In this edition: Why Democrats are fighting about Kavanaugh again, why Beto O'Rourke is betting on gun buybacks, and why Bernie Sanders has become a feel-your-pain candidate.
If you're in Washington, you can hear me talk to Billy Bragg about politics on Monday. And before you notice that I did a promo instead of a joke: This is The Trailer.
Seventy-two hours after a debate that could have reshaped their primary, the 2020 Democrats were talking about something completely different: Brett M Kavanaugh.
It all started when the New York Times published new reporting about the pre-midterm Kavanaugh hearings, based on the book by Robin Pogrebin and Kate Kelly. The Times's team said it corroborated an allegation of sexual assault against the future justice by a Yale classmate, Deborah Ramirez, allegations that surfaced and were dismissed as flimsy shortly before the confirmation vote.
“It's more clear than ever that Brett Kavanaugh lied under oath,” tweeted Julián Castro, the first 2020 Democrat to react to the article. “He should be impeached. And Congress should review the failure of the Department of Justice to properly investigate the matter.”
By Sunday morning, both Sens. Kamala Harris (Calif.) and Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), who had opposed Kavanaugh — over worries that he could undermine Roe v. Wade — before any allegations came out, called for his impeachment.
“He was put on the Court through a sham process and his place on the Court is an insult to the pursuit of truth and justice,” Harris wrote of Kavanaugh.
“Confirmation is not exoneration, and these newest revelations are disturbing,” Warren tweeted. “Like the man who appointed him, Kavanaugh should be impeached.”
Over the course of the day, more candidates piled on, all of them taking the Times story as gospel.
“I support any appropriate constitutional mechanism to hold him accountable,” said Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
“We know he lied under oath,” said Beto O'Rourke. Even Seth Moulton, whose candidacy never caught fire and ended after four months, jumped into the fray. “He should be impeached,” Moulton tweeted, “something I called for months ago on the steps of the Supreme Court.”
There are not enough votes in the House to impeach the president; the odds of this Congress impeaching or removing Kavanaugh are nonexistent. But the Kavanaugh fight compares only to the 2016 election as a modern Democratic trauma. Not only did Democrats fail to stop his Supreme Court nomination, a consensus of Republicans and political strategists argued that by echoing accusations against him, Democrats energized conservative voters and tipped key Senate races toward the GOP.
“I hope that 'remember Kavanaugh' will be fighting words between now and the election,” Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the outgoing chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said shortly before the midterms, sentiments echoed by nearly every Republican.
“That was such a mess,” former senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri said on “Meet the Press” on Sunday. “And what it did for those of us who were running, it crystallized how bad Washington is.”
The saga turned Kavanaugh into an updated Clarence Thomas: Conservatives successfully placed him on the bench while simultaneously turning him into a martyr. He was living proof of how liberals smeared their enemies, of how President Trump would stand up to fight them. This month, when conservative writer Sohrab Ahmari debated conservative writer David French on political “courage,” Ahmari argued that in standing by Kavanaugh, Trump proved his mettle; French pointed out that the last Republican president who refused to bend in a similar situation was George H.W. Bush and that his role in conservative history seems to shrink every year.
Democrats, in revisiting this fight, have no plan to win it. But in doing so, the 2020 field is demonstrating just how different the path to the presidency is than the path to control of the Senate. Republicans argued in 2018 that attacking Kavanaugh was driving up their base's enthusiasm, and tracking polls found an uptick from conservatives who had been less interested in the election.
But three of the Democrats' 2018 losses came in states that backed Trump by more than 20 points: Indiana, Missouri and North Dakota. In Florida, the site of the fourth defeat, 56 percent of voters told exit pollsters that Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson's (Fla.) vote against Kavanaugh was “a factor” in their decision; those voters picked Nelson at a slightly higher rate than voters who said the vote was not a factor.
Florida is extremely relevant in the race to elect the next president; those other three states are not. And there's less information about how the Kavanaugh saga affected key swing states. While there were 2018 Senate races in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, and while the Democratic senator in each state opposed Kavanaugh, exit pollsters did not bother asking about that. But national polling found that Kavanaugh was an unusually unpopular nominee, with a Washington Post-ABC News poll finding the country more disappointed than pleased by his confirmation by a 10-point margin.
Since 2018, Democrats have also gotten more clarity about the president's ability to fire up conservatives with cultural conflict — no conflict is too small. The Kavanaugh battle didn't turn on the issues that liberals warned would come before the court; the initial plan for opposing Kavanaugh was actually to emphasize the risk a conservative majority posed to abortion rights and the Affordable Care Act. McCaskill, for example, announced her “no” vote by ignoring allegations against him and saying that Kavanaugh “revealed his bias against limits on campaign donations, which places him completely out of the mainstream of this nation.”
What galvanized conservatives was the idea of a liberal mob trying to seize power and ruin lives, and the Trump reelection campaign has applied that frame to nearly everything — bans on plastic straws, mockery of the president's use of a Sharpie to alter a map of a hurricane's path, the theoretical threat posed by environmentalists to hamburgers. Trump on Sunday morning went after the new reporting, accusing the “LameStream Media” of working with Democrats.
