In this edition: A broad look at the Biden veep search, the twisty politics of China-bashing, and some Democratic jitters about a Biden-DNC fundraising deal.
I won’t inject myself with bleach until it apologizes for ruining my nice blue button-down last year, and this is The Trailer.
The question comes up a couple of times each week, even though there is no chance that he will answer. Who will Joe Biden pick as his running mate?
When James Corden asked on “The Late Late Show,” Biden said he wanted a woman “capable of being president of the United States tomorrow,” a phrase that will be applied to whomever he chooses. When a Pittsburgh TV station asked about Michelle Obama, Biden said he'd “take her in a heartbeat,” though the former first lady consistently rules it out. Biden, who famously told reporters in 2008 that he was “not the guy” Barack Obama would pick as a running mate, knows how little any of this chatter matters.
At the end of this coming week, Biden will officially put together his vice presidential search team, turning the speculation into a different, more serious-looking form of speculation. Biden has already thinned the pool of applicants by promising to pick a female running mate. We know plenty about the factors that each potential candidate would bring to the ticket. We know less about what matters to Biden.
We know how Biden has approached this in the past. In 2015, when he considered then abandoned a run for president, he met with Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and reportedly pitched her on the vice presidency. Last year, even as Sen. Kamala D. Harris of California was running against Biden, some in the Congressional Black Caucus floated her as a running mate, and Biden didn't shoot it down. And at other points in 2019, Biden allies suggested that former Georgia state House minority leader Stacey Abrams, who has focused on voting rights since narrowly losing a 2018 bid for governor, could not only join the ticket, but boost Biden if he chose her before the primaries.
Biden himself has riffed on his choice, when prompted, with names that are unlikely to appear on a shortlist. He has suggested that former acting attorney general Sally Yates would be a good vice president, as would both of New Hampshire's (female) Democratic senators.
None of them has been floated by Democrats who are trying to raise the profiles of their favorite candidates; Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, for example, turns 74 next year, and a Republican governor would get to select her replacement. The Democrats nudging into this conversation have usually done so to promote lesser-known candidates, such as Rep. Val Demings of Florida, a former police chief, or Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, who would be the first Latina vice president, or Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico, whose popularity has surged during the pandemic.
We can apply three basic tests to the women most often mentioned as Biden running mates, tests only a few of them pass right now.
The excite-the-base test. Biden, unlike many presumptive nominees, starts his vice presidential selection process with a lead in the polls. But he has vulnerabilities with younger voters and Latino voters, who heavily supported Sen. Bernie Sanders in the primaries, and he was the nominee least trusted by many left-wing groups at the start of the primary. Biden, who performed best in the primary with suburban whites and black voters of all kinds, has not run as strongly as Barack Obama did with the party's most liberal voters.
Outside groups have been trying to shape his opinion, putting together letters that ask him to pick a black woman (Abrams, Harris and Demings are on their list) or insist that he could unite the left behind him by picking Warren.
The left's pitch is somewhat strained, as some Sanders allies resent Warren for never endorsing the senator from Vermont, and there is no other well-known, female liberal being touted as a running mate. The pitch from black women comes with more options, and Abrams herself has broken from precedent by explaining why she should be picked. The chief reason: She drove up turnout in her 2018 race, even while losing, in a way Biden would want to emulate.
“If you look at what we were able to accomplish in Georgia, the growth of the numbers and the composition of the voters, I would put my capacity to win an election as the VP running mate alongside anyone’s,” Abrams told the Atlantic this week.
There is, at the moment, far less pressure on Biden to pick someone who could appeal to white Midwestern voters or moderates. Part of that grows from confidence that Biden appeals to those voters already, while part is a hangover from 2016, when Hillary Clinton passed over some VP candidates with left-wing credibility to pick Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia. He was a safe pick, a partner who Clinton was confident could replace her if the worst happened, and when she lost, it clouded the very idea of playing it safe.
