But Yang was trying something different — a low-key “autism and family conversation,” anchored by his wife, Evelyn. More than 100 Iowans had crammed into a cafe with no WiFi to hear the Yangs talk about their autistic son and swap stories with parents nervous about how the world would treat their children.
“We've all been collectively brainwashed to think that economic value and human value are the same things,” Yang said. “And one of the traps that special-needs families fall into is to say, well, if you had the right organization or employment opportunity, then my son or daughter would be able to contribute. That is very true. But that should not be the point.”
Yang, whose campaign has outlasted those of two senators, three governors and five current or former members of Congress, had started with a gimmick. He was an “Asian man who wants to give everyone $1,000,” an evangelist for a universal basic income, or UBI, which was more than most candidates got known for.
“We're trying to reach out to people here in Iowa that might not see me on a podcast,” Yang said in an interview. After one event, he looked into TV cameras and named a few of the podcasts that helped him rise: Joe Rogan, Freakonomics.
It had been enough to get him into every DNC-approved debate, including the one scheduled for next week in Los Angeles. But Yang thought that for him to win, voters needed to see who he really was and how much more his presidency could do for them.
“We're trying to reach people who just turn into local news, or are part of a veterans community, or religious community, or a moms group,” Yang said on his campaign bus, next to a Super Nintendo that had been brought on when the candidate asked staff for something fun. “We're trying to reach different people where they are.”
In the final 24 hours of his bus tour, which had stretched over five days, Yang held a traditional town hall, a charity food drive, a roundtable with business leaders, a traditional rally, a visit to a diner and a crowded conversation about autism. As the tour rolled through, his campaign team was on the lookout for “boomers” — older voters, the kind who always caucus, the kind who may not be aware of the Yang dance challenges on TikTok.
“We're putting out more chairs,” said Yang's campaign manager, Zach Graumann, excitedly as volunteers cleaned up after the event in Dubuque. More chairs meant more older voters; more chairs meant that the campaign was reaching beyond its online base.
Four candidates are bunched up at the top of polls in Iowa. Yang is not one of them. He barely qualified for the December debate, thanks to a national Quinnipiac poll released right before this week's deadline, and none of his rivals feel the need to attack him or pry his votes away.
That has made him intriguing to voters who are not comfortable supporting former vice president Joe Biden, whose debate performance has worried them, or Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who they worry is too far left, or Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who might have the same problem. Yang's biggest idea, the universal basic income, is expensive, and grew out of the left. But it's easy to explain. Lots of Yang policies are like that, brief but hook-y, and he has not threatened any candidate enough to risk blowback.
Yang also attracts voters who sat out the 2016 election, or gave Trump a try, giving him a small but hardcore base. He's trying to build on that base with voters who always show up and caucus anyway. Jesse Singerman, 72, said after Yang's rally in Iowa City that she had leaned toward Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) but was beginning to find Yang intriguing.
“He's got really unique and interesting ideas, and he's got a compelling personality,” Singerman explained. “I mean, he's very personable and composed, and he's got a sense of humor, which is nice to have.”
The universal basic income, $1,000 per month for every American, is still at the center of Yang's campaign and his speeches. In his final day on the bus, Yang often ran a little late, which required supporters to vamp and describe a candidate whose $1,000-a-month plan had restored their faith in democracy.
The candidatehas surrounded that policy with other, less radical ones. His TV ads, produced by the team that had made Sanders's 2016 ads, set the tone, focusing more on his experience as a start-up adviser (creating “thousands of jobs”) than on UBI. The ad Iowans have seen the most was about autism, with Andrew and Evelyn Yang talking about their youngest son's needs and why they supported what he called “Medicare-for-all.” Yang defined that term as an optional government health plan anyone could enroll in, a different definition from what the rest of the field was using, in which Medicare-for-all replaced private insurance.
Other candidates suffered when changing the definition of universal Medicare. Yang just wanted voters to notice.
“How many of you are here because you saw our ads?” Yang asked the crowd of 100 or so Iowans at his Friday night event in Dubuque. When just one hand shot up, he deadpanned: “We've spent a lot of money on those!”
Yang describes the ads and the other decisions behind his increasingly normal campaign as matters of utility. What got the largest number of voters to think about him and donate to him? What would they pay attention to if he turned their heads?
“What we found when we talked to people was that they didn't know that much about me and they wanted to know more about me,” Yang said. “That included my family values. They were actually more excited about universal basic income if they got a sense of who I was.”
