In this edition: What the climate town halls changed for Democrats, a field guide to House retirement-mania, and the political gift the president handed to Democratic Senate candidates.

San Bernardino County missed out when it didn't elect Tim Heidecker, and this is The Trailer.

The remarkable thing about Wednesday's climate town halls — seven hours of CNN interviewers posing environmental questions to the 2020 Democrats — was that they weren't supposed to happen.

The Democratic National Committee had scheduled 12 primary debates, rejecting efforts to focus one on climate or to allow an extra issue-specific forum. The Sunrise Movement, which led the activist charge for a “climate debate,” insisted that a lower-stakes forum was not enough. Previous candidate town halls, hosted by MSNBC, CNN and Fox News, had never matched the ratings of the debates; it wasn't obvious that a network would hand over more free time. 

But CNN did and despite it all, Wednesday's marathon was one of the most revealing moments of the primary, with repercussions that will follow any nominee into the general election. 

Joe Biden's uneasy answer to a question about a fundraiser with a natural gas company founder emphasized how much Democrats were being pressured to turn down “dirty” money, something that has grown in salience for liberal voters since the 2016 primary. Most of the Democrats insisted that dirty industries could be forced to innovate, even when they kicked and screamed; both Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) pointed to the higher standards that cleaned up southern California's smog problem.

“They developed the catalytic converter and, lo and behold, they cut emissions,” Warren said of car companies.

Democrats will meet at least one more time, in forums sponsored by MSNBC, to talk through their climate plans, but here's where that argument stands after Wednesday. 

Democrats are done with “all of the above” energy. Twelve years ago, Barack Obama ran on an energy plan that promised three things: a long-term decline in emissions, an “energy independent” economy, and a new role for “dirty” energy such as coal. His climate plan promised to “significantly increase the resources devoted to the commercialization and deployment of low carbon coal technologies” and warned that it was “unlikely that we can meet our aggressive climate goals if we eliminate nuclear power from the table.”

“We figured out how to put a man on the moon in 10 years,” Obama told voters in Lebanon, Va., shortly before the 2008 election. “You can’t tell me we can’t figure out how to burn coal that we mine right here in the United States of America and make it work.”

No Democrat, not even Joe Biden, talks like that anymore. “No one is going to build another coal-burning [plant]," Biden said. “We've got to shut down the ones down we have, but no one is going to build a new one.” Later, when asked if he would ban hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) Biden gave a reeling answer (“we could pass national legislation, but I don't think we'd get it done”) before saying he would “would not allow any more” exploration for natural gas. 

The former vice president, of course, has premised his campaign on restoring the good feelings and political goals of the Obama years; it was significant that not even he would repeat Obama's optimistic take on fracking. The rest of the Democrats varied from phasing in a fracking ban (Sens. Cory Booker, Kamala Harris) to doing it immediately. The looming question: how to pass any of that. In 2009, Democrats got a climate change bill through the House with the support of stakeholders in the gas and mining industries.

It died in the Senate, and the lesson learned by many Democrats — and nearly all climate activists — was that those stakeholders needed to be defeated, not mollified. There's not an obvious legislative plan for doing it, but it has changed the way candidates talk. And that's setting up an eventual confrontation with unions who see climate policy as a risk to jobs.

“Trying to do this in 10 years seems, to me, to be impossible to do,” United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts told reporters yesterday. “It’s $4 trillion at cost, and we're talking about not just eliminating coal miners' jobs, which would cost our pension plans, our retiree health-care plans, and the middle-class lifestyle our members enjoy right now. It would also cost building trade jobs.”

The “Green New Deal” isn't a litmus test anymore. The Sunrise Movement, and other activists who lobbied for a climate forum, kicked off the year by defining a comprehensive “Green New Deal” as the next priority in Democratic politics. In February, every leading Democratic candidate embraced the GND “framework,” a resolution that set ambitious emissions targets and imagined a total restructuring of the economy: a job guarantee, Medicare-for-all, and restitution for communities hardest hit by climate change.

That version of the “Green New Deal” was not much discussed Wednesday. Eight candidates were asked about it, or brought it up, and each defined the Green New Deal a little differently. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who rolled out his own GND last week, referred back to that; Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) noted that she was “a co-sponsor of the Green New Deal,” referring to the Senate version of the plan; former congressman Beto O'Rourke said only that he “love[d] the framing of the Green New Deal.” Rather than a plan for the next Democratic president to move on quickly, the Green New Deal as proposed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) et. al. was mostly an idea.

