In this edition: Cory Booker gets ready to miss the next debate, the Teamsters mostly like what they hear from Democrats in Iowa, and why a transparency fight broke out between Buttigieg and Warren.
No, I did not ask James P. Hoffa if he'd seen “The Irishman,” and this is The Trailer.
TIPTON, Iowa — The tears started flowing near the end of Saturday night’s town hall, as Cory Booker knew they would. The senator from New Jersey had started closing his events with a story about a mentor calling for him from his hospital bed, sharing his last six words.
“He said to me: I see you, I love you,” Booker said. “I see you. I love you.”
Some people had started wiping their eyes. “A family moving up from the South, distressed. Neighbors that didn't know them helped my family out. I see you. I love you. Slaves trying to escape from the South find white families opening their barns up, pulling together to build the greatest infrastructure project this county has ever known, the Underground Railroad. I see you. I love you.”
The crowd of around 50 Iowans is silent, except for the sniffles and tissue packets. Booker has done this repeatedly, over a year-long campaign that has made him well-liked across the state — a popular second choice for voters whose top pick is Joe Biden or Elizabeth Warren or Pete Buttigieg.
But Booker is an infrequent first choice, and it’s about to cost him. Unless something dramatic happens by Thursday, he’ll be knocked out of the sixth Democratic debate. Even Democrats who aren’t voting for Booker say they’re upset about that, wondering how the most diverse primary field in party history could become all white. The end of Sen. Kamala D. Harris’s campaign rattled some Democrats, and Booker wants them to think about why. That starts with his own story, about a father who fought segregation to help his family, and a Stanford graduate who became a poor city's mayor. That — hint, hint — was what would be left offstage.
“It’s unfair to voters,” Booker said about the debate rules in an interview after a stop in Iowa City. “One of the most significant campaign presences here, and not be able to be on the debate stage? That's unacceptable. The attitude from even local media here has been saying things like: Look, if you're polled, choose Cory Booker, he deserves to be on the stage. There’s a backlash that's going on here, where people are turning to our campaign, saying this is not right, we want to help.”
In front of voters, Booker was even more direct: “If you sit there and you see a caller I.D. and don't recognize the number, for the next week or so, answer the phone.”
Booker is not the only nonwhite Democrat who could get onstage. Andrew Yang and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii closer to qualifying than Booker is, based on polling. (Candidates must hit 4 percent in four polls, or 6 percent in two polls of early states, to qualify.) All three have hit the DNC’s fundraising marker and attracted at least 200,000 donations, as has Julián Castro, who was bumped out of the last debate.
Booker is starting with a lot of Iowa goodwill, and he’ll say so. “We have led the whole field here with local endorsements, from the people that are being elected in the Democratic Party,” he told reporters after a forum organized by mayors in Waterloo. “On top of that, we've got a field team that local leaders here, local press here, are calling one of the best.”
The senator from New Jersey has thrown himself into the debate controversy, holding a dramatic news conference this week to ask Democrats what happened. He’s embraced Harris, who did qualify for the debate, as a symbol of what went wrong with the process.
“I predict that Kamala Harris is going to be attorney general, Supreme Court justice, or president of the United States,” Booker said in Tipton. “I joke that she could do all at once, if she wants to.”
The debate controversy has supplied Booker with two resources usually denied him: money and attention. The campaign raised $1 million in the four days after Harris’s departure from the race, its strongest haul since the last donate-or-he’s-out push, in September. Linda Yanney, 64, arrived at Booker’s Iowa City gathering still wearing her Harris pin under a new Booker sticker.
“He’s really always been on my radar, but I was inspired by Kamala,” Yanney explained. “We don’t have a whole lot of time to wait around in Iowa, so I went to my second choice, and it was eased by the fact that Cory and his staff and his supporters have been so kind and understanding and welcoming. That has not happened with all the campaigns.”
Yanney shook her head. “The other campaigns are still sort of gloating.”
Being well-liked had not helped Booker escape the doldrums. Booker’s supporters are full of theories about that, none of them linked back to the candidate or his campaign. There was no debate fizzle like Harris, no fumbling meetings with local Democrats like Beto O’Rourke. What was it?
“To be honest, there is a sense some of these people that I talked to that we’ve already had a black president. That we checked that box,” said Linda Fones, 51. “I hate that. As a lifelong Democrat, that upsets me.”
When in doubt, it made sense to blame the debates. Booker had plenty of ambitious policies, starting with his “baby bonds” to shrink the wealth gap. None of it became a focus of the primary, unlike Medicare-for-all or Elizabeth Warren’s wealth tax. Booker picked no arguments with the left, unlike Buttigieg, who coined the term — “Medicare-for-all who want it” — that seemed to capture the Democratic mood.
