In this edition: the fallout from a pivotal DNC meeting, the activists who won/lost a climate debate, and a poll confirming that everyone's still pretty angry.
It's a black fly in your chardonnay; it's a town hall, when you wanted a debate. This is The Trailer.
SAN FRANCISCO — No chairs were thrown. No one walked out. Only one presidential candidate used his time onstage to attack the party's debate rules. By post-2016 political standards, the Democratic National Committee's summer meeting was a success.
But while the meeting resolved one nagging issue — there will be no debate solely focused on climate change — it left a few others simmering. A plan to allow “virtual caucuses” in the few remaining in-person caucus states hit a major snag. Tempers flared between national party leaders and some more left-leaning DNC members. The party's debate rules, which remained intact, are taking more friendly fire. And the era of the DNC raising less money than its Republican counterparts won't end anytime soon.
There's no “coronation,” but activists remain on watch. Most of the Democrats' 2020 agonies can be traced back to the 2016 primary: the decision by DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz that set up late debates, the early endorsements for Hillary Clinton from many “superdelegates,” and a hack of internal DNC email that found some employees grumbling about Bernie Sanders's refusal to leave the race after falling behind.
The debate rules have been “fixed” — more about that below. But the DNC's meeting also made clear that several candidates have made inroads with the party's establishment, and that there is no rush to pick a front-runner. Joe Biden's campaign manager Greg Schultz held a briefing for DNC members, but key staff for Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, Cory Booker and Julián Castro fanned out across the Union Square hotel.
Every leading campaign is talking, and has been talking, to DNC members who could vote as delegates if there is no clear nominee heading into the party's 2020 convention. And several of those DNC members said it was still possible for a top-tier candidate to break out.
Outside the meeting rooms, though, the worry about Democrats locking out insurgents continued to percolate. One particularly bitter example came when a few dozen supporters of Kamala Harris, who had credentials to enter the “meet the candidates” forum, chanted down the hallway from climate change activists, cheered inside the room for Harris, and left when Harris wrapped — as Bernie Sanders was taking the stage. On Twitter, the attacks on Harris supporters for a pretty typical (if ill-advised) “visibility” were relentless; anything can become a story about “the establishment” working to protect itself.
The “virtual caucuses” are in trouble. It was supposed to be a solution to the problem of caucuses — a truly “Democratic” party couldn't have so many contests where voters with busy work or child-care schedules couldn't vote. For the past year, Democrats had worked toward “virtual” votes in Iowa and Nevada, where busy people could cast online ballots, their votes added to a special total that would be released with the caucus vote.
“Nevadans are used to early voting, so we'll offer that option from February 15 through February 18 ," Nevada Democratic Chairman William McCurdy told reporters on Thursday. “And for people who are not able to attend, we will offer a virtual caucus as well. It's going to expand [turnout] tremendously.”
Or not. Not long after McCurdy said that, Democrats revealed in a closed-door Rules & Bylaws meeting that teleconferencing, one idea for the virtual caucus process, was vulnerable to hacking. This could have been the meeting that clarified how virtual caucuses would work, but instead, the next five months are going to determine whether the party can pull it off.
The climate debate was never going to happen. The fight over a climate-specific debate was expected to get bitter, and it did. On Thursday, a somewhat gauzy compromise passed through committee, encouraging candidates to participate in forums that could, in some ways, resemble debates, something that already has been happening. On Saturday, the full DNC voted to scrap that compromise, and only 137 DNC members voted to save it.
The DNC's frustration at this occasionally boiled over, with DNC members who scrapped the compromise accusing climate-change advocates of minimizing other issues — racial justice, gun violence, the list went on.
“People have made it abundantly clear that climate is an intersectional issue,” said RL Miller, the chair of the California Democratic Party’s environmental caucus, and advocate for a climate debate. “It is a public health issue. It is an immigration issue. It's a national security issue.”