The ready-to-serve test. Some candidates for president — Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Donald Trump — faced questions about their relevant experience and picked running mates whom they could pitch as governing partners. Biden's Washington résumé is longer than anyone who has ever sought the presidency, sparing him this problem. But while he has cryptically called himself a “bridge” to the next generation of leaders, he has also suggested he will pick someone who can be president on a moment's notice.
Abrams is the only frequently discussed candidate who is chased by worries about her résumé. Polling has been sparse, with Fox News testing Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's appeal in Michigan (she was popular, but did not improve Biden's numbers), and the liberal group Data for Progress finding rank-and-file Sanders voters most happy with Warren. Harris, Warren and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota have the advantage of having run against Biden. What matters isn't how they ran; it's that they faced national scrutiny, built followings of various sizes, and got voters thinking about them as presidents.
Does it matter whether voters immediately view a running mate as credible? It's only clear that a running mate who becomes viewed negatively can hurt. Voters have previously decided that a running mate was not up to the big job: in 1988, when George H.W. Bush picked Dan Quayle, and in 2008, when John McCain picked Sarah Palin. Both came to the national stage with relatively thin profiles, but voters did not begin to doubt their experience until both Quayle and Palin gave erratic performances.
First impressions of running mates have been all over the map. On June 16, 2016, when Trump announced Mike Pence as his running mate, he trailed Hillary Clinton by 5.8 points in an average of polls. One week later, he trailed by 5.9 points. When Clinton picked Kaine on July 29, she led Trump by 2.6 points; one week later, the race was tied. Four years earlier, when Mitt Romney added Paul Ryan to his ticket, he shrank his deficit against Barack Obama from 4.7 points to 3.4 points in a week. Only Palin was able to boost her running mate into the lead, briefly, a phenomenon that faded as she faced more scrutiny, and as an economic collapse closed off McCain's chances.
The do-no-harm test. Obama’s final shortlist consisted of Biden, then-Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, and then-Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh. Of those three, only the Biden pick did not hand Republicans a key office; Kaine would have been replaced by a Republican lieutenant governor, and Bayh’s successor would have been picked by Indiana’s Republican governor. (Biden’s seat could well have been lost in the 2010 midterms, but Republicans fatefully nominated a conservative activist named Christine O’Donnell over well-liked moderate Rep. Mike Castle.)
Obama was more careful than Al Gore, who picked then-Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut for his ticket, even though the state’s Republican governor had the power to replace him. Hillary Clinton was more careful than either, picking Kaine, who by that time had been elected to the Senate, in part because Virginia’s Democratic governor, Terry McAuliffe, would have chosen his replacement.
Today’s Democrats are more nervous than ever about the Senate, particularly about the risk of handing Republicans a seat at the start of a Biden presidency. Just two of the longlist candidates would risk that. Warren would, under current Massachusetts law, be replaced by Republican Gov. Charlie Baker until a special election could be held, though the state’s Democratic supermajority could change that law and override a veto. (They've changed this statute twice in the past 20 years.) Sen. Tammy Baldwin would be replaced by no one, as Wisconsin law empowers the state legislature, now controlled by Republicans, to set an election to fill the seat.
No other Democrats being discussed have those precise issues to work out. Klobuchar, Harris and Cortez Masto would all be replaced by Democratic governors, though Klobuchar's departure from the Senate would set up a special 2022 election for her substitute; Harris's and Cortez Masto's replacements would simply fill out the rest of their current terms. Whitmer and Lujan Grisham would both be replaced by their own, Democratic, lieutenant governors.
Tired: The front porch campaign. Wired: The podcast campaign.
“New poll shows a hidden danger for Trump: Double haters,” by Joshua Green
Why the people who resent their choice could elect Biden.
How to reach voters when you can't reach voters.
“Bernie’s campaign strategy wasn’t the problem,” by Paul Heideman and Hadas Thier
What went wrong, and what the next left-wing candidate can fix.
Inside the latest “reopen” gathering.
