MARION, Iowa — “We're going to try something different,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts said Sunday night. “You all are my experimental group.”
That got some laughter from the crowd, 350 or so Iowans out to see a candidate whose “front-runner” status had evaporated sometime between Halloween and Thanksgiving. Warren was serious. Out was the finely crafted stump speech, with reminiscences of her mother putting on her Sunday best (“you all know the dress”) and working to save her family. Out were the applause lines about how “unions will rebuild the middle class” and how the Supreme Court should follow “basic standards of ethics.”
Instead, Warren talked for a fast eight minutes, then took questions for an hour — impeachment, Medicare-for-all, impeachment again, and whether there was a moment in her life “where somebody you really looked up to maybe didn't accept you as much.” After steadily losing support to South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Warren was working to remind Iowans why they'd liked her in the first place: She was the candidate with plans. Remember that?
The Marion town hall, followed by an event in Iowa City where she continued the ask-anything format, was Warren's way of acknowledging that something had gone wrong. She would never say so outright. Warren's campaign has avoided talk about the horse race or its plan of attack, even in better days.
Over the summer, when an Iowa poll found Warren leading for the first time, her campaign told staff not to talk about it, and they obliged, a dogma that continued through the year. Reporters who get time with Warren, usually in short gaggles after her town halls, have learned that any horse race question will get a happy non-answer about why the senator is “in this fight” or why she isn't paying attention to polls.
“No,” Warren told reporters in Iowa City, when asked whether she was adjusting her campaign after a downswing. “This is a chance to just talk to more people, and hear their questions, and field more questions. I've been fielding questions since the very first event I did right at the beginning in Iowa.”
It's true that Warren has done this before; it's also true that she's shaking things up. As it rose, Warren's campaign refused to engage with most negative attacks, not even dispatching surrogates for cable TV segments. Warren herself avoided TV interviews, ignored Sunday talk shows and seldom responded to the (often-Trump-centric) news of the day.
There are signs of change, with Warren expected to sit for several cable interviews this week and top surrogates such as Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts expected to do more TV work as the impeachment drama continues. The Marion town hall produced one of Warren's first viral moments in weeks, when she comforted a member of the LGBTQ community with an emotional story about her divorce.
That was new. Warren's media strategy until Marion had come with disadvantages, exacerbated by her support for Medicare-for-all, which she opted to defend conceptually and funded with a complicated mix of tax increases on the wealthy and employers. Four years earlier, when Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) challenged Hillary Clinton from the left, not a single negative ad ran in Iowa about his health-care plan, and Sanders did not release an outline for Medicare-for-all until two weeks before the caucuses. This year, attacks on the least popular aspect of Medicare-for-all began six months before anyone would vote.
Over the summer, the Partnership for America's Health Care Future, a coalition of insurers, bought half of all political advertising in Iowa. As the leaves changed, Buttigieg and Sen. Michael F. Bennet of Colorado both began running ads that emphasized how they would expand government insurance coverage without touching private insurance — unlike Warren, or Sanders. The ads did not mention specific candidates, but the splashback hit Warren, who did not counterpunch unless directly attacked.
In mid-November, Warren partially broke with Sanders with her own transition plan, which would delay the end of private insurance. The attacks didn't stop, and the battle did damage that the campaign knew it needed to reverse. In Marion, she packed her plan for Medicare into three tight minutes: using executive powers to strengthen the Affordable Care Act, using budget reconciliation to lower the enrollment age and pull millions of people into the system, then teeing up a battle with weakened insurance companies.
“I think America is going to say: I'm on board, I get it, I like how this works,” Warren said. “I think that is how we're going to get the most help early in the process, and we're going to be able to open it up. So, it's not about fighting among Americans; it's about how to get health care to every single American at the lowest possible cost.”
One word in that answer — “fighting” — got to Warren's problem. Until her opponents zeroed in on Medicare-for-all, Warren was most strongly identified with her plan for an incremental wealth tax (“two cents, two cents”) that paid for an expansive liberal agenda without asking the vast majority of Americans to pay more. Instead of arguing with any primary opponents, Warren was arguing with billionaires, which she relished. In October and November, she was arguing with fellow Democrats, which she didn't, and Buttigieg flourished by both criticizing Warren's tone and by promising not to get wrapped up in “fighting.”