The DNC members who won out were in sync with DNC Chairman Tom Perez. “We've received requests from somewhere between 40 and 50 organizations requesting single-issue debates,” he said in an interview. “What they all have in common is that they involve issues that are incredibly important. Immigration. Guns. Democracy reform. They are all righteous issues. But the reality is the president, and I saw it firsthand, is the multitasker in chief. He can't just say: Oh, I'm going to just do guns today.”
Those other debate rules aren't changing. At least four candidates who expect to be cut from next month's debates spent the weekend criticizing the DNC for its nine-month-old qualifying rules. Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado did it from the stage of the “meet the candidates” forum; Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, Tom Steyer and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii did it from a distance. While Gabbard herself is out of the country, fulfilling Army National Guard duties, her campaign released a memo asking why a Boston Globe-Suffolk poll (in which she polled at 3 percent) and a Post and Courier-Change Research poll (2 percent) would not qualify her for the September debates.
“Crucial decisions on debate qualifications that impact the right of the American people to have the opportunity to participate fully in the Democratic process should not be made in secret by party bosses,” the memo argued.
In another memo, Steyer's campaign challenged the DNC's decision to exclude polls from Gravis and Morning Consult, which are also viewed skeptically by many media organizations.
“Steyer has polled at 7% in Morning Consult’s early states poll and 6% in Gravis’ Nevada poll, but neither of these polls are DNC-sanctioned despite coming from credible polling organizations with long track records,” Steyer's campaign wrote.
The DNC had been bracing for this. None of the debate rules will stop Bernie Sanders from participating; it was his supporters that party leaders had worried the most about. There's no effort underway to mollify the supporters of Bennet, Gabbard or other candidates with low poll numbers who argue that the rules are skewing the primary. The DNC's gist: Candidates who couldn't get traction in four or five months had only themselves to blame.
“There have been earned media opportunities for candidates,” Perez said, “and some, like Mayor Pete, used them. After his CNN town hall, he hit the threshold.”
Bennet is continuing to lobby DNC members to revisit the rule and the standards for debates, and those standards will be the same for October. It's possible that several candidates will miss the threshold for September, in part because of August's small number of polls; those candidates could then make it to the October debate, expanding the stage again. And the candidates who started with low name recognition but hit the qualifications are ready to defend the process.
“Many of the people who didn't make the debates started kind of late,” said Andrew Yang. “They were as fair and transparent as they could be. I feel well treated; I'm not sure what the DNC could have done differently.”
The joys and problems of being the left-wing policy engine of Democratic politics.
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Why Democrats haven't been interested in candidates with executive cred.
“Democrats’ health care split squeezes Senate contenders,” by Alice Ollstein and James Arkin
Most of the Democrats working to flip the Senate are distancing themselves from Medicare-for-all legislation.
The life of the voter who didn't like last cycle's choices, but wishes they hadn't been so stubborn about it.
BERKELEY, Calif. — On Saturday afternoon, as the Democratic National Committee voted to nix any chance of a single-issue “climate debate” for its presidential candidates, a few hundred activists with the Sunrise Movement were blissfully unaware.
They had gathered at a farm in northern California, holding breakout sessions and trainings in the fresh air, with very limited WiFi. As DNC members raced for their planes home, a hundred-odd Sunrise activists were learning about the "Reagan alignment," the political reality of the past 40 years, which had made it impossible to stop climate change.
“If this alignment were to break, we could effectively define a new political moment and a new political era,” said a Sunrise organizer named Ruby Dutcher. “We like to call it the people's alignment. That's why we're trying to build to the Green New Deal not just through our movement, but in solidarity with other movements.”
The Sunrise Movement, founded six months after the 2016 election, was the driving force behind a “climate debate.” It left the DNC meeting having won the argument in several ways. More than 40 percent of DNC members had wanted to loosen “multicandidate forum” rules, the main impediment to the debate; two upcoming climate forums, hosted by CNN and NBC, would never have happened without months of rowdy organizing.
“This wasn’t the win we were hoping for, but because of the hard work of thousands of you around the country, we cemented the climate crisis as a top issue in the 2020 election,” Sunrise's co-founder Varshini Prakash said in an email to supporters. "That’s historic."