The debates, he said, had been useful for introductions to voters and for “deliverables” such as donation bumps. But he'd been frustrated to get questions on so many topics he did not focus on as a candidate.
“It almost seems sometimes like the goal is to ask me questions that are completely unrelated to anything I've talked about on the campaign trail publicly,” Yang said. “So I am 100 percent convinced that our system doesn't know how to have a conversation about changes in the economy that affect us all.”
When voters grilled him, as they did at a Friday evening town hall in Waterloo, Yang liked to bring those topics back to the “humanity first” ethos: What policies would allow people to live comfortably?
“This would make us stronger, healthier, less stressed out, improve our relationships, give us the chance to spend more time with our kids and give us a chance to actually take care of some of the problems that we're leaving for our kids,” Yang said, describing UBI.
Other Democrats, closer to a first-place finish, had spent the past few weeks debating the intricacies of each others' policies and whether their rivals were sincere. Yang stayed out of intra-Democratic arguments, unless he was pushed, as when he lightly criticized Warren's wealth tax in a debate.
Asked on the bus about South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and his past employment at McKinsey, which had become a target for the party's left this month, Yang called the consulting firm “one of the great facilitators of the capital efficiency machine,” which sometimes worked against the “worker happiness machine.” Asked about the updated NAFTA trade deal likely to come before Congress, Yang said he would probably support it, before arguing that trade deals focused too much on funds for retraining, which could be inefficient, instead of something direct, like the UBI “freedom dividend.”
“The workers would prefer you'd put the money into their hands,” Yang said. “So I'm for freedom dividend for everyone. And then I would be for taking whatever budget traditionally has gone into retraining programs and just put it directly into affected workers' hands.”
On Saturday night, Yang closed the tour with a stop at Iowa City's Hamburg Inn No. 2, shaking hands and taking photos with supporters. It was the now-usual mix: fans who had temporarily rebuilt their lives around him, and voters who had seen him on TV and liked the sales pitch.
“One of the fun things about this campaign is that I think the standards for us are lower,” Yang said. He pictured the election night reports on TV networks, the ones with candidates' faces next to their vote totals, which made their electoral power seem more real. “If we're on the board in Iowa, I think many people would be stunned.”
“Pete Buttigieg takes aim at Democratic ‘purity tests,’ ” by Chelsea Janes
A sit-down with The Washington Post reveals his gripes with other candidates.
“What the U.K. election does (and doesn’t) teach Democrats,” by Eric Levitz
Why Boris Johnson won everything.
The steady progress of the candidate who was supposed to stumble by now.
“The D.N.C. chairman knows no one is happy. Neither is he,” by Reid Epstein
What it's like when everyone wants you to fix the unfixable.
“Facing blowback, Bernie Sanders retracts endorsement of controversial candidate,” by Sean Sullivan and David Weigel
The saga of Cenk Uygur.
Why gender began to play a bigger role in the senator’s campaign.
How the mayor bought a movement.
EVERYBODY IS WRONG
On Friday morning, Americans found out that the United Kingdom had relocated somewhere between the Great Lakes. The governing Conservative Party had won its fourth election in a row and its largest majority since the 1980s. Whether British voters knew it or not, they were sending coded messages to the Democrats.
“Look what happens when the Labour Party moves so, so far to the left,” said Joe Biden. “Jeremy Corbyn’s catastrophic showing in the U.K. is a clear warning,” said Mike Bloomberg, referring to the left-wing Labour Party's leader. The two moderate Democrats were echoed by commentators arguing that the election “show[ed] the limits of the Twitter Left” or proved that “wokeness” would kill the Democrats in a 2020 election.
The election was traumatic for America’s left-wing movements, especially its resurgent socialists, who adored Corbyn. His 2015 takeover of the party mirrored the rise of Bernie Sanders, and Sanders himself welcomed the comparison. After the 2017 election, when Labour scored its highest vote in a decade, America’s left saw vindication: Milquetoast liberals lost elections; anti-austerity socialists could win them.
“We got our Bernie,” said Marcus Barnett, an organizer with Momentum (a left-wing campaign organization formed to help Labour win) at the 2017 convention of Democratic Socialists of America. “Don’t give up hope. Your time is coming now.” That optimism kept up through Thursday afternoon, with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), a Sanders endorser, and former Ohio state senator Nina Turner, a Sanders campaign co-chair, tweeting their support of Labour.
What happened in two years? Some trends, such as Labour’s decline with white voters in postindustrial Britain, mirrored what has happened in America — coal towns went Conservative, just as West Virginia and Minnesota’s Iron Range have gone Republican. Labour gained in big cities, suburbs and university towns, just as Democrats have shed votes in rural Pennsylvania while building electoral steamrollers in the suburbs of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.
