In this edition: Why it matters that Joe Biden said “yes” to a super PAC, what happened at South Carolina's criminal justice forum, and whether the killing of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi will affect the election.
I still don't know what “died like a dog” is supposed to mean, and this is The Trailer.
Until Thursday, when Joe Biden's presidential campaign ended its opposition to a supportive super PAC, Biden convincingly explained why this would be a bad idea. In his 2017 memoir “Promise Me, Dad,” Biden revealed that he would have refused super PAC support had he run in the 2016 primary.
“I was going to upend the new money rush that was overwhelming our politics,” he explained. “I was sure this message would stand out.”
In 2018, Biden told PBS News that “people can't possibly trust” a politician with a super PAC, adding an irresistible detail: “I sat with Bernie [Sanders], I'm the guy that told him, you shouldn't.” This year, his campaign repeatedly rebuffed donors who wanted to form a super PAC. They worried that the campaign was leaving money on the table by rejecting an independent PAC that could raise unlimited sums of money; the campaign stuck with Biden's position, that “middle class Joe” couldn't embrace that system.
That's no longer Biden's position. For the first time, less than 100 days before voting begins in Iowa, one of the 2020 Democrats is encouraging wealthy donors to give to a group — which does not yet exist — to provide air cover that other candidates won't have. The rationale from Biden's deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield was that President Trump “decided that the general election has already begun,” running millions of dollars in attack ads against Biden. Biden's action could fundamentally change the primary, testing whether Democratic panic about another Trump term has made them less interested in small-money purity.
“I think he needed to do it,” said Bill Gluba, a former mayor of Davenport, Iowa, who supports Biden. “First you get elected, then the good works come. There's some risk, sure, but Democrats will get over it.”
The early reaction has mirrored the response to Biden's previous high-profile position switch, when he abandoned his decades-long support for bans on government funding of abortion — a few days of eye-rolling before the news cycle turned to something else. Sanders (I-Vt.) tore into Biden's decision during a campaign stop in Iowa, then told CBS News's Cara Korte that he was proud to have led the field in fundraising without ever holding a traditional fundraiser.
“We don't sit in rich people's living rooms to raise money,” he said. “I am a candidate of the working class.”
Sanders, who turned his 2016 no-super-PAC stance into a major part of his identity despite benefiting from one allied with a nurses' union, unsurprisingly has said the most about Biden's shift. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) made a glancing reference to Biden in a tweet — “every Democratic candidate should agree: Super PACs have no place in our primary” — while former Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-Tex.), whose campaign fundraising has lagged behind his 2018 Senate effort, has begun to contrast his pledge with Biden's.
“When we say this campaign is all people, no PACs, we mean it,” O'Rourke's campaign said in a Friday fundraising email. “It’s not some gimmick or catchphrase. It’s the right way of doing things, and the only way we can truly make sure we put power back into the hands of the people.”
Biden's rivals have made the bet that he was making until Thursday: Voters will reward candidates who don't appear to be working for big donors. Sanders pioneered that strategy in 2016. In that year's primary, as he defined himself as an alternative to Republicans such as Jeb Bush, Trump told voters that he would self-fund his campaign, even urging supportive super PACs to return their money to donors.
“This whole Super PAC scam is very unfair to a person like me who has disavowed all PACs & is self-funding,” Trump tweeted exactly four years ago this weekend.
But the image he tried to burnish — a self-funder who didn't need anything from donors — was inoperative by the summer of 2016 when super PACS roared to his defense. As president, with no Bush or Hillary Clinton to run against, Trump and his allies have shifted from decrying big money to mocking Democrats for being unable to raise it.
“I’m not even sure Joe Biden knows what a Super PAC is, but there’s no doubt he needs a bailout,” said Brian O. Walsh, the president of America First Action PAC, the president's preferred outside group. “Maybe they can collect coupons to play ads on his record player.”