In the end, the Kavanaugh fight made Democrats and Republicans a lot more cynical. What truly mattered for Democrats, in 2018, was that they were defending so many Senate seats in deep red states. The 2020 Democrats know that “remember Kavanaugh” was a strong rallying cry in Indiana and Missouri; they're betting that in the Midwest, and in especially in their own party's primaries, the court fight is remembered in a very different way.
Democrats hear it, and voters often say it. But they're unsure about how to argue that the former vice president is too old to run the strongest possible campaign.
“How fan culture is swallowing democracy,” by Amanda Hess
How voters turned into “stans.” As with so many things, blame the Internet.
“ ‘More united’ vs. ‘A house divided’: GOP goes all in on Trump while Democrats clash over ideology and tactics,” by Toluse Olorunnipa and Rachael Bade
Republicans snuff out most internal criticism of the president, while Democrats are putting “unity” on hold.
“Julián Castro is not here to make friends,” by Osita Nwanevu
What happens when a candidate scores a hit but the electorate is crying out for unity?
“Kamala Harris was ready to brawl from the beginning,” by Matt Flegenheimer
The story of the senator's first campaign, which hasn't yet resonated on the trail.
Up until the Houston debate, Democrats didn't know what to make of Beto O'Rourke's sharp turn on gun control. The former phenom was polling in the low single digits; his fundraising, one of the factors that made some Democrats see him as a 2020 contender, had begun to dry up.
But O'Rourke's onstage call for mandatory assault weapon buybacks spurred Democrats to do what comes naturally: panic. Decades of work promising conservative voters that they are not, in fact, “coming for their guns,” were being undone by one struggling presidential candidate.
“My sons and I have gone skeet shooting and hunting,” Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), an early supporter of Joe Biden's campaign, said in a Friday interview with CNN. “Frankly, I don’t think having our presidential candidates, like Congressman O’Rourke did, say that we’re going to try to take people’s guns against their will is a wise either policy or political move.”
Coons got reinforcements Sunday when Pete Buttigieg, who did not get a chance to respond to the “buyback” talk onstage, appeared on CNN's “State of the Union” and denounced it.
“Look, right now we have an amazing moment on our hands,” the South Bend, Ind., mayor said. “We have agreement among the American people for not just universal background checks, but we have a majority in favor of red flag laws, high capacity magazines, banning the new sale of assault weapons. This is a golden moment to finally do something because we've been arguing about this for as long as I've been alive, when even this president and even Mitch McConnell are at least pretending to be open to reforms.”
Buttigieg's answer was surprising in one way: He's repeatedly warned that Democrats will be accused of radicalism no matter what position they take. “It's time to stop worrying about what the Republicans will say,” Buttigieg argued in the Detroit debate two months ago. “Let's stand up for the right policy, go up there and defend it.” That completely clashed with his argument on buybacks, admitting that some policies were going to lose votes that Democrats might otherwise win.
But the entire debate about buybacks, which do not have the legislative support to pass in either house of Congress, is really about Republican attacks. There are two schools of thought in the party. One, which Buttigieg seemed to belong to before, was that the dishonesty of Trump-era Republican politicking lowered the cost of taking left-wing positions. Democrats who pointedly distanced themselves from the party's left continued to be linked to it.
“If we learned one thing from the Obama years, it's that Republicans are going to call us socialists no matter what we do,” actress and 2018 New York gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon said at last year's Netroots Nation conference. “We might as well give them the real thing.”
The second school of thought is that voters can tell the difference between a false attack and a fair one. Nixon, after all, did not win her primary; the Democratic victors in 2018 included dozens of moderates who were hard to peg as left-wing. In Houston, for example, Democrat Lizzie Fletcher defeated a Medicare-for-all supporter in a primary, then faced attack ads accusing her of supporting “a government takeover of health care.” Fletcher pushed back, and local media excoriated the Republican nominee for lying about her position; in Congress, Fletcher is one of the minority of House Democrats not supportive of Medicare-for-all.
The idea of mandatory assault weapon buybacks is newer than Medicare-for-all, but it has something in common: It's more popular than Democrats often say. In the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, 52 percent of Americans and 51 percent of registered voters said they favored a program to “require assault weapon owners to turn in those weapons in exchange for payment.” Other polls have found less support, but never less than 40 percent. An idea that's already inspiring Democratic panic is, at the moment, more popular than a wall across the entire U.S.-Mexico border — something nearly no Republicans oppose. And O'Rourke is now trying to tap into Democratic frustration at the party's hand-wringing.
“Leaving millions of weapons of war on the streets because Trump and McConnell are 'at least pretending to be open to reforms'?" O'Rourke tweeted Sunday. “That calculation and fear is what got us here in the first place. Let’s have the courage to say what we believe and fight for it.”