“I’m sad he’s not getting traction as a candidate,” said Buzz Pounds, the chairman of Delaware County’s Democratic Party. “Every time I hear him speak, I’m energized. But every time he’s on the debate stage, the meat’s been picked clean. You know: Let’s talk about Medicare-for-all. Biden, Sanders, Warren, Buttigieg, you fight it out! And then they get to Booker.”
The twilight zone has its advantages. Booker started the race with a reputation as a finance-friendly Democrat who would calm big donors if he got the nomination. As Buttigieg has showed, that was not a killer in Iowa, but Booker took campaign money pledges and got all of the downsides — a shoestring campaign, no TV presence — and none of the upside.
That has begun to change. After discouraging anyone from funding a super PAC on his behalf — doing so had gotten one to shut down — Booker has thrown up his hands about United We Win, a new big-money group now on the air in Iowa. (Its first ad calls Booker the “Rhodes Scholar mayor who can beat Trump,” contrasting him with Buttigieg and suggesting that Democrats might be rejecting a black candidates in favor of a less-qualified white one.) Pressed on it, he reiterated that he wanted to end the super PAC era through campaign finance reform but bemoaned how wealthy candidates had changed the race.
“If you've been a successful business person, if you've been a successful mayor, you can get in the race,” Booker said, referring to billionaires Tom Steyer and Mike Bloomberg. “But these campaign finance rules right now are so broken and contorted.”
Booker also has taken relatively little heat for the policies that made liberals skeptical about him — an advantage, for now, as he reintroduces himself as the most credible nonwhite Democratic candidate. But the problems never went away. In Tipton, Booker spent five minutes trying to win over a skeptic who had heard about the nonbinding 2017 vote Booker cast against an amendment in favor of importing cheaper prescription drugs from Canada. The vote had predated Donald Trump’s presidency by a week, and Booker had never shaken it off.
“This is one of those things knocking around the Internet, and it’s just not true,” Booker said. “Just so you know, it’s me and Bernie Sanders who wrote the bill to allow imports to come in. If that [amendment] had passed, nothing would have changed. It was a messaging amendment. There are many bots out there trying to make this into a lie. This has been fact-checked. But if importation is going to become the law, it’ll be because of the bill I wrote.”
The voter was not convinced. Booker broadened the question, asking whether Democrats really wanted to believe everything negative about a candidates who might not get a chance to explain himself onstage.
“There’s going to be a lot of people telling a lot of lies,” he said. “They did it to Hillary Clinton. They did it to Kamala. I saw people attacking, pretending they were left-wing parts of our party. And I’ll tell you why: If I’m the nominee, you want to talk about a candidate who can reunite the Obama coalition.”
The guilt primary unfolds in Iowa.
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“Mike Bloomberg’s money buys him a very different kind of campaign. And it’s a big one,” by Isaac Stanley-Becker and Michael Scherer
Why the latest (and perhaps final) Democratic candidate doesn't mind it if two people show up to hear him.
“Five myths about black voters,” by Theodore R. Johnson
Understanding an electorate that has been misunderstood all year.
“How the cool kids of the left turned on Elizabeth Warren,” by Ruairí Arrieta-Kenna
Jacobin's long war on a Democrat it was less annoyed with just nine months ago.
“States’ shift from caucuses is challenge for Sanders, Warren,” by Ken Thomas and John McCormick
How the steady decline of the caucus could hurt candidates who depend on organizing.
ON THE TRAIL
CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — James P. Hoffa, the president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters for the past 21 years, had something nice to say about all the Democrats running against President Trump. None of them were making Hillary Clinton's mistakes.
"[Trump] talked about workers," Hoffa said, a few floors above the room where the union would hold its candidate forum. “He talked about reopening the coal mines. He talked about reopening the steel mills, whether he meant it or not. Hillary was criticized at that time because she was not talking about issues that resonated with workers. And I think that the candidates this time have really learned her lesson."
Hoffa and his union tested the Democrats on Saturday, with six candidates — former vice president Joe Biden; Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.); South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg; Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.); Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.); and businessman Tom Steyer — answering questions from members and moderators. (Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who has participated in the Teamsters' endorsement progress, had previously scheduled stops in New Hampshire that day.) Each of them pledged to end “right-to-work" policies at the federal level, each pledged to support labor-friendly trade deals, and each committed to support the Butch Lewis Act, to create a loan program and rescue failing union pension plans.
None of that was a surprise; the Butch Lewis bill sailed through the House and, like most Democratic priorities, got blocked by the Republican Senate. Over three hours, the forum largely elided differences between the candidates, especially on trade. It was up to candidates themselves to poke at their disagreements, and not all of them did.
