In this edition: The return of Democratic bean-counting, the Tulsi Gabbard superfans, and the latest debate stage gambits.

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INDIANOLA, Iowa — After weeks of speculation, it took Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts just a minute to promise something new: a plan to pay for Medicare-for-all. The Democrats who had demanded that plan had a new question: What took her so long?

“I am surprised that we haven't seen it yet,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) before a Sunday night Democratic Party dinner. “I think if she had a good answer, we would have seen it right now.”

“I don't need a plan for a plan for a plan,” snarked Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, who noted that his own, optional government health-care plan didn’t raise taxes. “When she studies it, she's going to find that it's impossible to fund what she's talking about without taxing the middle class.”

Trailing in the polls — Bennet did not even qualify for the last two televised debates — the center-left Democrats running for president have reshaped the argument about health care into one about honesty. They’ve also reversed a trend in Democratic political thinking, which was that the free-spending policies of President Trump had freed them of demands to answer how to pay for every plan. 

“They’re attacking Democratic values,” grumbled Rep. Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, about Warren's more moderate primary opponents. Pocan is neutral in the primary. “People don’t ask about this back home — they ask why it’s so expensive for them to afford health care! There are so many potential ways to bring in revenue, so it’s odd that people are using Republican talking points.”

Democratic thinking about “pay-fors” has shifted back and forth. In the 2016 primary, Hillary Clinton’s campaign ensured that her plans added nothing to the deficit, allowing the candidate to make that promise and get a fact-checker’s clean bill of health. It was a wonkish contrast to a Trump campaign that made promises with nonexistent or fanciful ways to pay for plans, like Mexico reimbursing America for a border wall. Trump won, Clinton didn't, and her party began a steady march to the left, with plans that involved the government spending more money.

Medicare-for-all still stood out. Unlike many health-care bills, this one, introduced in 2017 and 2019 by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), did not include “pay-fors” in the legislative text. The legislation sketched out a transformation of American health care in which private insurance was mostly phased out and everyone enjoyed an expansive, government-provided plan. The taxes that could pay for this were shunted into a separate “white paper,” which meant that the traditional method used to estimate legislation's cost — a score from the Congressional Budget Office — didn't apply. 

That left the work of estimating cost up to third-party think tanks, like the liberal Urban Institute and the conservative Mercatus Center, both of which pegged Medicare-for-all at around $30 trillion over 10 years — a blaring alarm of a number that obscured how current government plans would be folded in.

In Indianola and at other stops, Warren has been peppered with questions about how she'd pay for her biggest plan and why she didn't have a quicker answer. At that first stop, she hinted at one way to get through the dilemma: challenging the math of the people who kept asking about it.

“There are many estimates,” said Warren, “about what the cost will be.”

Some on the left want to go further and question why Washington is so bound to cost estimates. Stephanie Kelton, an economist who has advised Sanders, argued that the conventional Washington thinking was “truly dysfunctional,” asking policymakers to come up with “pay-fors” to get past the CBO, when real government spending could be more flexible.

“Every candidate is expected to show that they have a plan to rip a dollar out of some part of the economy for every dollar they plan to spend on some new program,” Kelton said. “That is bad economics and bad public policy.”

But Democrats, nervous of being labeled a tax-and-spend or “free stuff” party, had been hesitant to propose expensive plans for decades, right until the early part of this campaign. The size of the 2017 tax cut, which has been politically unpopular, gave every candidate room to propose gigantic new plans while waving away the cost. Sanders, in particular, proposed a series of plans for debt forgiveness, free college and climate change, pointing out that Republicans had already stopped pretending that every plan needed to be deficit-neutral.

Warren distinguished herself from Sanders with a wealth tax — 2 percent on more than $50 million — that paid for nearly all of her plans. Just “two cents” on people who could afford it could, she said, pay for universal child care, universal prekindergarten, free tuition at public colleges and a progressive student debt cancellation plan. Warren seemed to have cracked the code, deflecting charges that she would dole out “free stuff” without paying for it and with so much of that stuff that even she sounded surprised.

“Plus, if you sign up now, 12 steak knives!” Warren joked at an appearance in Nevada.

The wealth tax never covered Medicare-for-all, though, which led to the questions about how Warren could pay for it. In the fourth debate last week, center-left rivals repeatedly contrasted Warren with Sanders — “at least he's being honest,” Klobuchar said — because she refused to say that “middle-class taxes” would go up to pay for Medicare-for-all, saying instead that “costs” would go down. (Even the conservative estimates suggest that they could.)