“The only issue I have with the Green New Deal is the timing of the timeline,” said Andrew Yang. “I mean, they are right that we need to take urgent action, but the timeline that they have put out there would do away with commercial air travel and a lot of other things in a particular time frame, that, if we have a little bit more time, we can head in the same direction and achieve most of the same value.”

Yang was the only candidate voicing the problem with the original GND — it had a badly fumbled rollout, with Ocasio-Cortez's office publishing an FAQ that was quickly twisted by Republican opponents. “We set a goal to get to net zero, rather than zero emissions, in 10 years because we aren’t sure that we’ll be able to fully get rid of farting cows and airplanes that fast, but we think we can ramp up renewable manufacturing and power production,” the authors wrote. In conservative media, that was shorthanded as Democrats revealing plans to ban air travel and cows.

In March, every Democratic senator voted present on a Republican measure to bring the Green New Deal, as written, to the floor; it was intended to embarrass them, and it worked. Since then, the House and Senate text of the plan has stopped being discussed on the trail; the focus has moved on to the idea of climate-friendly infrastructure and jobs, less ambitious than what activists had in mind. Activists are taking that as a win regardless.

“It’s incredible how far the conversation has moved,” said Evan Weber, a political strategist at the Sunrise Movement. “We did see a number of candidates really lean in; they talked about their plans of action in the frame of the Green New Deal.”

Not every Democrat is ready for the climate culture war. Conservatives, from those on social media to the upper reaches of the Trump campaign, have pinpointed anti-plastic-straw regulations as the most ridiculous liberal climate standard. It was inevitable that Democrats would be asked about straws, and the ways Harris and Warren approached the question were telling.

Harris, who went first, agreed that plastic straws should be banned, before riffing on the problems caused by replacing them.

“I mean look, I’m going to be honest, it’s really difficult to drink out of a paper straw,” Harris said. “Like, if you don’t gulp it down immediately it starts to bend, and then, you know the little thing catches it, and you know, we’ve got to kind of perfect that one a little bit more.”

Later, Warren rejected the premise. “This is exactly what the fossil fuel industry hopes we’re all talking about,” she said. "[The industry] wants to be able to stir up a lot of controversy around your lightbulbs, around your straws, and around your cheeseburgers, when 70 percent of the pollution, of the carbon that we’re throwing into the air, comes from three industries.”

Where Harris had walked into the trap, endorsing a “straw ban” that the Trump campaign is happy to run against, Warren slipped around it. Her answer evaded the problem that had bogged down the original Green New Deal: the perception that do-gooder liberals would complicate life for everyone else by demanding new climate standards. That's a perpetual issue, one that any Democrat who lived through the (unsuccessful) campaign to save fluorescent lightbulbs knows very well.

But the increasingly urban and suburban-centric Democrats were more comfortable than ever emphasizing their own climate-friendly choices. Both former HUD secretary Julián Castro and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg tweeted photos to prove that they had taken the subway to the New York City-based town hall. On Thursday morning, O'Rourke's campaign tweeted a photo of the candidate waiting for the cheap Bolt bus from New York to Boston.

“When you think about the time it takes to get out of Manhattan to any NYC/N. J airport, through security, the flight itself and then out of Logan to your destination in Boston, it takes nearly every bit of time as the four-hour Bolt ride — so why not choose the lower-carbon option?” O'Rourke spokeswoman Lauren Hitt said. 

By Thursday morning, the Trump campaign and other Republican committees were already highlighting the Democratic answers and making them sound worse. Sanders had agreed with a questioner who wanted to allow U.S. aid to flow again to family planning and abortion services; an RNC statement accused him of endorsing “population control, including unlimited abortions.” Warren had favored personal choices to avoid climate-unfriendly products; the RNC accused her of wanting “the government to control which lightbulbs you use, which straws you use, and limit your cheeseburger consumption.”

Climate activists got the fight they wanted but were perpetually in danger of losing the accompanying fight over culture.

READING LIST

“McConnell’s August of missed opportunities gives way to a fierce fall session,” by Paul Kane

The Senate's shrunken agenda didn't change much over the summer.

“Democrats split from Obama playbook with aggressive climate plans,” by Zack Colman

The story of the party's leftward sprint on climate.

“Why young white evangelicals aren’t likely to leave the Republican Party,” by Jeremiah J. Castle, Ryan P. Burge and Paul A. Djupe

Debunking a wishful story line from Trump foes.