That has pulled voters away from Warren, sometimes visibly; there were empty seats in a Sunday afternoon event in Waterloo, which drew 175 people in a reliably Democratic town. (Terrance Hollingsworth, who'd organized a summer house party for Warren, said she shouldn't have come to the black part of Waterloo while many voters were at church.) Warren had kicked off the weekend with a rally of around 3,000 supporters in Chicago, which quieted the talk of a fade-out.
Warren's voters were paying attention to the setbacks. At Sunday's events, some used words such as “uncomfortable” to describe how Warren had handled attacks on her policies, though some added that they wanted to see a woman in the White House. (The surprise exit from the race by Sen. Kamala D. Harris has increased the chance that Warren would be the last woman standing in Iowa.) In Waterloo, Ken and Mary Huffman, both 69, were divided — Ken was all in on Warren, while Mary had been dismayed by the Medicare conversation.
“I like what Buttigieg is saying, especially his Medicare for those who want it,” said Mary Huffman. “I've read that there are concerns about whether her plan is enough to pay for that.” Warren's eventual payment and transition plans, she said, had “swayed” her, but not enough to pick a side of the fence.
It's Buttigieg, not Sanders, who Warren-world sees as her biggest problem in Iowa. The Sanders campaign shares that theory, seeing no threat to itself from Buttigieg's more comfortable, college-educated and white coalition, in Iowa or elsewhere. Warren's campaign, with eight weeks to turn things around, is watching to see whether Buttigieg can hold up to scrutiny; while that happens, it's working to restore the image Warren had over the summer as the candidate who could plan for anything and answer any question. It wouldn't abandon the “fight” framing, even as Buttigieg seemed to gain by attacking it.
“It is easy to give up on big ideas,” Warren said. “It makes you sound smart and sophisticated: Just give up on the big ideas! But when we give up on the big ideas, we give up on the people who would be touched by those ideas. Most people are already in a fight.”
“How a fight over health care entangled Elizabeth Warren — and reshaped the Democratic presidential race,” by Annie Linskey, Jeff Stein and Dan Balz
The backstory behind the defining policy battle of 2019.
“Bernie splits from Warren with embrace of far-left foreign leaders,” by Alex Thompson and Holly Otterbein
One candidate can't say enough about politicians such as Evo Morales; one talks about them only if asked.
Following along on the latest leg of Buttigieg's quest for black votes.
“Misinformation efforts over Kentucky election could be playbook for 2020,” by Jessica Huseman
What a close race last month told us about the spread of fake news.
“The unexpected nostalgia of Biden’s ‘malarkey,’ " by Philip Bump
What's in an old-timey word, so obscure that the Biden bus has to define it? Plenty.
“How black voters could help Biden win the Democratic nomination,” by Astead W. Herndon and Lauren Leatherby
Inside the delegate math, which favors candidates who win big in black-majority districts.
DEMS IN DISARRAY
Sen. Kamala D. Harris of California, who ended her campaign for the presidency Tuesday, was not like other Democrats who'd dropped out. She had 15 endorsements from members of Congress — 16, before the resignation of California's Katie Hill. She'd made inroads with local leaders and elected Democrats across early states. In two weeks, California Gov. Gavin Newsom, one of the loudest liberal voices in the party, was set to campaign for her in Iowa.
That seemed natural, more natural than the slow, brutal collapse of her campaign. At the start of this decade, when Elizabeth Warren was teaching at Harvard and Pete Buttigieg had just left McKinsey & Co., Harris was seen as a potential president, a “female Obama” whose Jamaican and Indian heritage made her intriguing to an increasingly diverse party.
What happened next was a classic political tragedy, a rise and rise and rise followed by a steep fall. Even Democrats who wanted to beat Harris had mixed feelings about what was happening. Harris was labeled a “cop” for a criminal justice record that was dissected for steps that angered activists (an anti-truancy policy that arrested parents, more than 1,000 marijuana convictions) while other moves (opposition to the death penalty that nearly cost her an election) were forgotten. Harris was the first of many Democrats to get whipsawed by the details of Medicare-for-all, and propose some changes to it, which hurt her in ways it never hurt Pete Buttigieg or Elizabeth Warren.
Even some of Harris's setbacks sat uneasily with some Democrats. Her problems began early, with an in-public struggle to define why she was running, and some high-profile events, such as She the People's summit in Houston and the California Democratic Party convention in San Francisco, where she gave unmemorable answers or speeches.
But Harris had surged in the polls after criticizing Joe Biden's previous opposition to busing, which ended up showing how resilient Biden's black support really was — a problem for every one of his rivals. Her worst onstage moment came when Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii unloaded on her California record, which turned Gabbard into a favorite of Republicans, encouraging her to go on the attack in later debates. (The Trump campaign quickly congratulated Gabbard after Harris's announcement; Gabbard herself tweeted that “while we disagree on some issues, we agree on others and I respect her sincere desire to serve the American people.”)