The risk to Democrats criticizing Warren's plans to pay for health care was that they could face questions about their own plans. In Iowa, Klobuchar pointed out that everything her campaign proposed was fully paid for. South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who had also accused Warren of evasiveness, was pressed on how his “Medicare for all who want it” plan would be paid for and quickly proposed raising corporate tax rates back to 35 percent — a level even some Democrats had thought was too high before Trump took office.

But those candidates are not under pressure right now. Warren is, telling reporters in Indianola that the pay-fors had been in the making “for a long time” and needed “a little more work.” The campaign is tight-lipped about what they might be.

The Medicare payment debate could affect the primary in a number of ways, not least because Buttigieg, Joe Biden and some lower-polling center-left candidates have suggested that a “public option” would eventually get the country to full coverage — the same government coverage of health costs, but over a longer time frame. If they were right, and consumers, in Buttigieg's words, “voted with their feet,” tens of millions of Americans would buy into a Medicare plan, something that could prompt the same questions about how a growing welfare state gets paid for.

“If the public option is good, and it eventually becomes a kind of Medicare for All, the cost spike would all happen outside the ten-year window,” David Dayen, the editor of the liberal American Prospect magazine, wrote in an analysis of the payment debate. “So Biden and Buttigieg are either lying about how effective their public options will be, or they’re lying about how much they will ultimately cost. They can’t have it both ways.”

READING LIST

“Trump slams Democrats and chides Republicans as allies criticize his erratic impeachment response,” by Toluse Olorunnipa and Robert Costa

As Democrats campaign against him, the president wonders whether he's losing allies.

“Anxious Democratic establishment asks: 'Is there anybody else?' " by Jonathan Martin

The people who wondered whether Biden could save the party in 2015 now wonder whether someone can save the party from Biden.

“Republicans’ advantage on national security has faded — and Democratic candidates are responding,” by Michael A. Robinson

The opening Trump just gave his opponents on what should be a presidential advantage.

“The embarrassing epilogue to the media’s obsession with Hillary Clinton’s emails,” by Ian Millhiser

A column with some questions about whether email security practices should have been a defining election issue.

“Elizabeth Warren calls for billions of new dollars to reform pre-K-12 schools and fight privatization. Here’s how she plans to pay for it,” by Valerie Strauss

Another week, another plan and another round of criticisms.

“Who Democrats in early primary states don’t want to see nominated,” by Seth Masket and Dave Peterson

The answers are legitimately surprising.

ON THE TRAIL

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — The remarkable thing about Tulsi Gabbard's Saturday night speech to Linn County Democrats was what the Hawaii congresswoman didn't say. She didn't mention her spat with Hillary Clinton, who had just suggested that Gabbard was a “favorite of the Russians” who might run as a third-party spoiler. She didn't repeat what she'd said on a campaign video or in an appearance with Fox News, that the Clinton “gang” and the “rich, powerful elite” were trying to silence a war veteran.

Instead, Gabbard talked about togetherness, climate change and her sponsorship of the Opioid Accountability Act, targeting pharmaceutical companies. She talked about ending “regime-change wars,” with the only veiled reference to Russia in a condemnation of the “new Cold War.” In the end, she talked less about Russia than the meeting of “aloha” for Hawaiians.

“Aloha means that I come to you with respect, that I come to you with an open heart, with the recognition that we are all brothers and sisters, that we are all God's children, that we stand together,” Gabbard said.

Not long after, Gabbard was gone, pursued by reporters after she shook hands with a few Cedar Rapids-area Democrats. The next day, she canceled two of three planned open-media events, scheduling a visit to a rural hospital instead. The fight with Clinton brought Gabbard more attention than anything since a bracing debate performance in July. But apart from a Fox News interview, and a Friday night series of media hits, she was no longer capitalizing on it.

Why not? That's one of many mysteries about Gabbard's campaign, which has made a splash in Iowa while not locking down caucus support through traditional organizing — the work that makes or breaks a caucus campaign. Gabbard is the only Democrat who made the debate stage last week but did not qualify for next week's Liberty and Justice Celebration in Iowa, the year's last big party event, which requires candidates to pay for the voter file and open at least two campaign offices. Her campaign has no full-time paid staff dedicated to the state, instead building a network of grass-roots volunteers who get some of their expenses paid by Gabbard HQ.

Those volunteers believe passionately in Gabbard and in the theory that if voters hear about her, they'll become converts. The Linn County dinner brought out half a dozen of them, several of whom had relocated to Iowa from Arizona, who cheered for Gabbard when she took the stage, then stuck around to pitch her to Democratic activists.

“Some days, like today, she's here,” said Jan Bishop, 71, who had been a constituent of Gabbard’s before moving to Arizona. “Some days we do sign waving in the morning and sign waving for late-morning traffic. And then we'd do door-to-door canvassing, and ask people if they want to put up yard signs.”