“Will Trumpism take deeper root in New Hampshire?” by Jonathan Martin

Corey Lewandowski's Senate ambitions.

“How Minnesota Republican operatives are sowing distrust of Muslims,” by Logan Carroll

Uncovering the roots of negative stories that have trickled up to the White House.

IN THE STATES

The end of the off-year August recess is a good time for members of Congress to announce their retirements or next moves; after a few weeks at home, they have had time to ponder their futures and to help their parties make plans without them. On Wednesday, three members of the House called it quits, the biggest one-day culling in six years. None of their decisions are likely to change the makeup of the House.

California's 53rd District."I struggled to make this difficult decision,” said Democratic Rep. Susan Davis, who flipped a San Diego-area seat to get to Congress in 2000. Davis's seat, the bluest in an increasingly blue city, had gotten safer after two rounds of redistricting and party migration; it broke for President Barack Obama in 2012 by 25 points and for Hillary Clinton four years later by 35 points.

Within hours of Davis's announcement, her former aide Todd Gloria said he was focused on running for mayor; that widened the door for other ambitious San Diego Democrats, though two self-styled progressives, Jose Caballero and Joaquin Vazquez, are already running. Caballero had jumped into the race months ago, pitching himself as a new left-wing voice who could make the most of a safe seat.

“If you’re not taking bold action, then you’re not using this district the way it’s intended to be used,” he told the Times of San Diego this year. “The fact is, she has not really done anything in Congress since she’s been there.”

Texas's 17th District. Nine years ago, as the tea party wave swept through the South, Republican Bill Flores ousted a moderate Democrat who had hung on through years of political change: Chet Edwards. After years of close calls in the Waco-area district, Edwards went down in a landslide and Flores became a reliable vote for GOP leaders in the House, even taking over the conservative Republican Study Committee and making it a little less rebellious. But he didn't intend to stay long.

“I was firm in my commitment that I would run for six or fewer terms,” Flores said Wednesday.

Some Texas districts swung hard to the left in 2016 and 2018; the 17th was not one of them. Donald Trump's 17-point victory there was down from a 22-point victory for Mitt Romney. Flores was an occasional critic of the president. His successor probably won't be.

It's the fifth retirement in Texas, though others came in more competitive districts.

Wisconsin's 5th District. Republican Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner was the dean of his state's delegation, winning his first term when Jimmy Carter was president and holding the suburban Milwaukee seat easily. Republicans haven't lost as much ground in Wisconsin's suburbs as they have in some other states; Trump carried this seat by 20 points, after Mitt Romney had carried it by 23, and the “WOW” counties around the city (Waukesha, Ozaukee, and Washington) have been a factory for producing conservative legislators.

Democrats will put up a candidate here, encouraged but realistic about the need to compete outside of Milwaukee. But the only real drama is about which Republicans jump in; both of last year's Senate candidates (Leah Vukmir and Kevin Nicholson) could make a claim on the seat, as could the state's former attorney general (Brad Schimel), its former speaker of the House (Jeff Fitzgerald), and its powerful Senate majority leader (Scott Fitzgerald).

TURNOUT WATCH

Early voting is almost over in North Carolina's 9th Congressional District, and in some counties, it's closing sooner than expected: Hurricane Dorian's march toward the state has closed some state offices. Republican Dan Bishop has called for additional early voting days, and the turnout so far, tracked by the state board of elections, has narrowly favored Democrat Dan McCready. While Democrats hold a six-point registration advantage in the district, they have a 10-point lead among the 54,372 ballots cast so far. Black voters make up 19.4 percent of registered voters but 18.5 percent of voters who have cast ballots: That’s a higher rate of turnout than usual in special elections, a boon for the Democrats.

AD WATCH

Dan Bishop, “A Great Congressman.” The president is scheduled to campaign in North Carolina's 9th Congressional District just four days from now, but he's already on the air, thanks to the Republican nominee's latest ad. Bishop himself has resisted calling Democrat Dan McCready a “socialist” — McCready has pointedly rejected Medicare-for-all and generally has run as a moderate. Trump, in this clip from a rally in the nearby 3rd Congressional District, has no such hesitation: “He likes open borders, and he really admires socialism.”