Sunrise's goal, as seen at the training, is bigger than party politics. It's a long-term recalibration of the entire political system, so that reorienting the economy to fight climate change becomes inevitable. It's why the Green New Deal was designed as a jobs plan and an intersectional racial justice plan; the latter part confused some Democrats, but the first helped them pivot away from the tax-focused, incrementalist approach that has proven to be a political loser.
Getting Democrats to change meant getting in their faces, where the media would be. The highest-profile Sunrise action to date was the November 2018 sit-in at incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office. But months earlier, Sunrise activists had disrupted a DNC meeting to raise the profile of a vote that would have barred any fossil-fuel industry donations.
The actions in San Francisco were much bigger, with around 250 activists walking in single file, singing protest songs (“They try to stop us, but we keep coming back”), and filling a hallway where 2020 Democrats were invited to speak to them.
“These people are not protesting so that people staying in this hotel know about the climate debate,” said Alex O'Keefe, a videographer for the group. “They are performing for people like you, like NBC, like CNN. When we stage anything, we create formations, so it looks like the maximum amount of people are there. One hundred people can look like a thousand people, if they're in the right position. And they can hold people accountable.”
Sunrise published livestreams not just of the protests, but of the meetings where Democrats were squabbling over the possibility of a climate debate. The group frequently controlled the narrative around the climate debate; it wasn't like the DNC was releasing rebuttal videos. That left simmering anger at a party committee that has years of trust issues with activists; the irony was that Sunrise was getting about as much as it could from Democrats, short of a climate debate.
In the halls, where candidates such as Tim Ryan and Andrew Yang cheerfully greeted Sunrise activists, Democrats said that the strategy of pressuring the party had started to work. To change the paradigm, it was time to pressure other groups of people who had not bent.
“I think it's incumbent upon us as activists to now turn our attention to the media,” said Christine Pelosi, a California DNC member who had tried and failed to pass a resolution refocusing the remaining debates on key issues. “Okay, ABC: You put Sean Spicer on 'Dancing With the Stars.' You want to rehabilitate a guy that lied about the Holocaust. Are you going to fulfill what the people want, which is to have a substantive debate among the people who are trying to replace Donald Trump?”
John Bel Edwards, “Cindy.” Louisiana's Democratic governor used his power to expand Medicaid shortly after taking office. It's been the centerpiece of his campaign, and the way this ad packages the program is telling. A cancer patient thanks the governor for the coverage she got specifically because it did not make her dependent, in the long run, on the government.
“Suddenly, I didn't have to choose between getting treatment and going bankrupt,” she says. “Now I'm back to working full time, and will see my grandchildren grow up.”
Amy McGrath, “10 Hour Bus Ride.” After a messy launch week, when she stumbled on a question about Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh (she said she would have voted to confirm him, then that she wouldn't have), McGrath is doing what first made her interesting to national Democrats: making compelling videos. This one focuses on an issue that greatly benefited Joe Manchin III in West Virginia, the fight for coal miners' pensions. “After 34 years in Washington, Mitch McConnell left our coal miners behind,” McGrath says. “Years ago.”
For most of Donald Trump's presidency, one-term former Illinois congressman Joe Walsh was on Twitter, denouncing him. Elected in the 2010 wave, ousted by a Democratic-friendly gerrymander, Walsh had voted for Trump before turning on his style, his foreign policy (“Trump was a traitor today,” Walsh wrote after last year's infamous Helsinki meeting with Russia's president), and practically everything else about him.
As first reported by The Post's Robert Costa, Walsh will now run for president in the 2020 Republican primary, offering conservatives the off-ramp they never took in 2016. Walsh expanded on his decision in a Sunday interview with ABC News, labeling Trump a “child” who was “unfit” to serve, and eating crow for the slashing style that he, Walsh, had brought to Congress.
“I helped create Trump,” Walsh said. “That's not an easy thing to say.”