Ralph Abraham for governor, “For them.” Louisiana's gubernatorial elections typically consist of two rounds — a “jungle primary” that every candidate competes in (this year, Oct. 12) and a runoff (Nov. 16) if no candidate topped 50 percent of the vote. Abraham, the highest-polling Republican in Louisiana's race for governor, has released a series of ads that focus more on his biography (a veteran and a medical doctor) than on any issue, because to win, he needs to hold Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards under 50 percent; simply bringing “JBE” down before that doesn't guarantee Abraham a runoff slot.
Eddie Rispone for governor, “Home.” The self-funding multimillionaire in Louisiana's race for governor has been running his own effort to boost his favorables; his latest ad spends 30 seconds describing his love for the state and how he found love after his first wife died. Only at the end does he suggest something's amiss: “Today's challenges threaten what we love. Our economy is the slowest in America. A generation is leaving, just to find work.”
John Bel Edwards for governor, “Harder right.” In 2015, when he crushed scandal-plagued former senator David Vitter to win his first term, Louisiana's Democratic governor heavily emphasized his military service. He does the same in his latest spot, narrated entirely by veterans who know Edwards personally and who declare that he has “the leadership qualities we were taught at West Point.”
Do you have a favorable or unfavorable view of this candidate? (Univision, 1,043 Latino voters)
Bernie Sanders — 67/19
Joe Biden — 62/21
Julián Castro — 54/18
Elizabeth Warren — 53/20
Kamala Harris — 50/24
Beto O'Rourke — 48/23
Cory Booker — 39/23
Pete Buttigieg — 37/22
Amy Klobuchar — 34/21
Marianne Williamson — 34/17
Steve Bullock — 32/18
Joe Sestak — 32/22
John Delaney — 32/23
Michael Bennet — 31/19
Tim Ryan — 31/17
Tulsi Gabbard — 29/21
Andrew Yang — 28/16
Tom Steyer — 28/19
Bill de Blasio — 33/25
The most comprehensive polling yet on Latino voters finds them viewing every Democratic candidate favorably and Sanders viewed most favorably. More discouraging for Republicans: There's not much evidence that any Democrat creates an opening to compete for Latino votes. According to the 2016 exit poll, 63 percent of Latino men and 69 percent of Latino women supported the Democratic ticket in 2016; in 2018, that shifted up marginally to 63 percent and 73 percent.
Joe Biden. He spoke at a memorial service at Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist church, where 55 years ago white supremacists set off a bomb that killed four girls. “The Psalms tell us: 'Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.' The philosopher tells us: 'Faith sees best in the dark,' " Biden said. “Now hate is on the rise and we are at a defining moment.”
Amy Klobuchar. She's back in South Carolina on Monday for an event at the College of Charleston, then for a slot at the Galivants Ferry Stump.
Elizabeth Warren. Her campaign is launching a “Warren night school,” an eight-week online training program for potential volunteers. “We’ll lead two online trainings every week,” her campaign said in an email, “on topics including Elizabeth’s plans, how you can help us reach voters in your area, joining our grassroots movement on social media, and everything else you’ll need to know to be a part of this fight for big, structural change.”
Bernie Sanders. He's cutting a few events from his schedule — the busiest, easily, of any candidate who appeared in Thursday night's debate — to heal a sore throat that was making him sound unusually hoarse.
Tulsi Gabbard. She appeared on Dave Rubin's podcast, which has a relatively conservative audience, and said she favored some abortion restrictions outside the Democratic Party's platform: “Unless a woman’s life or severe health consequences is at risk, then there shouldn’t be an abortion in the third trimester.”
Pete Buttigieg. He has added a campaign bus tour, his first, to the events around this coming weekend's Iowa steak fry.
Tim Ryan. He declared solidarity with United Auto Workers ahead of a strike that will begin at midnight.
Bernie Sanders feels your pain. Every candidate for president is expected to hold town hall meetings — lots of them — in Iowa and New Hampshire. Bernie Sanders's version of the town hall is different, in a way that is starting to get results. Often, instead of asking voters to line up and ask questions, he polls the audience on their biggest problems and urges them to vent.
This approach led to a dramatic conversation in Reno, Nev., where a veteran named John Weigel (no relation) said that he was in stage 4 of Huntington's disease and was exhausted by the fight to get his insurance to cover expenses.
“I do not have the energy to fight these people,” Weigel said. “Every time I get on the phone with them, they piss me off, and I can't deal with them.”
“I'm looking at a bill that says account balance $139,000,” Sanders asked. “How are you going to pay it off?”
“I can't, I can't, I'm going to kill myself,” Weigel said.
“Stop it,” said Sanders. “You're not going to kill yourself.”
Sanders ended the exchange by saying that he would talk to Weigel afterward, and for the first time in a long time, cable news picked up an exchange from one of the candidate's rallies. But the Sanders strategy is designed to find moments such as this, with the goal of cutting through coverage that assumes two things — that Joe Biden has the most direct emotional connection to Democratic voters and that Sanders's plans are unworkable and unpopular.
... one day until former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford hits the campaign trail
... one day until Democrats speak at South Carolina's Galivants Ferry Stump
... two days until the AFL-CIO's “Workers’ Presidential Summit” in Philadelphia
... five days until the One Iowa LGBT forum
... six days until the Polk County, Iowa, Democratic steak fry