POLL WATCH

Wisconsin presidential primary (Marquette Law, 800 registered voters)

Biden — 28% (-1)
Sanders — 20% (-12)
Warren — 17% ( 0)
Buttigieg — 6% (-1)
Harris — 3% (-8)
Yang — 2% ( 2)
Booker — 1% (-8)

The state's most respected pollster had been asking a friendly, open-ended question of Democratic voters. Who was their top choice, and who was their second? In April, that question put Bernie Sanders narrowly ahead of the field. In September, a tighter framing of the question finds something increasingly familiar in this primary: A combined but divided vote for the left-wing candidates (Elizabeth Warren and Sanders) that's larger than the vote for the “moderate lane” candidates, Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg. This is also the umpteenth poll to find Sanders lagging behind as a second choice; Warren is the runner-up for 20 percent of Democrats, compared with 18 percent for Biden, 13 percent for Sanders, and 11 percent for Kamala Harris.

The crosstabs raise questions about candidate support among nonwhite voters and voters without college degrees. In the 2016 primary against Hillary Clinton, Sanders did worst in Milwaukee, where her support with black voters was unshakable. In this poll, Sanders leads with 34 percent in the city of Milwaukee, with Biden trailing at 31 percent and Warren far behind at 6 percent. But in the suburbs, in Madison and in northeast Wisconsin, Warren runs ahead of Sanders; in rural areas, Biden and Sanders again run ahead of her. The question: How much of this is because of name ID in a state where only Biden and Sanders are universally known?

2020

Michael Bennet. After releasing plans on issues where his politics were a bit less known, such as climate, the former Denver school superintendent published his education plan: “Equal means equal,” including free community college and free universal pre-K.

Marianne Williamson. After deleting a tweet in which she urged Americans to use the “power of the mind” to move Hurricane Dorian away from land, she carried out arguments with the people who made fun of her — a fightback that included Twitter DMs to Erica Jong, the mother of writer Molly Jong-Fast.

Bill de Blasio. He released a plan to fight worker displacement from automation with a Federal Automation and Worker Protection and an accompanying “robot tax.”

Bernie Sanders. In the run-up to this weekend’s New Hampshire Democratic convention, he rolled out a long list of state endorsements, including five members of the state legislature, three of them elected in the 2018 wave.

Tom Steyer. He told CNBC that his record in climate fights was more powerful than the one that Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who dropped out last month, had brought into the race. “If you look at the record for the last 10 years, I’m the person who has done this,” he said. “If you look at the videotape and see who’s been successful, who’s been leading — actually, it’s me.”

WHAT I'M WATCHING

Republican senators and the disappearing military money. In March, shortly after denouncing the president’s decision to declare a border emergency as a way to reallocate money not appropriated for the border wall, GOP Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina voted to support it. The president had won him over, he said, by promising some progress on legislation to “prevent a future left-wing president from misusing their authority.”

That legislation hasn’t gone anywhere, and Tillis — like five other Republicans who voted to support the declaration — are facing questions about the money being pulled out of their states to build the border wall. No state got hit harder than North Carolina, where $80 million appropriated for improvements at military bases will be sent to build the wall. That has gotten Tillis mocked by any number of his critics and Democratic opponents.

“Don’t trust this president,” the Charlotte Observer’s editorial board wrote. “Donald Trump will not hesitate to burn anyone — including people who’ve previously helped him — to get a political victory.”

The emergency declaration, which polled poorly before any money was moved around, is now causing trouble for swing-state senators. It's a softball any Democrat can throw: Their opponents trusted the president, and their reward was getting money pulled away from local military projects.

The troubles reached a peak of absurdity when Sen. Martha McSally of Arizona released a statement acknowledging that an Army facility was going to lose money, but that “the project cost is $30,000 — a small fraction of the $3.6 billion of the Department of Defense funds utilized for the national emergency declaration.” Moments later, her office corrected the figure — it was $30 million — but left the “small fraction” language in.

“Sen. McSally told Arizonans she had protected funding for Arizona military bases, and the fact is that she didn't keep her word,” said McSally's likely Democratic opponent, Mark Kelly.

The news around Hurricane Dorian is moving some of these money decisions out of the headlines. But it's unusual for the party in control of the presidency and Senate to have to explain why money that was supposed to come back is going elsewhere; so far, the affected Republicans have pivoted the discussion back to border security.

Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner (R), whose state is losing $8 million in projects, tried to do that with his response: “It's unfortunate Democrats can't defend the border and defend the country at the same time.” Decisions about where funding came from were made by the Pentagon.

COUNTDOWN

… one day until the DNC's Rules and Bylaws committee meets on the rules for the Iowa caucuses
… two days until New Hampshire's Democratic convention
… seven days until the third Democratic debate