By November, Harris was not seen as a threat to the highest-polling Democrats, but her departure mattered in two big ways.
Harris had more legislative endorsements than any Democrat except Joe Biden, and more of them from nonwhite legislators. Those supporters, and some who were staying neutral to see whether Harris could recover, are now free agents, getting fresh overtures from rival campaigns. (One congressional endorser texted The Post about his plans with an emoji of a confused person shrugging.) Endorsements have not driven many votes in this primary, but Harris's included Rep. Barbara Lee, a leader of the party's left who once urged Bernie Sanders to run for president, and an army of local elected officials in California, where no Democrat has a clear advantage.
Harris was also the only nonwhite candidate who had qualified for December's debate in her home state, something that quickly dawned on activists and elected officials. The most diverse contest in presidential history, a race that once featured more women than men, had gotten very white. Two nonwhite Democrats are close to making the stage (Andrew Yang and, in a small irony, Tulsi Gabbard), but Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey is not. Neither is former HUD secretary Julián Castro, who was cut from November's debate and was one of the first Democrats to defend Harris.
“The way that the media treated Senator Harris in this campaign has been something else,” Castro told CBS News reporter Tim Perry on Tuesday. “In the last few days, to see articles out of Politico, the New York Times, Washington Post, that have basically trashed her campaign and focused on just one small part of it, and I think held her to a different standard, a double standard, has been grossly unfair and unfortunate.”
Those articles had accurately conveyed the problems that ended Harris's campaign: muddled messaging, uncertain leadership and some scheduling errors that got noticed by activists and donors. But in the final weeks of her candidacy, Harris's stump speech had asked why nonwhite or female candidates were seen as less “electable” by voters still stunned by Donald Trump's 2016 win. Harris would tell voters that she was called unelectable in “every race that I have — here is the operative word — won.” On Tuesday afternoon, Democrats angry that the debate rules, demanding increasingly high poll numbers and donations for entry, had let the wealthy Tom Steyer onstage while excluding talented nonwhite candidates.
“That debate stage currently will not look like America,” said former New Hampshire Democratic Party chair Kathy Sullivan.
“No matter your candidate, you have to recognize that going from the most diverse field ever in January to a potentially all-white debate stage in December is catastrophic,” said Leah Greenberg, the co-founder of the left-wing organizing group Indivisible. “We need leaders who represent the diversity of our party. The myth of 'electability' and the bias associated with it has done huge damage this cycle.”
The latest on the impeachment inquiry:
- House panel’s report says Trump ‘compromised national security to advance his personal political interests’
- How the Ukraine pressure campaign began as an effort to undercut the Mueller investigation
- Americans are split on impeachment, just like they were before the public hearings
- Trump’s personal attorneys remain largely on the sidelines as the president contends with impeachment inquiry
Amy Klobuchar, “Questions.” The senator from Minnesota's first spots in Iowa and New Hampshire portrayed her as a moderate who could unite the country and calm things down. Her new ad gets into one of the Democrats' most popular policies, using government power to flatten the costs of prescription drugs, without getting into the details. The message is more like the one typically deployed by populists: Drug companies get away with murder, sometimes literally, because no one stands up to them. “Why do drug companies make billions of dollars getting people hooked on opioids?” she asks. “The big pharmaceutical companies, they think they own Washington. Well, they don’t own me.”
Pete Buttigieg, “Welcomed Me.” The mayor's first South Carolina ad is the latest in a series that uses footage from his speech to the Liberty and Justice Celebration in Iowa. It recycles a Bible quote that other Democrats have used, but Buttigieg has really grabbed onto: “In our White House, you won’t have to shake your head and ask yourself, “Whatever happened to ‘I was hungry and you fed me. I was a stranger and you welcomed me?' ” There are more black voters pictured on-screen than in previous Buttigieg spots, but as part of a diverse mix.
Kamala Harris wasn't the only Democrat to bow out of the Democratic race this week. On Monday, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock announced the end of his own campaign, saying in a statement that he “won’t be able to break through to the top tier of this still-crowded field.” To the consternation of Washington Democrats, who had urged him to forgo this race and run for Senate, he said he was seeking no other office.
Bullock had spent more than a year setting up a run, making stops in Iowa for local Democrats and fixating on a simple, consistent message: He’d won three elections in a red state, unlike literally everyone else running for president.