There are two reasons the Trump operation was able to abandon his old stance, and each reason carries a different lesson for Biden. The first was that individual candidate super PACs had an extremely mixed record, with more misfires than direct hits. Created by Supreme Court decisions that loosened rules governing money in politics, the first real candidate super PAC was Restore Our Future, launched in 2010 to help Mitt Romney's 2012 bid. It would spend $42 million on the primary alone, more than Biden has raised so far for his entire campaign.
By and large, Restore Our Future worked. The super PAC's role in the primary was largely to attack and negatively define Romney's opponents, who — unlike Biden's — lagged behind him in every kind of fundraising. By December 2011, it was running ads that attacked President Barack Obama (“How many jobs did Barack Obama create as a community organizer?”) and told compelling personal stories about Romney, alongside spots that highlighted his opponents' worst qualities.
“Why is this man smiling?” asked one Restore Our Future ad, as images of Obama came on-screen. “Because his plan is working. Brutally attack Mitt Romney, and hope Newt Gingrich is his opponent.” It made exactly the sort of argument Biden's donors want made now: that Trump has been attacking the former vice president because he's the Democrat who polls best against him.
Romney's opponents, all of whom had their own preferred super PACs, tried to use Restore Our Future Against him. One ad for former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum portrayed Romney ineffectively shooting mud from an assault rifle, to symbolize how he'd spent “a staggering $20 million grossly attacking fellow Republicans.” But Romney won the primary, and Obama shook off his own resistance to super PACs by allowing the creation of the Democratic-assisting Priorities USA Action.
Presidential super PACs haven't been as effective since then. The 2016 primary was a disaster for Bush's super PAC-heavy strategy, which delayed the candidate's own announcement so he could spend time raising money for Right to Rise. (Active candidates cannot coordinate in any way with super PACs.) Right to Rise raised $122 million. Priorities USA Action became a pro-Hillary Clinton super PAC in 2016, raising an eventual $192 million, with seven-figure donations from liberals such as George Soros.
Yet both PACs failed as the backlash became bigger than anything their money could do. In the primaries, they underperformed. Right to Rise went after Bush's rivals, drawing no blood, while Priorities USA Action did nothing to attack Sanders on Clinton's behalf. It did not spend in the primary until after Sanders overwhelmingly won the New Hampshire primary, and only then did it begin running get-out-the-vote messaging for Clinton, not attacks on Sanders.
“We never weighed in on the primary,” said Paul Begala, an adviser to Priorities USA Action in that cycle. “Biden's, presumably, will. Still, I think voters are more concerned about reform once you're in office than how you get there.”
Clinton won the primary, but the lesson of 2016 was that accepting super PAC
s could and would be used against candidates — exactly what Biden warned until this week. The idea of running without an unrestricted money funnel was powerful, so much so that Biden claimed that he gave Sanders the idea of doing it, something Sanders campaign manager Faiz Shakir flatly denied.
But the reason that Trump could flip and embrace super PACs is the second reason Biden could benefit. Voters are comfortable with some amount of big-money hypocrisy. There has been no liberal revolt against the House Majority PAC and Senate Majority PAC, super PACs created to run ads in congressional elections. No Democratic candidate for president has said that he or she would shut down Priorities USA Action — not even Warren or Sanders, who have proposed new limits on the party's corporate fundraising and who have pledged not to do traditional fundraisers.
There's little demand to do so from Democratic voters, for the same reason that there was no lasting backlash from Biden's Hyde Amendment switch: Democrats want to win. Much as Obama did in 2012 and Clinton did in 2016, the Biden campaign has argued that no campaign finance change can happen so long as the party is out of power. In 2012, when the super PAC issue was fresh, even Sanders argued that victory was more important than a single fundraising principle.
“Should you be principled, and allow your opponent to spend huge sums of money?” Sanders asked, rhetorically, in a conversation with Vermont's Seven Days newspaper. "[Should] you say, 'Well, I'm a principled guy and we're going to get outspent 5-to-1, and I'm going to lose the election?' “
Larry Lessig, an academic and activist who launched a super PAC and then a 2016 presidential campaign to demand campaign finance restructuring, said that Biden's approach to super PACs was less important that what he committed to do if he won in 2020.