Sanders, who closed out the day, clearly won the room. “I have been on more picket lines with striking workers that I suspect all of my opponents combined," he said. When a video showed a question from striking workers at Arizona's Asarco, Sanders remarked that they'd been on strike for “several months." No other candidate showed that fast familiarity with an ongoing labor struggle. Sanders also stood alone in asking where his rivals had been on trade deals.
“My friends and colleagues talk about being pro-worker, and that's good," Sanders said. “But they voted for some of the worst trade agreements in the history of this county. I am proud to tell you that not only did I vote against NAFTA and PNTR, but I led the effort against those disastrous trade agreements. As president, we are going to have policy of fair trade, not unfettered free trade."
That was a shot across the bow at Biden, who was separated from Sanders by four candidates and several hours. But Biden, the only Democratic candidate who had supported NAFTA, was never asked about trade. As he's done at other labor gatherings, Biden pitched himself as the candidate who could be trusted, knew what he owed labor and could deliver on their priorities.
“You may prefer somebody else," Biden said, looking at one Teamster in the audience, “but I’m the real deal."
Labor unions have been endorsing at a slower pace in this race than in any primary in this century; Biden's sole national labor endorsement came from the International Association of Fire Fighters, in May. While moderators did not pressure him on trade, Biden, who'd backed the Trans-Pacific Partnership while in office, had said as a candidate that he would not support that deal as it was written. Teamsters wanted to hear a bit more.
“We have to certainly talk to the vice president with regard to trade," Hoffa said. “He's a great man, a good man. But I think trade is an important issue that needs he needs further dialogue about what to do. Last time, basically, Hillary [Clinton] was for it until Bernie Sanders was against it, and threatened to blow the whole thing up. We were against TPP. Our members continue to be against TPP. It was basically NAFTA on steroids for Vietnam and Brunei or whatever. We want trade agreements that don't hurt America, okay. They shouldn't be used as some part of some kind of a State Department thing to surround China."
Over the course of the day, no Democrat got reactions comparable to Biden or Sanders. Buttigieg, who lacks the strong ties to labor of his competitors, connected best when he emphasized the biography he could bring to a general election.
“As someone who wore the uniform of this country, you will never see the president of the United States laughed at when I am commander in chief," he said.
Other Democrats focused specifically on where they agreed with the union, and where Sanders and the absent Warren did not. Klobuchar emphasized that she opposed Medicare-for-all, a position in line with the Teamsters, which got a vocally better response than Booker's call for single-payer.
“We're for Medicare for all that need it, okay?" Hoffa said. “The Teamsters don't need it. And we have excellent health care that we would never give up for any other plan."
But some in the audience were unimpressed. Bill Carol, 58, was among the Teamsters who'd cheered for Sanders and kept quiet when other candidates promised to protect union plans.
“I understand the benefits of keeping the union's health plan, but Medicare-for-all is a human rights issue," Carol said. “I'd trade our plan happily if we got a Medicare-for-all scenario."
The latest on the impeachment of President Trump:
- As impeachment hurtles forward, a plea for legal help for government witnesses
- Will impeachment be forgotten by November 2020? Don’t be so sure.
- Republicans mount ad blitz on impeachment, making some vulnerable Democrats nervous
- Democrats face a consequential choice — limited or broad impeachment articles against Trump
Mike Bloomberg, “Tough Fights.” The second (of three) ads from the former mayor positions him as a wealthy do-gooder who wins: He “beat America's biggest gun lobby,” “beat big coal,” and “beat Big Tobacco,” all leading up to beating “him”: President Trump.
Cory Booker. He has begun a radio buy in South Carolina that tells the Civil Rights-era drama that makes it into every one of his speeches, about his father buying a house in the era of redlining and segregation. “Realtors wouldn’t sell us a home because of the color of our skin,” Booker says. “Activists ran a sting operation to get us into a house. They changed the course of my entire life. My dad told me, 'Boy, never forget where you came from.' So over 20 years ago I moved to Newark, New Jersey, to fight slumlords and help families stay in their homes.”
DEMS IN DISARRAY
CORALVILLE, Iowa — It took a long time for Elizabeth Warren to pick a fight with Pete Buttigieg by name. For the past five weeks, the senator from Massachusetts has referred to candidates with “safe” campaigns, driven by consultants, which was widely seen as a reference to Buttigieg. But only this week, starting at a fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee, did Warren make a direct attack, centered on a demand that the mayor open his fundraisers to the media.
“I think that Mayor Pete should open up the doors so that anyone can come in and report on what’s being said,” Warren told reporters in Boston. “Those doors shouldn’t be closed, and no one should be left to wonder what kind of promises are being made to the people that then pony up big bucks to be in the room.”
That kicked off a multiday back-and-forth, in which only Buttigieg began to move, calling on McKinsey & Co. to release him from his nondisclosure agreement and let him discuss his clients from his 2 1/2 years at the firm. He pushed back at Warren, urging her to reveal tax returns before 2008 (she has released returns from that year and after), covering the period when she gave legal advice to nearly 60 corporations.