But Labour’s particular weakness came from developments with no American analog. Scotland, a Labour stronghold for decades, fell in 2015 to the Scottish Nationalist Party; imagine California suddenly giving its votes to a breakaway party, not the Democrats, and the problem is obvious. Corbyn, who marched for every left-wing cause of his lifetime, took positions that Sanders wouldn't, such as opposition to NATO and the re-nationalization of energy companies. And Corbyn was tangled again and again in allegations of anti-Semitism and of not doing enough to stamp it out in the party.
The Labour Party that fought that 2017 election was deeply skeptical of Corbyn, riven by the sort of infighting that made the 2016 Democratic primary look tame. It got worse over time. This year, nine Labour MPs bolted the party, citing concerns about Corbyn's leadership in general, and the anti-Semitism controversy in particular.
All of that hurt, but Brexit made it worse. The 2016 vote to leave the European Union scrambled the country's map. Outside London and Scotland, many historically Labour communities, skeptical of trade, globalization and in many cases immigration, backed Leave. Labour's 2017 position on Brexit was no more complicated than the Conservatives': The country had voted, and it was time to get the best possible deal.
“The question now is what sort of Brexit do we want,” Corbyn would say, arguing that Labour would focus on a “jobs-first” exit from the European Union.
At the time, that stopped the Conservatives, then led by Theresa May, from making real gains with Leave voters. What really hurt was the governing party's manifesto. (British political parties, unlike ours, run closely on their party platforms.) Leave campaigners had promised that quitting the European Union would lead to millions more in funding for the National Health Service. The manifesto didn't deliver, instead piling on more means-testing for services. Corbyn turned the election into a choice between “austerity” and generous benefits, reversing years of business-friendly tax cuts.
It nearly worked. Corbyn's Labour smashed turnout models in 2017, winning 40 percent of the vote, the party's highest total in 16 years. Never popular, he was briefly seen more positively than May.
And then it fell apart. The Brexit saga isn't worth getting deeply into here, but Labour suffered as the debate over leaving the E.U. dragged on. Pro-Leave voters who stuck with the party grew angry as Labour denied votes to potential deals, repeatedly delaying an E.U. exit. (Read Sebastian Payne's thread of conversations with disaffected Labour voters). The Conservatives entered the election with a promise to “get Brexit done,” while Labour's new position was that it would renegotiate a deal and put it up to a new national referendum.
Johnson avoided the mistakes of 2017, promising to hire more nurses and otherwise protect the NHS. Given a choice between a widely disliked Corbyn and his muddled Brexit position and an only slightly unpopular Johnson who promised to increase services and make Britain carbon-neutral, pro-Leave Labour voters walked away; many pro-Remain voters went for the Scottish National Party or the Liberal Democrats, options with no equal in American politics.
If the 2017 election validated the left's theory of politics, this election validated Johnson's version of populism: less immigration, more nationalism, and more wealth to spread around at home. Trump, an on-again/off-again fan of Johnson, is all in on the nationalism. And an underrated factor in Trump's 2016 victory was his willingness to abandon Republican norms on Social Security, Medicare and trade. But he hasn't shown the same flexibility on “entitlements” since then, giving back an advantage to Democrats.
Britain's election has plenty of lessons for Republicans, who are unlikely to adopt them because it would mean abandoning their fiscal and social welfare policies. It has warnings, but few lessons, for Democrats; the problems that broke Labour may be specific to the U.K.
The latest on the proceedings against President Trump:
- ‘The grand finale’: Inside Trump’s push to rack up political victories as impeachment looms
- Fact-based impeachment can’t penetrate the pro-Trump Web
- The big question for Democrats on impeachment, now that it’s happening
- Freshman Democrats push for Amash as impeachment manager
- Senate GOP defends Trump, despite oath to be impartial impeachment jurors
Mike Bloomberg, “Smoke and Fire.” The former mayor has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on climate change advocacy, the focus of this spot. Few Democrats talk about how environmental policy would disrupt the energy industry anymore after Hillary Clinton was damaged for telling West Virginians that her policies would put “a lot” of coal companies out of business. Bloomberg leans in: He helped shut down “299 dirty coal plants” and already knows how to create green jobs.