“I always find this distracting,” Lessig said. What mattered was not how Biden's allies raised money; it was whether he, or any other Democrat, pledged to replace the campaign money system with some kind public financing. “That would be one thousand times more important than whether or not he had a super PAC. We need to focus people on the real issue.”
Lucky for Lessig, Biden has endorsed a constitutional amendment that would ban all private money from elections, replacing it with public financing. But he'd rarely talked about it on the trail this year — as he had, until recently, talked about why he disliked super PACs.
“Bernie Sanders, 78, declares his age is an asset,” by Sean Sullivan
The oldest candidate for president leans into it, post-health scare.
“The zombie campaign,” by Olivia Nuzzi
Trying to understand the candidate who leads in polls without scaring off his challengers.
Political science on what matters in swing states.
The risks and (much smaller) rewards of saying how “you're going to pay for it.”
“Trump campaign urges White House to soften proposed flavored vape ban,” by Michael Scherer, Josh Dawsey, Laurie McGinley and Neena Satija
The politics of mango juuls.
“The red-state savior Democrats don’t want,” by Ryan Lizza
Steve Bullock on the very lonesome campaign trail.
ON THE TRAIL
The Democrats running for president are asked to join multiple, issue-focused “cattle calls” every week. Some of these events get every or almost every candidate onstage. Some of them get a smattering of candidates. The Second Step Presidential Justice Forum in Columbia, S.C., stood out — it pulled in most of the race's highest-polling candidates, while yanking them into a controversy over an award for President Trump.
What happened? Trump, who signed the bipartisan First Step Act criminal justice measure last year, was a late RSVP for the forum, and the intrigue flowed right away. First, his speech was limited to a selected audience with just 20 seats reportedly reserved for students at Benedict College, the historically black school hosting the conference. Second, he received a Bipartisan Justice Award from one of the co-hosts, the 20/20 Bipartisan Justice Center. Third, he gave an occasionally rambling presentation that swerved from tributes to people whose sentences were reduced by the law to mockery of politicians who couldn't pass reform bills (“I hate to call them opponents, but I guess that’s what they are”) to a digression on his 2020 reelection chances to a further digression on former FBI officials who had carried on an affair while investigating him.
Did this overshadow the Democrats? How could it not? Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), a lead sponsor of First Step, used some of his remarks to denounce the organizers of the forum.
“The Bipartisan Justice Center allowed him to create an illusion that he had support from HBCUs or this community,” Booker said. “In fact, just as he's done to communities like this one throughout his entire professional career, he does not have the support of communities like this that he actively demeans, degrades, and disempowers. Just as when he took a full-page ad out in the New York Times calling for the execution of five innocent black teenagers, just like he did when he claimed that the first black president of the United States wasn't born in the United States, and challenged his citizenship.”
Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) went further, canceling her planned appearance to protest Trump, then rejoining it after Benedict College announced it had taken “full control” back from the BJC.
What did the Democrats actually say? Not much that was different; criminal justice restructuring has been a fairly robust part of the Democratic primary, with every major candidate proposing changes, and Biden at one point apologizing for the effects of some crime legislation he had helped write as a senator decades ago. Biden, Harris, Booker, Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg and Julián Castro arrived with road-tested plans.
“A lot of cities have built models where they treat every incident that happens, from an issue around a demonstration to a police shooting, as a learning opportunity,” Buttigieg said when asked about police-involved shootings in South Bend, Ind. “And just like we have a National Transportation Safety Board that figures out what happens when there is a plane crash, we need a National Incident Review Board, I believe, that is not about assigning blame — that happens at the accountability level directly — but is about leading to more policies and changes that need to happen in the aftermath of these incidents.”
What was new? On policy, not a ton. Buttigieg got a bigger platform to emphasize that he would want to cut incarceration by half. Several candidates, such as former Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.), went further than before in calling for an end to the War on Drugs and the legalization of marijuana. What was really new was questioning about personal impacts; several candidates were asked pointedly about how black teenagers should carry themselves if pulled over by police.