Gabbard's supporters differ in big ways from most Iowa Democrats. Bishop said she had backed Donald Trump for president in 2016; other supporters were quick to condemn Clinton not just for her criticism of Gabbard, but for her entire career.

“How many children might be going into these endless wars if we can't figure out how to work together within the framework of the world and seek global solutions, instead of just throwing our troops into war zones like chess pieces?” said Shelly Servadio Elias, 48, a veteran and Gabbard supporter who was part of the color guard in Cedar Rapids. “Hillary Clinton's tweet that Tulsi's being set up to be, like a Russian asset, or imply that maybe she's going to go run third party, is her being very, very irresponsible. She needs to back off. She's not a candidate. She's not relevant. It's time for her to go be a grandma and stay out of politics.”

The response for Gabbard at the party dinner was muted, and her events are smaller than those of the higher-polling Democrats. But she has shown signs of crossover support, from the sort of voters who don't trust politicians at all: people who wrote in someone for president in 2016, people who didn't vote. And especially after that July debate, when Gabbard unloaded on Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), she’d won plaudits from conservatives who appreciated a candidate so ready to dismantle candidates with more party support.

That has led to rampant speculation that Gabbard would bolt and run as a third-party candidate herself, something she repeatedly denies. Her supporters repeatedly point out her 2016 decision to quit a role at the Democratic National Committee and endorse Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) as proof that she is simply a target of party leaders who can’t control her.

“She will always fight for the people and do the right thing,” said Chris Dec, 20, another Arizona-to-Iowa volunteer. “She’s had that choice in her career, between what is hard, and what is right. I can have complete and utter confidence in her, and I think she will win, because when people hear her speak she is inspiring.”

Gabbard, on the stump, continued to sound nothing like a candidate interested in throwing the 2020 election against her party. At her final Monday event, a town hall in the college town of Grinnell, a few dozen interested voters heard Gabbard talk about delivering toffee to new colleagues after she joined the House and how she enjoyed working across the aisle.

The first question focused on “warmongers” such as Hillary Clinton and George W. Bush. Gabbard didn’t attack. Instead, she took the audience through the story of Walter Jones, a former Republican congressman, who had supported the Iraq War then turned against it after a funeral.

“Treating people with respect doesn’t mean that you may not disagree with them,” Gabbard said. “Leading with aloha, living with aloha, treating people with respect, should not be taken for weakness.”

One day later, Gabbard hit back at Clinton in a tweet. “Your foreign policy was a disaster for our country and the world,” she said. “It’s time for you to acknowledge the damage you have caused and step down from your throne.” 

IMPEACHMENT WATCH

The latest news on the impeachment inquiry

AD WATCH

Pete Buttigieg, “Solutions.” The Indiana Democrat played up his Midwest roots in the debate. He does it every day on the stump. He does it again in this ad, repurposing one of his most powerful lines: “Growing up here, I didn’t even know that it was unusual to have empty factories or empty houses.”

American Action Network, “How much is your life worth?” Democrats in the House, eager for some wins they can show voters in 2020, have gotten behind the Lower Drug Costs Now Act, legislation that would let Medicare negotiate prices on at least 25 popular drugs and set caps on what consumers could be charged. The conservative AAN's new campaign doesn't get into the details: It simply labels the plan a “socialist takeover” and warns that it could kill people. “Liberals are pushing a socialist plan to put government in charge of prescription drug prices,” a narrator warns. “In other countries with socialist health care, patients wait months or years for vital treatments.”

Democratic Attorneys General Association, “Hire.” Daniel Cameron, a protege of Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), narrowly won the GOP nomination for Kentucky attorney general this year and would be the youngest black AG in the country if he wins. The Democratic case against him has been straightforward: Democrat Greg Stumbo has experience (he was AG himself once) and Cameron doesn't.

POLL WATCH

What Democrats and Republicans are doing on impeachment (CNN/SSRS, 1003 adults)

Democrats are out to get Trump — 42% ( 4)
Democrats think Trump has committed impeachable offenses — 48% (-1)

Republicans protect Trump at all cost — 50% ( 8)
Republicans don't think Trump has committed impeachable offenses — 40% (-3)

Public support for impeachment has risen fitfully since last month, but it hasn't swung out of line with overall partisan sentiment. That's also happening on this question, where the number of people who believe that Democrats are carrying out a crusade against Trump is basically in line with approval of the president, at 41 percent. The movement has come with opinions about Republican strategy — the surge of voters who believe the president's party is defending him for political reasons is larger than any other partisan trend.

