By Tuesday afternoon, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.); South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg; and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) had all endorsed a position that was nowhere in Democratic politics just six months ago — making military aid to Israel conditional on the country no longer annexing territory in Gaza and the West Bank. They did so at a conference sponsored by J Street, a 12-year-old organization that was created to shift the conversation on Israel to the left.
In this Democratic primary, it was shifting faster than ever. Candidates were taking positions that the party would have warned against just a year or so earlier.
“The notion that we just provide this aid, that we send the dollars over and that's the last thing that happens, is that it doesn't make any sense,” J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami told reporters Tuesday. “It's really good to see several of the candidates raising the question: Are we going to foot the bill for annexation?”
Ten Democratic candidates for president addressed the conference, either in person or through video statements. A Tuesday night gala featured addresses from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), coups for an organization that once had to persuade Democrats not to take their names off J Street statements.
But what mattered at the conference, and what got the loudest reactions from J Street members, was how game the 2020 Democrats were to question the Trump-era relationship between America and Israel. Sanders, who got a standing ovation before and after his remarks, repeatedly said that the $3.8 billion in aid Americans give to Israel should be used as leverage to “fundamentally change” the country’s approach toward Palestinian land and rights.
“It is a lot of money, and we cannot give carte blanche to the Israeli government, or for that matter to any government at all,” Sanders said. “I would say that some of the $3.8 billion should go right now to humanitarian aid in Gaza.”
No other candidate for the nomination went quite as far as Sanders. In a video, Warren said that “if Israel’s government continues with steps to formally annex the West Bank, the U.S. should make clear that none of our aid should be used to support annexation,” expanding on remarks she’d made to reporters and the activist group IfNotNow.
In his own onstage interview, Buttigieg promised to “ensure” that taxpayer dollars did not support any further Israeli moves to settle on occupied Palestinian territories and said Americans could challenge Benjamin Netanyahu’s government while remaining allies of Israel.
“It shouldn’t be hard to be against bad policies and to be against anti-Semitism,” Buttigieg said. “You can be committed to the U.S.-Israel alliance without being supportive of any individual choice by a right-wing government over there.”
Other Democrats didn’t go that far. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and former HUD secretary Julián Castro agreed that they would not threaten aid to Israel at the start of negotiations, though none completely ruled it out.
There was also a generation gap on display; former vice president Joe Biden's video avoided any discussion of negotiating tactics or aid, and Schumer and Pelosi spoke for a combined 20 minutes without endorsing the Sanders or J Street positions. At one point, Pelosi reminisced about how her father urged Franklin Roosevelt “to more quickly recognize that there should be a Jewish state in Palestine.” Applause was sparse.
“Okay,” Pelosi said, to nervous laughter.
Unlike some issues, where the far left has a champion in the 2020 race, the Israel debate has its limits. No Democrat questions America's alliance with the country. No Democrat embraces the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement — instead they range between outright opposition to it and expressing support for the free-speech rights of boycotters.
“I fully support people's ability to express their own views and to support BDS if they want to,” Castro told reporters after his time onstage. “It's consistent with our American values to allow people to express themselves.”
The discussion about leverage the U.S. government holds has been more fruitful, and it has moved more quickly. In April, when Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York said that aid leverage was “something that can be discussed,” it got her a slap on the wrist from the Jewish Democratic Council of America. It was generally covered in the context of remarks about Israeli political influence from Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota that Republicans, and some Democrats, condemned as anti-Semitic.
“We are pleased [Ocasio-Cortez] recognizes she is NOT a leader on Israel in Congress,” the JDCA tweeted, urging her to consult with Israel’s supporters in the House Democratic conference. “U.S./Israel ties must supersede politics.”
(Asked about the conversation at J Street's conference, JDCA board Chairman Ron Klein reiterated that his group did “not support reducing or conditioning assistance to Israel.”)
But Ocasio-Cortez has brought attention to a simmering discussion, one that Sanders was the first 2020 candidate to engage in. Peter Beinart, a liberal Jewish journalist whose writing helped popularize the BDS movement, wrote in the Forward that Democrats could win an argument about “leverage,” pointing to a University of Maryland poll that found 57 percent of Democrats ready to support even “economic sanctions” if it stopped annexation.