“I would respect what they are doing so that you don't get shot in the back of the head, but I would also be very mindful of the fact that as a nation, we have got to hold police officers accountable for the actions that they commit,” Sanders said. “I would be very cautious if you were my son in terms of dealing with that police officer, but I would also defend my rights and know my rights and make sure if possible that police officer's camera is on what goes on.”
The latest news on the impeachment inquiry:
- Former top Trump aide asks court to rule on whether he must testify in impeachment inquiry
- Trump frustrated as White House effort to defy impeachment inquiry fails to halt witness testimony, advisers say
- Trump wages battle against impeachment with a barrage of provocations, contradictions and exhortations
Tate Reeves, “Local Liberal.” Hillary Clinton's retirement from national politics — podcast interviews don't count — has begun a slow competition to find liberals who raise the same hackles in conservative voters. Mississippi's lieutenant governor invokes Bernie Sanders in his new ad, comparing his bluntness about not raising taxes to Democratic gubernatorial nominee Jim Hood, who has talked about raising gas taxes to pay for infrastructure and teacher salaries.
“Give Bernie credit,” the ad begins. “He admits his liberal plan will cost you money. The same for Jim Hood, our local liberal.”
Jim Hood, “Traveling.” Hood, the state's longtime attorney general, continues to use investigations into Reeves's perks as the basis of a campaign against him. The most famous is the (halted) construction of a road that would have benefited mostly Reeves, but Hood's new ad also hits “a taxpayer-paid junket to a rock concert — and Mardi Gras,” before returning to the Democrat.
“I bait my own hook, carry my own gun and drive my own truck,” says Hood, a sentence unlikely to be uttered by any presidential candidates.
Matt Bevin, “Profit.” A great deal of Kentucky's 2019 ad wars are about opioids, with Democrats highlighting their lawsuits against manufacturers and Republicans accusing them of falling down on the job or — in this case — profiting. Here, Bevin updates a spot he'd been running about Andy Beshear's former law firm working with Perdue Pharma with a new clip of the Republican governor confronting Beshear with that fact in a debate. “Perdue Pharma was a client of the firm,” Beshear says, a clip played twice in 30 seconds.
Andy Beshear, “Serious.” One mystery hanging over every red-state gubernatorial campaign this year is when a Fifth Circuit panel will decide whether to concur with a conservative judge, and the Trump administration, to strike down the entire Affordable Care Act. That judge's decision was released weeks after the 2018 midterm elections; Democrats believe that if the Fifth Circuit rules against the ACA, it would refocus governor's races in Kentucky, Louisiana, and Mississippi. (They also believe that the current Supreme Court would eventually reverse such a decision.) In the meantime, the politics of that case are on display in the latest spot from Beshear, Kentucky's attorney general, who cites his work defending the law and notes that Bevin wants it gone, knocking out protections for people with preexisting health conditions.
The Democratic National Committee has announced higher standards for its December debate, each of them a small step up from the November requirements. Instead of 160,000 unique donations, candidates need to prove they got 200,000. Instead of hitting 3 percent in four polls, or 5 percent in two early-state polls, they need to hit 4 percent and 6 percent respectively.
Those benchmarks would keep the vast majority of candidates off the stage, as the campaign now stands. Five candidates have met these requirements: Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, and Kamala D. Harris. Four candidates who've qualified for the November debate have yet to make it: Andrew Yang, Amy Klobuchar, Tom Steyer and Cory Booker. The eight other Democrats still actively seeking the nomination aren't even close.
Bernie Sanders. He campaigned in Detroit in Sunday, rallying with Rep. Rashida Tlaib, preceding it with a promise that each of them would donate $5,000 from their campaigns to her alma mater's Cass Tech Marching Band.
Joe Biden. After the criminal justice forum, he spent Sunday morning at Jerusalem Baptist Church in Hartsville, S.C., delivering a short speech. "Talk is cheap," he said. "Action and truth, that’s what matters in the world."