His biggest problem was that they actually started running for president, months before he did. Bullock, a Democrat presiding over a Republican legislature that meets for only a few months, spent the winter and spring of 2019 pushing through an extension of the state’s Medicaid expansion. When he declared his candidacy in May, he’d already missed out on months of organizing and fundraising.
Iowans did not seem care about that, and Bullock attracted sizable crowds in his first visits to the state. But he never broke through in a race in which Joe Biden, despite some stumbles, held onto a pile of moderate votes, and in which Pete Buttigieg had a head start, a compelling pitch — lighter on accomplishments, heavier on inspiration. Bullock’s one moment in the national spotlight, the second Democratic debate, was a missed opportunity, where he became part of a blur of low-polling candidates warning the party not to go far to the left.
Michael F. Bennet. He declared a sort of solidarity with Bullock after the governor ended his campaign, condemning DNC debate rules for leaving candidates like them (who have not reached the donor or polling thresholds) outside. “The fight to win back voters who abandoned our party for Donald Trump isn’t hopeless,” Bennet said. “It runs through battle-tested candidates from swing states, who know how to meet Americans where they are — not where the loudest voices on social media think they ought to be. It’s unfortunate that the DNC couldn’t make room for a perspective like that.”
Amy Klobuchar. She won over Iowa state Rep. Bruce Bearinger, who had previously endorsed Bullock.
Elizabeth Warren. She released a “fair workweek” plan, spelling out new labor rights for workers with variable schedules. Among the rules: requiring employers to give at least two weeks of notice on scheduling, family leave benefits for some part-time workers, and regulations that would prevent employers from taking advantage of those same part-time workers.
Joe Biden. He picked up the support of California Rep. Ami Bera, shortly before Harris left the race. (As noted above, that will free up a large number of California endorsers.)
Mike Bloomberg. He traveled to Jackson, Miss., on Tuesday for a criminal justice reform meeting with Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, who has worked with Bernie Sanders but is neutral in the primary.
Cory Booker. He's returning to Iowa around this weekend's multiple cattle calls for an expansive “lead with love” tour.
Tom Steyer. He qualified for the December debate in Los Angeles by reaching more than 200,000 unique donations.
ON THE TRAIL
OKATIE, S.C. — On Sunday, in Iowa, Joe Biden told NBC News that he would not get into an argument with Pete Buttigieg. “Anything I say about Pete will be taken as maybe criticism or a negative about Pete,” Biden said. “I don’t have any negative feelings about Pete at all. I think he’s a talented guy.”
Twenty-four hours later, something changed. In an interview with the reporters following his "No Malarkey" tour, Biden scoffed at the idea that Buttigieg's "Medicare for all who want it" had caught on, saying he "stole" the plan from Biden's similar public option and Medicare buy-in.
“What would you have done to me? You would have torn my ears off,” Biden said. “I would be a plagiarizing, no-good, old man who did bum-bum-bum.”
Buttigieg, who has grappled with other Democrats, declined to spar with Biden. Speaking with reporters after a forum with Latino voters, Buttigieg said only that the former vice president was mistaken.
“I've been talking about Medicare for all who wanted since at least February,” Buttigieg said, “and also, the plans are not exactly the same. You know, we've got to focus on capping out-of-pocket costs and focus on a glide path that I think very well could lead to a Medicare-for-all environment. Of course, I believe that our approach on health care is the best one. And I'm willing to bring that plan out and compete with any of my competitors on having the best plan.”
Pressed again on what it meant that Biden went negative, Buttigieg said that it meant “that we've got an excellent plan.”
Biden's criticism stood out largely because it was new. The four highest-polling Democrats are now split, two and two, on whether America's mixed health-insurance system should be replaced by universal Medicare. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren favor replacement (one over four years, one only after Medicare is expanded to a near-universal program), and had scrapped with both Biden and Buttigieg. And Buttigieg still has more of an argument with the liberal senators; asked whether his plan would cover noncitizens, as Medicare-for-all does, he said it was more complicated.
“I do think that everybody should be eligible to buy in to Medicare for all who wanted the public plan,” Buttigieg said. “But I would expect that you'd have to be a citizen to qualify for subsidies.”
... nine days until the qualifying deadline for the sixth Democratic debate
... 11 days until runoff elections in Houston
... 16 days until the sixth Democratic debate
... 62 days until the Iowa caucuses
... 70 days until the New Hampshire primary