“By conditioning offshore procurement, the United States can prod and empower those in Israel’s security establishment who fear permanent occupation to more forcefully oppose it,” Beinart wrote. “And America can weaken Netanyahu by showing ordinary Israelis that his policies undermine Israel’s most important relationship.”
Republicans were startled, and overjoyed, when Democrats joined the debate. “We’re seeing a lot of center-left moderates who care about Israel coming over to the Republicans,” said Matt Brooks, the president of the Republican Jewish Coalition. “Look, I’m old enough to remember when George H.W. Bush nearly got run out of town when he floated the idea of linking aid to whether Israel accepted more Soviet Jews.”
Democrats and J Street leaders brush that off. The organization's polling has found Democrats supportive of Israel, but not of Netanyahu, with one J Street study finding a 52-point gap in their approval. According to the 2018 exit poll, Jewish voters backed Democratic candidates in the midterms by 62 points. Netanyahu's close alliance with President Trump, which has won unilateral American support for recognition of the Golan Heights and the U.S. Embassy's move to Jerusalem, has made it easier for Democrats to criticize Israeli policy without alienating their base.
“You're looking at two leaders, one who's going to be impeached, the other one may end up in jail,” Sanders said Monday, referring to Trump and Netanyahu.
In 2016, J Street advocated for the Democratic Party to change its platform and add more pro-Palestinian language. That was a success, in large part due to delegates elected to support Sanders. In 2020, Ben-Ami said, the group would try to get both parties to update platform language, and even make it clear that American aid could be used to pressure Israel toward a two-state solution.
Brooks chuckled at the idea of Republicans going along with that. “I think there’s zero chance,” he said. “The contrast between the GOP platform and what will come out of the Democratic Party in Milwaukee will be stark.”
“As Russia makes 2020 play, Democratic campaigns say they are in the dark, and experts fear U.S. elections are vulnerable,” by Isaac Stanley-Becker, Ellen Nakashima and Tony Romm
The ongoing and not-very-fruitful fight to prevent more foreign election meddling.
“The Trump campaign is seeking ‘hidden’ women voters. Impeachment won’t help,” by Katie Rogers and Maggie Haberman
How the drama consuming Washington complicates a plan to win unlikely Trump supporters.
What donors expect when they go in on a presidential campaign.
Early warning signs in a state Biden believes he can win without.
“Can the Bennet brothers save the establishment?” by Ben Terris
How a powerful family began to look powerless.
“It doesn’t take a genius to interfere in the U.S. presidential election,” by Patrick Reis and Andy Kroll
How Yuriy Lutsenko bumbled into history.
The latest on the impeachment inquiry:
IN THE STATES
California. The fall of Katie Hill, a 32-year-old freshman Democrat who was one of the stars of last year's wave, happened quickly and in the messiest possible way. Hill, who had never run for office before flipping California's 25th Congressional District, said in a statement and accompanying video that she quit to avoid even more questions about her sex life — including the key question, whether she carried out an affair with one or more staffers — and more “revenge porn” from the man she called an “abusive husband.” As a private citizen, Hill is continuing to sue at least one media outlet that ran photos of her naked body.
But the blunt, political question is what will happen to Hill's seat, one of the prizes of the California Democrats' 2018 surge. The district had been trending blue for years, even while electing Republican members of Congress. Barack Obama won it by one point over John McCain, then lost it by 1.8 points to Mitt Romney, before Hillary Clinton won it by 6.7 points. Registered Democrats began to outnumber registered Republicans in the district, which covers the Simi Valley and parts of the San Fernando Valley, after 2016; they now outnumber them by around a five-point margin.
Republicans entered this cycle targeting Hill's seat, though she lapped them in fundraising. By the end of September, Hill had raised nearly $2 million, while GOP recruit Mike Garcia raised $481,013 — enough to stay on the front line of Republican candidates but not enough to scare Democrats in a race where Trump could hurt California Republicans down the ballot.