Tulsi Gabbard. She told Buzzfeed's Rosie Gray that she was sticking to her pledge not to run as a third party candidate. "No. No. Answer's still the same. No."
Julián Castro. He was one of just two Democrats who appeared in person over the weekend at the latest People’s Action forum in Las Vegas, telling attendees that he would consult with the state more on the issue of moving nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain, and that he disagreed with a drive for the city to criminalize homelessness.
Andrew Yang. At the same forum, he got rough treatment from the crowd after admitting that he did not know that the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department had ended its agreement with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “I confess, I actually don’t know much about the program,” he said. “Is it specific to Las Vegas?”
WHAT I'M WATCHING
Will there be an Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi bump? The operation that led to the death of the Islamic State's founder was the latest in a string of successful targeted attacks on ISIS or al Qaeda leaders. But this is a newsletter about campaigns, and the rollout of this news evoked incidents that have played well for presidents since the start of the “war on terror” 18 years ago. There was a dramatic tease (on Twitter this time), a White House presentation by the president, the release of a Situation Room photo, and, from the president himself, a real effort to call Baghdadi “the biggest” of America's post-9/11 killings.
“This is the worst ever,” Trump said on Sunday morning. “Osama bin Laden was big, but Osama bin Laden became big with the World Trade Center. This is a man who built a whole, as he would like to call it, a country.”
The Trump administration often has celebrated milestones in the fight against ISIS, with the president himself repeatedly declaring victory after the destruction of the group's physical “caliphate.” None of that has led to a boost in the polls. When asked how the president is handling “foreign affairs” or “terrorism,” the results have largely synced up with his approval rating.
Before Trump took office, there were diminishing returns for marquee captures or killings of terrorism targets. The December 2003 capture of Saddam Hussein, which came after months of bad news from an occupied Iraq, was a seismic political event. A CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll found President George W. Bush’s approval rating spiking from 50 percent to 63 percent, entirely because of the successful raid. Democratic politics were whipsawed, too, as the same poll showed Bush leading former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, at that point the leader in pre-Iowa caucus polling, by 20 points — up from an eight-point lead before the raid.
“The capture of Saddam Hussein has not made America safer,” Dean said shortly after the news broke. “[It] does not end our difficulties from the aftermath of the administration's war to oust him.''
Dean's critique aged well, but not in time for the caucuses, where nervousness about how he could compete with Bush helped sink him. Nearly eight years later, the killing of bin Laden was a much larger cultural event, with celebrations outside the White House and a quick-turnaround film adaptation, “Zero Dark Thirty.” But as the Cook Political Report's Amy Walter pointed out, Obama's approval rating spiked just six points in the Gallup poll, a bounce that faded within 30 days.
The killing of Baghdadi could have a similar impact, or less — days earlier, critics of the administration were warning about captured ISIS fighters breaking loose after Trump removed U.S. troops from Syria. Democratic candidates have generally congratulated the Special Forces involved in the operation, while limiting the credit for Trump — an echo of how Trump, then a private citizen commenting on politics, repeatedly argued that Obama did not deserve credit for the bin Laden raid.
“The credit goes to the men and women who have been doing all the work every day,” Sen. Kamala Harris of California said after a stop for House of Delegates candidates in Virginia on Sunday. “They deserve all the credit for being dedicated, for being fearless. And I just have to tell you, to be frank, there’s just not been any consistency from Donald Trump when it comes to our intelligence community.”
In two tweets, Elizabeth Warren avoided mentioning the president. “Baghdadi's death closes one chapter, but it is not the end of our fight against terrorism,” she said. “We need a settlement that ends the suffering and destruction in Syria — and ultimately, a long-term plan to counter extremism and allow the region to achieve peace and stability.”
... five days until the Iowa Liberty and Justice Celebration
... nine days until state and legislative elections in Kentucky, Mississippi, New Jersey and Virginia
... 17 days until the cutoff for the fifth Democratic debate
... 20 days until Louisiana's runoff elections
... 24 days until the fifth Democratic debate
... 99 days until the Iowa caucuses