On Friday, Democratic presidential candidates began announcing that they would not attend Thursday's debate in Los Angeles unless a labor dispute was resolved at Loyola Marymount University, its host. On Saturday, all seven of the candidates who made that debate, as well as Julián Castro and Cory Booker, who did not, signed a letter urging the DNC to relax its standards for the next debate, on Jan. 14. And Sunday, in a New York Times interview, DNC Chairman Tom Perez reiterated that those standards were not going to be relaxed.
The best-case scenario for Democrats this week is one that will leave several of them unhappy: a debate with mostly white candidates that goes ahead as scheduled. Although the DNC has not officially issued standards for the January debate, those it has would keep the lineup mostly a -is, with three candidates who qualified for this month's debate (Andrew Yang, Amy Klobuchar and Tom Steyer) at some risk of being kicked off. It would depend when the party begins counting qualifying polls and how many polls are conducted, the variable that the party controls the least.
What could happen next? As Perez hinted to The Post, and expressed more clearly to the Times, all the debates after January will take place after primary voting has begun. The party looks likely to factor that into who makes the stage, though there's no hint at what numbers candidates would have to put up to get a golden ticket. Doing that would also continue to delay Mike Bloomberg's debut on a debate stage, as he's not competing in any of the first four states. That takes care of one gripe Democrats have had about this process, but they've been coming up with more each week.
What does Mike Bloomberg's self-funding mean to you? (CBS News, 10,379 registered voters)
That rich people can have too much influence in politics: 48%
His independence from big donors: 22%
His dedication to the effort: 16%
He’s trying to take a shortcut instead of campaigning: 14%
Bloomberg's decision to run campaigns on his own dime is a defining characteristic of politics. Other people raise money. Other people can be bought. He can't. A similar pitch helped Donald Trump (who no longer self-funds) in the 2016 primary, but it's doing little for Bloomberg with Democrats. Just 38 percent of them see something positive about Bloomberg's self-funding.
Do you support this policy? (Fox News, 1,000 registered voters)
A 2% wealth tax on worth over $50 million: 68%
Allowing anyone to buy into Medicare: 66%
Legalizing marijuana: 63%
Leaving Obamacare in place with minor changes: 53%
Building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border: 44%
Replacing private insurance with a government plan: 41%
In addition to its head-to-heads — this edition finds Joe Biden again performing best in a general election against the president — Fox sometimes takes a pH test on the policies being yelled about in the primaries. Warren, having slipped in polls, now advocates the most and least popular policies put before voters here, the wealth tax and Medicare-for-all. But there's no issue that helps the president. Obamacare, which is still expected to go before the Supreme Court again in 2020, is popular; the wall is not, even after presidential maneuvers to move funding for it from other parts of the military budget.
IN THE STATES
The last big election of 2019 ended Saturday, with the anti-climactic victory of Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner. But the race didn't lack drama. Turner, a Democrat, eked out a 4,082-vote victory in 2015 over Republican-aligned Bill King. (The race is technically nonpartisan.) Republicans, at the time, saw a potential breakthrough in a city that had been drifting left.
Then came the 2016 election. And then came the 2018 election. Houston has become less hospitable territory for Republicans, and Turner proved it, beating self-funding attorney Tony Buzbee, who was backed by Republicans, by 27,102 votes. The president's unpopularity hurt Buzbee, with Turner lacerating him for donating to the Trump campaign. An issue that Republicans have hoped would help them in cities fell flat, too, when a Buzbee mailer attacking Turner's support for a trans rights ordinance and a “drag queen story hour” generated controversy without winning votes.
Seven Democrats met in Pittsburgh on Sunday for the last big cattle call before Thursday's debate, an education forum sponsored by the American Federation of Teachers. The theme of every major cattle call repeated itself: Democrats sometimes have to work to find their disagreements.
On Title I funding, for example, Elizabeth Warren differed from the field by suggesting that it could be quadrupled, from $15 billion to $60 billion, thanks to her wealth tax. Four other candidates — Sen. Michael F. Bennet; former vice president Joe Biden; South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg; and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) — disagreed. Why? They merely wanted it tripled. On charter schools, an issue that has bedeviled Warren as advocates have accused her of hypocritically cutting off a path to success for poor children, opinion ranged from limiting their expansion (Biden) to limiting their expansion and closing for-profit charters.
“Public school money needs to stay in public schools,” Warren said.
The candidates bickered only when they chose to. Bennet, who has become Warren's most persistent critic, made a point of denouncing Medicare-for-all. It was a waste of time, he explained, when “we could cut childhood poverty in America by 40 percent in one year by passing the American Family Act,” his plan to expand the child tax credit. And he met with the Powerful Parent Network, a new “school choice” organization founded this year to pressure Democrats, with his campaign pointing out that no other Democrat did so.