“Nervous Republicans see Trump sinking, and taking Senate with him,” by Jonathan Martin and Maggie Haberman
The internal polls don't look great.
The end of an old style of retail politics.
On the trail
In mid-April, the Trump campaign and a super PAC both attacked Joe Biden for “standing up for China.” Days later, Biden's campaign ran a digital ad accusing President Trump of being too trusting of China and letting the coronavirus come to America. The general-election battle was underway; the president was putting his rival on the defensive for being skeptical that China's rise would hurt America.
It didn't last. Apart from an April 22 web video, in which Trump allies briefly attacked “Beijing Biden,” the Biden-China messaging has been paused. (The original Trump video is still pinned to the top of the campaign Twitter account.) The Biden campaign has interpreted that as evidence that its quick-trigger pushback worked.
But the issue could return whenever Republicans feel like it. Republicans outside the White House are stepping up their attacks on China, eager to draw a contrast with Biden. And the brief skirmish already exposed that the president's base is more comfortable in this arena than Biden’s base, which includes some voters who find the entire topic offensive.
Biden's criticism of China fits into a modern Democratic tradition. When out of power, the party accuses Republican presidents of being soft on an economic and human rights threat; when in power, Democratic presidents have avoided direct confrontation with China. As a candidate in 2008, Barack Obama decried the Bush administration's “unpatriotic” debt increases, describing them as a “credit card from the Bank of China.” In his 1992 nominating speech, Bill Clinton promised an administration that would “not coddle tyrants, from Baghdad to Beijing.” (It's widely remembered that Clinton referred to the Chinese Communist Party as “the butchers of Beijing,” but the evidence is thin.)
Democrats tend to borrow the issue during campaigns, then take measured responses to China when in office. Republicans were haphazard about China until President Trump, who grabbed the tools that China’s American critics were begging a president to use: tariffs and accusations of currency manipulation.
Trump’s position is now the Republican standard. Missouri’s Republican leaders are suing China, with little hope of success, while Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri has introduced legislation that would give Americans “a private right of action against the Chinese government.” American attitudes toward China have soured, too, with a new Pew poll finding Republican voters and voters over 50 most likely to view China unfavorably.
Last week, the National Republican Senatorial Committee distributed a memo from strategist Brett O'Donnell, advising candidates to turn the subject back to China and accuse Democrats of being too weak or politically correct to respond. Importantly, O’Donnell’s memo pitched this as a way of adopting a powerful Trumpian message, without involving Trump’s own brand.
“Don’t defend Trump, other than the China Travel Ban,” the memo advised. “Attack China.”
Democrats, whose own voters have also grown more negative about China’s government, are more resistant to dig in. They had fought the effort to call the coronavirus a “Chinese virus,” which Trump had largely ceased to do, and they — led by Biden — had attacked the travel ban, partly because it roped in countries such as Nigeria and partly because the virus came to America anyway. But they didn't have issues with attacking China. Biden's campaign had been comfortable releasing an ad that blamed the president for going soft on China.
The problem: Some in the Democratic base wanted Biden to stay away from the issue, warning that he was stoking racist cultural divisions instead of changing the subject. ACLU attorney Cecillia Wang asked whether Biden was trying to “out-Trump Trump,” while Asian American advocacy groups interviewed by Politico asked why the Biden campaign had not found a way to criticize China’s government without making Asian American voters uncomfortable. (The Biden campaign ignored the criticism.)
To Bidenworld, the ad was an effective attack on what Republicans thought to be one of their strengths, and it was well in line with what other Democratic candidates had done. To some in the left, it was a worrying sign that the candidate would follow Trump down a rabbit hole instead of changing the subject. Doing so, they feared, would end up in a place Biden didn't want to be, because Republicans were far more comfortable characterizing China as a threat and proposing ways to hurt the country.
“I think we need to take a very hard look at the visas we give Chinese nationals to come to the U.S. to study, especially at the postgraduate level in advanced scientific and technological fields,” said Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), one of the first politicians of either party to both warn about the virus and suggest a tough response to the Chinese Communist Party. “They don’t need to learn quantum computing and artificial intelligence from America.”