The problem for Republicans now is that Hill, who some Democrats saw as a future senator, is not the only Democrat in the district. Christy Smith, who flipped the overlapping 38th Assembly district last year, declared her candidacy within hours of Hill's resignation. Alex Padilla, California's secretary of state, lives in the district and carried it in 2018; he's also considering a run. Republicans aren't clearing their own field, either, as Steve Knight, the congressman Hill unseated just 11 months ago, wrote on Facebook that he has been urged to take it back.
There's no set date for a new election. It could come as early as the March 3 primary, which would advantage Democrats, who'll already be voting in a contested presidential race. It could be punted later into 2020, which might help Republicans, while giving Smith (who has already been locking up local delegate endorsements) time to build a war chest. It's not great for Democrats — an increasingly solid seat is now open again — but in the current environment, their party is in a decent position to hold the seat or to regain it in a 2020 general election.
North Carolina. A state court struck down Republican-drawn congressional maps, which have helped the party secure a 10-to-3 supermajority in its congressional delegation despite a popular vote that's fairly evenly divided between the two parties. A deciding factor was something Republicans themselves admitted: After a previous gerrymander was struck down on racial grounds, the party drew one that took race into account but gave it a partisan political advantage. Republicans could pursue more legal options, but it's likely that there will be new maps, drawn either by Republicans (under new restrictions) or by judges, in effect for the 2020 election. That could lead to two, three or more competitive seats, especially if the new maps don't split up major population centers such as Asheville and Greensboro.
In one week, Virginia voters will elect a new House of Delegates and half their state Senate, on maps redrawn after a court decision that went against Republicans. Among the ads running in the Commonwealth:
Dan Helmer, “Still.” As a candidate for Congress last year, Helmer was accused of running one of the worst campaign videos of the cycle — a jokey re-creation of the bar karaoke scene in “Top Gun.” Helmer now is a candidate to unseat Republican Del. Tim Hugo and running a far more traditional campaign. He's accusing Hugo of blocking a debate on gun safety reform, an issue every Democrat is using in some degree or another after the GOP killed a special session on it.
Clinton Jenkins, “Truth.” The other policy Democrats are running on to peel suburbanites away from Republicans is Medicaid expansion, which unlike gun control did pass; Gov. Ralph Northam (D), whose blackface scandal has largely faded from the conversation, signed a compromise expansion in 2018. Jenkins's argument against Republican Del. Chris Jones is entirely about how he voted against the compromise.
Amanda Pohl, “We Know Who You Are.” Republican Sen. Amanda Chase represents the reddest area that Democrats are seriously contesting; the campaign against her is in large part about her personal style. Here, she's labeled “a politician who blames rape victims” after news footage plays from an incident in which she “berated a Capitol police officer.”
David Yancey, “Delegate David Yancey on Education.” He became nationally famous for a day or so because of how he won in 2017: a literal coin flip after a tie with Democrat Shelley Simonds. Simonds is running again with more resources, and Yancey's ad portrays him not as a conservative but as an education-minded reformer who wants to get away from a reliance on standardized testing.
New Hampshire primary (CNN/UNH, 574 likely voters)
Bernie Sanders — 21% (+2)
Elizabeth Warren — 18% (-1)
Joe Biden — 15% (-9)
Pete Buttigieg — 10% (+0)
Tulsi Gabbard — 5% (+4)
Amy Klobuchar — 5% (+5)
Andrew Yang — 5% (+4)
Kamala Harris — 3% (-6)
Tom Steyer — 3% (+3)
Cory Booker — 2% (+0)
Beto O'Rourke — 2% (+0)
Joe Sestak — 1% (+1)
CNN has gone into the field here every 90 days or so, and New Hampshire is a different Democratic test from Iowa: It has seen far fewer candidate visits and a fraction of the spending. Sanders, Warren, Buttigieg and Klobuchar have seen positive trends, of different kinds; almost nothing good has been happening for Biden. The former vice president now trails four other candidates (Sanders, Buttigieg, Warren and Booker) in net favorability, and while he's still seen as the most electable Democrat, his lead over the closest competitor on that question has shrunk from 29 points to 18 points. He continues to lag behind Warren and Sanders among voters naming their second choice, which has been true for a while and which remains worrying for a race that will take place after Iowa shrinks the field.