2020 presidential election in Minnesota (Mason-Dixon, 800 registered voters)

Amy Klobuchar (D) — 55%
Donald Trump (R) — 38%

Joe Biden (D) — 50%
Donald Trump (R) — 38%

Elizabeth Warren (D) — 51%
Donald Trump (R) — 40%

Bernie Sanders (D) — 49%
Donald Trump (R) — 40%

The president's reelection campaign is slightly obsessed with Minnesota, and the president himself tells Democrats that he could have won the state in 2016 had he held one more rally. He lost it by just 44,593 votes out of nearly 3 million cast, but that obscures something important: He pulled only 44.9 percent of the vote. Since then, Trump has become less popular in Minnesota, and without third-party candidates in the ballot test, he struggles to break 40 percent. Relative to 2016, he has fallen furthest with voters in rural northern Minnesota, who back Klobuchar narrowly and back Trump by only single digits against other Democrats.

2020 presidential election in Florida (UNF, 643 registered voters)

Joe Biden — 49%
Mike Pence — 38%

Elizabeth Warren — 46%
Mike Pence — 40%

There haven't been many polls testing the vice president against the 2020 Democrats, but the impeachment drumbeat has prompted the question: Seriously, how would these candidates fare against Mike Pence? One answer is “pretty well.” Tested against Trump, Biden gets 48 percent of the vote and Warren gets 46 percent. Both of them lead the president, Biden by five and Warren by three. When Pence is swapped in, the Democrats' numbers don't budge but the Republican vote drops as more voters become undecided.

One caveat of many is that no one knows how a Pence presidency or nomination would really play. Would Pence be seen as a comfortable return-to-normal candidate? Would he be pressured into unpopular pardons of the former president and his associates? Would he tack to the center, as he sometimes did in Indiana, or would he take unpopular far-right positions, as he often did in Congress? All we know is that the baseline support wouldn't be particularly strong.

2020

Elizabeth Warren. On Monday she introduced an education restructuring plan that would make unionizing easier and prevent standardized testing from being used to shutter schools; on Tuesday she zipped from Iowa to Chicago to support the strike by the Chicago Teachers Union. (Bernie Sanders had come to Chicago the night before the strike, urging members to do it.)

Bernie Sanders. He joined the chorus of Democrats criticizing Hillary Clinton's take on Tulsi Gabbard, and his campaign rolled out new endorsements in Colorado and California: a mix of former and current legislators in the first state, a team of current mayors and legislators in the latter.

Beto O'Rourke. He proposed an amendment to the Constitution that would curtail the president's pardon power, which is unlimited, in an effort to prevent get-out-of-jail-free cards for associates.

Pete Buttigieg. He conducted focus groups, first reported by Dave Catanese, that found black voters recoiling a bit at his open discussion of his sexual orientation and his marriage.

WHAT I'M WATCHING

The debate's killing floor. On Monday, Julián Castro did something that had worked well for Cory Booker: He set a fundraising target and warned that his campaign would end if he missed it. Castro, who had raised $3.5 million in the third quarter, needed $800,000 to keep things going.

“We do not see a path to victory that doesn't include making the November debate stage,” Castro campaign manager Maya Rupert said in a statement. “Without a significant uptick in our fundraising, we cannot make that debate.”

Booker's gambit succeeded, but he had already been on track to appear in October's debate. Castro is in a much more dire position. To qualify next month, candidates will need to collect at least 160,000 donations, which Castro has done, and also show strength in one of two polling metrics. They must click at 3 percent in at least four polls approved by the DNC, or hit 5 percent in two approved polls of the early-voting states.

Eight candidates have qualified. So far, Castro hasn't hit either of those marks in any poll. Three other Democrats — Tulsi Gabbard, Amy Klobuchar and Beto O'Rourke — have reached the donor threshold but need more polls to qualify for a spot on stage. (Klobuchar has two, Gabbard has one, O'Rourke has none.) All four of these candidates are working to make a splash in various ways, because it has actually become easier to hustle for donations than it is to predict when polls will be released, in which states the polls will be taken and whether enough voters will offer up their candidates to pollsters.

Gabbard got a boost of uncertain usefulness from Hillary Clinton. (See above.) Klobuchar had a strong debate performance that has, so far, generated a bit more interest in her campaign. O'Rourke has become both a curiosity and a thorn for Democrats in pitching big, ambitious liberal policy changes. And Castro is getting some attention with this donor Hail Mary.

COUNTDOWN

... 10 days until the Iowa Liberty and Justice Celebration
... 14 days until state and legislative elections in Kentucky, Mississippi, New Jersey and Virginia
... 22 days until the cutoff for the fifth Democratic debate
... 25 days until Louisiana's runoff elections
... 29 days until the fifth Democratic debate
... 104 days until the Iowa caucuses