Walsh's decision gives the president two high-profile primary challengers; Bill Weld, the former governor of Massachusetts and 2016 vice presidential nominee for the Libertarian Party, has been running since April. They have very little in common. Weld is the sort of moderate Republican who barely exists anymore: pro-abortion rights, pro-leaving the Affordable Care Act in place. And there is nothing in any polling to suggest that Republican primary voters want to replace Trump as their nominee.
Instead, Weld, Walsh, and former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford are running (or in Sanford's case, contemplating) media campaigns — presidential bids with little hope of acquiring delegates, but great ease with getting the media to cover them. Weld hinted at that this weekend, as he embraced Walsh's candidacy and urged on Sanford's. They take different, but quotable, approaches to the president: Weld calls him a racist unfit for the presidency, Walsh calls him a weakling and thug, and Sanford warns that he is inflating the national debt.
“I think a clear contrast between a straight-thinking individual and Donald Trump can only be refreshing,” Weld told MSNBC on Sunday. “I hope Mark Sanford, my friend from South Carolina, also will join the race.”
The question for reporters and voters: How much attention is worth paying to this? Will the RNC continue tightening primary rules to prevent competition? Will voters show up to hear Walsh, as they've been showing up (in modest numbers) for Weld? And do any moderate independents who might otherwise have voted in the Democratic primary — they can do so in New Hampshire — funnel themselves into the quixotic anti-Trump primary?
Bernie Sanders. He added a stop on a CWA picket line to his Louisville swing, and will speak on Monday to United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America (UE) — the only 2020 Democrat addressing their Pittsburgh convention. It could set up his first labor endorsement of the 2020 campaign.
Elizabeth Warren. She rallied in Seattle for the first time, drawing another crowd in the thousands just days after her 12,000-person rally in Minneapolis.
Joe Biden. He chastised reporters in New Hampshire for their coverage of a speech where he speculated on how the assassination of Barack Obama would have been traumatic for the country. “Words matter a lot,” he said. “And I got the point across. You're the only guys that didn't understand it.”
Kamala Harris. She is reportedly working on a climate plan of her own in the run-up to CNN's climate town hall.
Amy Klobuchar. She headed from the DNC meeting to New Hampshire for a series of meet-and-greets and a farm tour in Keene.
Tim Ryan. He spent the weekend after the DNC meeting in South Carolina, a state where he's had some success converting electability-focused Biden supporters.
Andrew Yang. He's on another swing through New Hampshire, where he'll release his own pre-debate climate plan.
Do you agree with the following statement? (NBC-WSJ, 1000 adults)
Our political system works only for insiders — 70%
The economy still feels rocky — 56%
People who had been ignored are being heard — 52%
A defining question in the Democratic primary is whether the country wants a return to “normal” or another wave of change. NBC's first question here finds overall anger at the “political system” just as high as it was four years ago; back then, 69 percent of people agreed with a general anti-elite statement. Voters have grown less negative about the economy, and, asked for the first time, a small majority agree that people are being heard, rather than marginalized. But the Trump campaign's plan for a Biden nomination is to force another referendum on “change,” portraying Biden and Democrats as the people who want to go back to what left people frustrated; the Trump plan for a Sanders or Warren nomination is to decry radical change that could hurt the economy.
InsleeQuest 2020. Five white guys have dropped out of the Democratic presidential primary; only one of them has inspired a sort of competition for his support. Since Wednesday, when he quit the race, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has taken calls from (at least) Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, Beto O'Rourke and Elizabeth Warren. He's in no rush to make an endorsement, but he's discovered that it would be valuable.
Biden may have talked his way out of Inslee's top tier. While Inslee criticized Biden's climate plan at the second (and for him, final) Democratic debate, Biden told a New Hampshire audience that he and Inslee were “talking about working together,” which possibly overstated the level of contact.
The other Democrats who contacted Inslee reportedly focused more on their climate ideas, asking Inslee for input, which could come after he takes a short break from campaigning. (He announced his bid for a third term in Olympia on Thursday.)
… two days until the GOP's gubernatorial runoff in Mississippi
… three days until the cutoff for the third Democratic debates
… 10 days until CNN's climate forum