Sanders and Warren have mixed news; Warren has slightly more on the positive side, despite trailing marginally in the trial heat. Sanders has recovered since July but not to the levels he was at the start of 2019, when he dominated New Hampshire. Both Warren and Sanders are viewed by more voters as the most “likable,” with Sanders up seven points (to 27 percent) and Warren up six (to 10 percent) — they've both gained on that question all year. Warren is also viewed as the winner of the last debate, even though Sanders is viewed as having better policies on climate change and foreign policy.
The most New Hampshire result of all? No candidate has taken as much of a hit on favorability than Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), who likely Democratic voters view less positively by 27 points compared with how they viewed her in July. How did she reach 5 percent, a number that counts as qualification for both the November and December debates? Because she has become far and away the most popular candidate among Republicans, who can and do cross over to vote in the state's primaries.
Impeachment (Suffolk, 1,000 likely voters)
The House will impeach President Trump — 37%
The House won't impeach President Trump — 56%
The Senate will remove Trump from office — 19%
The Senate won't remove Trump from office — 73%
Attitudes about the country's biggest political story are shaped by expectations of what the president's base will do. Stories that quote voters often focus on the president's die-hard fans, who resent what's happening to him; questions about the point of an impeachment and Senate trial often founder on the support the president has from Republicans in the Senate. (Twenty of them would need to support removing Trump from office if every Democrat did.) While support for impeachment is much higher than it was in 1998, under different circumstances, it's frustration about the apparent pointlessness of it that affects the overall numbers. By a 17-point margin, liberals do think the House will impeach the president; by a 41-point margin, they don't think the Senate would convict him.
Cory Booker. He was one of just two Democrats at the second criminal justice reform forum in 72 hours, organized by the Marshall Project on Monday near Philadelphia. “Where are you today?” Booker asked, rhetorically. “Where are you? Seriously. This is a major national crisis.”
Kamala Harris. She was the only Democrat joining Booker on Monday; she also told BuzzFeed News that former congresswoman. Katie Hill, one of the first congressional Democrats to endorse her campaign, was the victim of “revenge porn,” which is illegal in California. “It was clearly meant to embarrass her,” Harris told Molly Hensley-Clancy. “There’s so much that people do about women and their sexuality that’s about shaming them.”
Joe Biden. He's returning to Iowa tomorrow, staying through the Liberty and Justice Celebration on Friday, with the candidate and his wife, Jill, both holding events across the state. And his allies have restarted “Unite the Country,” the super PAC they were discouraged from launching six months ago. As was reported last week, Biden's campaign has stopped discouraging wealthy supporters from forming and donating to a super PAC.
Tulsi Gabbard. She joined some family members of people who died in the 9/11 terrorist attacks on Tuesday to promote a long-running cause: asking the Justice Department and FBI to “declassify and release 9/11 investigative documents that implicate the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in the attacks.”
Julián Castro. Alongside his brother, Rep. Joaquin Castro, he recorded a Washington Post Tik Tok about the undying problem of people being unable to tell them apart.
Elizabeth Warren. Her campaign's New Hampshire director joined the lawsuit against legislation, passed by the state's now-defunct Republican majority, that raised residency requirements in a way that would limit student voting.
Bernie Sanders. His campaign began running digital ads in Iowa starring new endorser Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. “We should have a society that guarantees 21st century human rights,” she says in the spot.
WHAT I'M WATCHING
Online chatter about the primaries. It's never easy to track what Democrats are actually talking about. Some campaigns insist that Twitter is distorting everything, and some think it's vitally important to stay in the cable news conversation. But the machine-learning app SmartNews has continued tracking post-debate interest in candidates, and in the wake of the fourth debate, it has found movement for both Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg.
SmartNews tracked online interest in the Saturday-to-Sunday period around each debate so far, monitoring 16.8 million page views for each period. The only candidate with steady growth is Warren, the focus of 602,000 views in the week of the June debates and 1.4 million page views in the same period of October. Only one Democrat, Joe Biden, edged ahead with 1.6 million views; Warren was the subject of some ancillary coverage about Medicare-for-all, while Biden was being snared in the much larger impeachment story. The other movement: In the period around the third and fourth debates, there more interest in Buttigieg than in Sanders, who had led Buttigieg on this metric in debates one and two.
