warned that Medicare-for-all would demolish what labor had worked for. Both candidates steered the conversation elsewhere.

“I'm against any Republican who wants to get rid of Obamacare, and I'm against any Democrat who wants to get rid of Obamacare,” Biden said.

This was beside the point, which was that labor was happier with the march toward single-payer health care than many candidates were ready to admit. Sara Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants, called the idea that Medicare-for-all was bad for labor “absurd.”

“Is the idea that we want to take part in a system that is broken for our members and continues to be a drain for us at the bargaining table?” she asked. “In the current system, you're often just battling it out with the companies to try to hang on to what you have.”

Nelson was not the only union leader exhausted by the use of labor to argue against a national health plan. “I think it's a false choice,” SEIU President Mary Kay Henry told HuffPost's Dave Jamieson, “and I really resent the 16 million workers who joined together and bargained for better health plans being pitted against millions of Americans struggling to get health-care coverage."

But while no union has adopted Biden's framing, that single-payer would “get rid” of the insurance workers like, labor demands a bit of wiggle room. Medicare-for-all legislation assumes a two- or four-year ramp-up, a period where all matter of private plans were shrunk and eliminated as soon as those people got on Medicare. At AFSCME's forum, as in interviews after the Detroit debates, Elizabeth Warren emphasized that labor would get a major role in the phase-in.

“The first part of the transition as I see it, is the unions are at the table,” she said. “Nobody does anything without working people well represented. You know, there are a lot of folks out there in a lot of different positions in terms of health care plans.”

2020

Steve Bullock. His National Press Club address doubled as another warning about Democrats moving left. “We are well on our way to losing this election, well before it even has started,” he said, focusing specifically on the candidates who wanted to replace the health insurance system with a single-payer plan.

Tim Ryan. After several days of work and media availability in Dayton, he returned to Youngstown to lead a one-day, six-stop “caravan” to Louisville — a series of rallies across Ohio, culminating in Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's hometown (though not near his home). The gun safety group Moms Demand Action is participating in the "caravan for change," which is designed to pressure Republicans into allowing a gun control vote.

Bernie Sanders. He visited Los Angeles's “skid row” as part of a tour to emphasize his housing plan: cracking down on gentrification and landlords to make more stock available and make housing into a human right.

Tulsi Gabbard. She got an endorsement from former senator from Alaska and two-time presidential candidate Mike Gravel, just a day after Gravel released a video endorsement of Bernie Sanders. "I believe Tulsi is the only candidate with the experience, conviction and motivation to get us out of costly regime change wars and end the new Cold War and nuclear arms race," Gravel wrote in a statement distributed by the Gabbard campaign. "Congresswoman Gabbard is the only candidate that can unify our country and defeat Donald Trump in 2020.”

Elizabeth Warren. She proposed a new Office of Broadband Access that would spend billions on making high-speed Internet available everywhere, with a special grant for Native American communities that have lagged behind badly.

John Hickenlooper. He has begun to talk more freely about the possibility of running for Senate in Colorado, admitting that if his presidential campaign sputters, the option of another campaign is out there.

Beto O'Rourke. He has canceled campaign events in Iowa this week to remain in El Paso.

COUNTDOWN

… one day until the Iowa Democratic Wing Ding in Clear Lake
… 11 days until the Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum in Sioux City
… 13 days until the Iowa AFL-CIO's gathering in Iowa
… 19 days until the Mississippi gubernatorial primary runoff
… 20 days until the cutoff for the next Democratic debates