Readers of this newsletter will recall that Buttigieg and Warren tried to start this fight before Thanksgiving. It never got anywhere, as most voters were busy preparing for food comas. This argument was different: Buttigieg, for the first time in a while, faced real scrutiny about the way he was campaigning, culminating in an awkward, clipped media gaggle Friday where he answered monosyllabically when asked when he would decide whether to let media into fundraisers.
Why would Warren choose this fight, when she remains somewhat vulnerable on the tax return question? It's a way, if it works, to prompt questions about whether Buttigieg has shifted or changed any stances because of donors, something the other leading Democrats are free to do because of their own donor transparency. Joe Biden has allowed pooled media into his finance events, a decision that has led to a few damaging news cycles. Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders hold no traditional fundraisers.
“I don’t go to wealthy contributors and ask them what I should say,” Sanders said at a Saturday night rally in Cedar Rapids.
Sanders, like Warren, was voicing a cynical view of Buttigieg shared by many of his competitors: He introduced himself to voters as a proud liberal but has shifted to the center as he became the top pick of Democratic donors. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota has hinted at that, pointing out that she was taking a risk and rejecting Medicare-for-all when Buttigieg was suggesting he supported it; former HUD secretary Julián Castro, whose irritation at Buttigieg can radiate through a TV screen, has accused him of shifting on deportation policy, agreeing with activists in the spring but denouncing “purity tests” in the summer.
Buttigieg, like many surging candidates before him, has written this off as desperation. But it's worth watching, as Buttigieg is settling into a role that less-adroit candidates such as Beto O'Rourke and Sen. Kamala D. Harris found themselves in: Democrats viewed skeptically, if not contemptuously, by left-wing activists on the hunt for phoniness. Over this weekend, facing some of the biggest crowds of his campaign, Buttigieg was protested twice and filmed once by activists asking why he met with donors in private. In Coralville, near Iowa City, Buttigieg rallied in the same space where Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) had campaigned; as he began speaking, protesters unfurled banners that advertised his single-digit support from black voters. (Read about his Southern trip where he was trying to address this, in Thursday's Trailer.)
“This is a competitive process, and that's fine,” Buttigieg said. “I‘d humbly suggest that it’s better to lift up your own candidate than trying to tear down others.”
The Progressive Turnout Project, a liberal group that targets lower-propensity voters, is planning to spend $45 million in swing states in the run-up to 2020. It's a $21 million increase from the group's 2018 budget, when it focused largely on House races. In the next cycle, it will campaign with the expectation that the House is safe for Democrats.
“As there've been more GOP retirements, it’s become clear that our resources are best placed in presidential and Senate battlegrounds,” said the group's executive director, Alex Morgan.
The project will target nine states, all of them competitive in 2020, and six of them with closely watched Senate races: Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. (There are two Senate races in Georgia next year, one forced by the retirement of Sen. Johnny Isakson.)
“There are 4.8 million of our folks who stayed home in 2016,” Morgan said. “We want to have conversations with them. It's not about shoving a message down their throats; it's more about listening to what their concerns are.”
Elizabeth Warren. She released a letter from her physician Friday, revealing for the first time that she took medication for hypothyroidism but was otherwise in good health, weighing in at 129 pounds and standing 5 feet 8 inches tall. Warren is the first of the Democrats' four septuagenarian candidates to release a letter like this ahead of the election.
Michael F. Bennet. He picked up the support of No Kid Hungry founder Billy Shore as he campaigned in New Hampshire, where the senator from Colorado has pledged to hold 50 town halls ahead of the primary. Bennet frequently criticizes the more left-wing candidates in the race for proposing expansive health insurance plans when for a fraction of the cost, advocates say, the government could wipe out child hunger.
Amy Klobuchar. She was endorsed by Iowa State Sen. Todd Taylor, continuing her one-upmanship endorsement contest with Cory Booker.
Cory Booker. At a Saturday event in Iowa City, he won the endorsement of Royceann Porter, the first black woman elected to Johnson County's board of supervisors.
Bernie Sanders. He picked up the support of an IBEW local while campaigning in Cedar Rapids on Saturday.
Andrew Yang. He tweeted that he'd “already booked” a ticket to the Dec. 19 debate, which he has yet to qualify for. Spokesman Erick Sanchez explained: “The tweet is just a display of confidence in our operation that we’ll see a poll that reflects our work to secure a spot in the debate.”
... four days until the qualifying deadline for the sixth Democratic debate
... six days until runoff elections in Houston
... 11 days until the sixth Democratic debate
... 57 days until the Iowa caucuses
... 65 days until the New Hampshire primary