After that, it was back to the early-state trail.
Bernie Sanders. He sent another letter to Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred denouncing any continued plans to shutter Minor League teams. “Threatening to walk away from the entire minor league system is the exact opposite of negotiating in good faith,” Sanders said. He'll rally in Rancho Mirage, Calif., on Monday, his last big event before the scheduled sixth debate.
Cory Booker. After recovering from the flu, he'll spent Wednesday and Thursday in Nevada for roundtables and caucus trainings.
Amy Klobuchar. She'll return to Iowa in the days before Christmas, visiting 27 counties and becoming the second Democrat, after John Delaney, to hit all 99.
Tom Steyer. He's in Iowa on Sunday and Monday, making an economy-focused speech in Iowa City.
Deval Patrick. On Monday, he'll speak at a Unite for Mental Health New Hampshire Town Hall near Manchester. As governor of Massachusetts, he'd talked openly about his wife's struggles with depression.
DEMS IN DISARRAY
Jeff Van Drew's path to Congress was almost as strange as the announcement, expected at any moment, that he'll leave the Democratic Party.
The 2017 retirement announcement of a Republican congressman in south New Jersey opened a seat that both parties knew Van Drew, a conservative Democrat, could win. The local Democratic Party, desperate to take back the House, got past its issues and endorsed the state senator. Local liberals, just as eager to win back power, considered Van Drew a nonstarter.
In last year's primary, a divided left got 45 percent of the vote, better than expected against the anointed candidate. In November, Van Drew won with 53 percent of the vote, weaker than expected against a Republican with a foot-in-mouth problem and little national support. After all, while Donald Trump had won the 2nd Congressional District, he'd done so with just 51 percent of the vote, and Barack Obama had won bigger margins, twice.
On Saturday afternoon, as word spread that Van Drew would cross the aisle, liberals took a morose victory lap. “This is a direct result of the South Jersey Democratic machine's power, a machine that engineered Van Drew's rise knowing his values were out of step with the party,” said Sue Altman, the director of New Jersey's Working Families Party. “This is also a black eye for the DCCC and the County Party Chairs in South Jersey, who backed Van Drew against primary opponents who might have actually behaved like a Democrat.”
The WFP was heckling from the sidelines last year; it's now in harmony with the Democratic choir. Van Drew, who began his career by voting “no” for speaker of the House instead of picking a candidate, had voted reliably with his party until the last month, a loyalty rate of 88 percent. Impeachment changed things. As Matt Friedman reported in Politico, Van Drew got cold feet about investigating the president, scrambling things for Democrats in his district, right before the off-year state elections.
They lost competitive races, the only mortal sin in machine politics; local parties began demanding that Van Drew listen to them on impeachment. He opted instead to show off his independence, repeatedly appearing on Fox News (and earning a friendly Trump tweet). Worse yet, he undermined fellow Democrats in Congress, suggesting that they, too, wanted to move on.
“There is some discussion among some of them, quietly, privately, of concern,” Van Drew said on Fox last month. “I mean, what I'm hearing out in the street is they're kind of tired. They're kind of worn out. They're kind of bored, most folks. And they really want to move on unless there's something new and amazing. We know the end game here.”
Van Drew pulled the trigger after seeing polling, conducted by Democrats, that showed a supermajority of primary voters opposing his stance on impeachment. Democrats, rattled by his decision, took Van Drew's caution as a gift. Unlike Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, who had spend a decade laying out his problems with the modern GOP, Van Drew appeared to be bolting the party he voted with on nearly everything because he got a bad poll.
“What he's reacting to is public polling that shows he can't get renominated,” Rep. Jerry Nadler of New York, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said on Sunday's episode of “Meet the Press.”
Other members of Congress have switched parties, but few did so under as little real pressure as Van Drew. Ten years ago, when then-Rep. Parker Griffith of Alabama left the Democratic Party, he was watching his back in a district that had voted against Barack Obama by 25 points. Van Drew's district backed Trump by five points.
Five years earlier, when then-Louisiana Rep. Rodney Alexander switched parties, he did it after it was too late for Democrats to replace him. Democrats in Van Drew's district have three and a half months to find and fund a candidate. But even Republicans saw Van Drew as a good fit for the district. And previous party-switchers did not have a validator like Trump.
... four days until the sixth Democratic debate (maybe)
... 50 days until the Iowa caucuses
... 58 days until the New Hampshire primary
... 69 days until the Nevada caucuses