DEMS IN DISARRAY
Sen. Bernie Sanders's interview with John Harwood spelled out some contrasts with his allies, distancing him from Democratic Socialists of America (he does not want to eliminate private corporations) and taking a low-key swipe at Sen. Elizabeth Warren's law work (“I have never worked for a corporation myself”). It also found Sanders refusing to engage on the question occupying Warren's campaign: how to pay for every dollar of Medicare-for-all's estimated cost.
“You’re asking me to come up with an exact detailed plan of how every American — how much you’re going to pay more in taxes, how much I’m going to pay,” Sanders said. “I don’t think I have to do that right now. … All that I’m saying is that we have laid out a variety of options that are progressive. We’ll have that debate. At the end of the day, we will pay for every nickel of Medicare-for-all, and it will save the overwhelming majority of the American people, who will no longer pay premiums.”
It's not altogether different from answers Warren has given, and it's emblematic of how the conversation has shifted on Medicare-for-all and the primary. (It wasn't long ago when the fate of private insurance, not taxpayer costs, was the killer question.) And Sanders has gotten the question much more than Warren. But from the outset, he has endorsed Medicare-for-all as a cause, akin to the fight for civil rights bills, that cannot be nickel-and-dimed. There's a reason his Medicare-for-all legislation does not include funding mechanisms, called pay-fors, shunting all of that into a separate document.
At the moment, Sanders's opponents are fine with that — because they're more nervous about Warren. In this month's debate, the other Democrats competing strongly in Iowa repeatedly used Sanders's “honesty” as a brickbat against Warren, asking why she, unlike him, refused to say that replacing Americans' insurance with universal Medicare would replace premiums with taxes. Sanders said that “for virtually everybody, the tax increase they pay will be substantially less than what they were paying for premiums and out-of-pocket expenses,” and instead of pressing him for details, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) praised him.
“At least that's a straightforward answer,” Buttigieg said.
“At least Bernie's being honest here and saying how he's going to pay for this and that taxes are going to go up,” Klobuchar said.
With Sanders refusing to take the “how will you pay for it” bait, and Warren's plan not yet ready, their critics have found an opening. The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget released pay-fors that included sky-high new payroll or consumption taxes. They're unlikely to be part of any Warren plan, but in the short term, they fill gaps in the political conversation.
Warren's supporters are trying to set up a soft landing for whatever she releases. The Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which has been closely aligned with Warren since the effort to draft her into Massachusetts's 2012 Senate race, presented polling at this past weekend's Congressional Progressive Caucus designed to show that voters would support Medicare-for-all if they believed it was paid for with taxes lower than their current premiums. The polling (conducted by YouGov with an online panel) found that the policy was opposed by a narrow margin if voters learned about tax hikes; if voters were told that “you would pay a premium to the government that is less than what you pay for healthcare now,” the numbers reversed.
“Our side wins the debate if we make the case for Medicare-for-all instead of fearing right-wing attacks,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Institute. “Even after Medicare-for-all endures the most effective attacks, support surges right back to 50 percent or higher if our side just bothers to make the case.”
There is no Warren plan to test yet, though, and were Warren to decrease as a threat, Democrats are comfortable asking Sanders the same question: Seriously, how does he pay for it?
“To not tell voters how you are going to pay for a plan is an insult to taxpayers, it shows a disregard for the next generation that is inheriting our debts, and it shows you have no real plan for governing,” tweeted John Delaney, who is no longer qualifying for televised debates but is actively campaigning in early states, warning (like Michael Bennet, like Amy Klobuchar, and so on) that the party simply can't win if it talks like this.
... three days until Iowa's Liberty and Justice Celebration
... seven days until state and legislative elections in Kentucky, Mississippi, New Jersey and Virginia
... 15 days until the cutoff for the fifth Democratic debate
... 18 days until Louisiana's runoff elections
... 22 days until the fifth Democratic debate
... 97 days until the Iowa caucuses