No Democratic politician would go that far. The party is more comfortable muddying the issue, creating a situation where voters who hear Trump’s messaging about Biden doubt that the president can be trusted to handle China. Republicans don’t intend to let that happen.
Presidential election in Pennsylvania (Susquehanna, 693 registered voters)
Joe Biden: 48%
Donald Trump: 42%
Pollsters continue to find Biden with a Pennsylvania lead outside the margin of error, recovering some of the Democrats outside of the biggest urban areas who bolted in 2016. Here, Biden ties Trump only in northeast Pennsylvania. But because Hillary Clinton badly underperformed in that region, doing slightly better puts Biden into a lead about as big as Barack Obama's in 2012.
When the U.S. first learned about the coronavirus, do you think the Trump administration … (Fox News, 1,004 Florida voters)
Was too slow to respond: 55%
Responded with appropriate speed: 41%
Overall, Florida voters tell Fox's pollsters that they approve of the job the president is doing, and of how Gov. Ron DeSantis is handling the pandemic response. But there is widespread disappointment with the president's speed early in the year. The bulk of Biden campaign messaging over the past month has focused on that point, and some counter-messaging — blaming the Obama administration for not stocking enough masks, for example — has not connected.
There's a new fundraising entity on the block: the Biden Victory Fund. Thanks to paperwork signed this week, the Biden campaign and the Democratic National Committee can now solicit massive donations to a joint campaign effort. Instead of stalling out at $5,600 — $2,800 for a primary fund and $2,800 for a general election fund — donors can give up to $360,600.
“Our goal is to ensure that we put Joe Biden in the best position possible to beat Donald Trump, and this joint fundraising agreement allows us to do just that,” said Mary Beth Cahill, the new chief executive of the DNC, in a statement to The Washington Post this week.
The relatively painless process was a big contrast with what happened four years ago. In that cycle, a cash-starved DNC and 32 state parties set up a Hillary Victory Fund, expecting the massive Clinton fundraising machine to help spread the wealth around. They did so before the primary was over, having offered Bernie Sanders the same deal; Sanders didn't explore it, because he simply didn't have a network of big donors who could take advantage of the system.
But there were early signs that the states weren't getting much from that JFA, and after the election, the very existence of the Clinton-DNC arrangement became a scandal. In “Hacks,” her campaign memoir, former DNC chair Donna Brazile argued that the JFA essentially let Clinton take over the DNC before the primary was over, giving the candidate control over “the party’s finances, strategy, and all the money raised.” (Brazile took power after the JFA was in place, as a result of hacked DNC email prompting then-chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz to resign.)
State party leaders are wary of what will happen now. Jane Kleeb, the chair of Nebraska's Democratic Party, pointed to her state as an example of what happened when Victory Fund money didn't trickle down locally; Democrats narrowly lost the House seat in Nebraska's 2nd District, a race they'd expected to win.
“Every presidential candidate, including Vice President Biden, signed a commitment letter to the state party association that state parties would be front and center as the vehicle to help not only win the presidential, but to win down-ballot races,” Kleeb said in an interview. “We can't go backward."
The biggest development on President Trump's weekend schedule was what he wasn't doing: daily coronavirus briefings. Amid a backlash to Thursday's briefing, where Trump had talked — sarcastically, he would later argue — about finding an “injection” that could disinfect virus patients, the president did not appear at briefings Friday or Saturday.
“What is the purpose of having White House News Conferences when the Lamestream Media asks nothing but hostile questions & then refuses to report the truth or facts accurately?” Trump tweeted on Saturday. (In some other countries, there have been daily briefings with virus response leaders, only occasionally joined by the head of government.)
That gave Joe Biden something he had not had since announcing his candidacy a year ago: a day when he spoke to the public, but Trump did not. On Saturday, he held a virtual “S.O.U.L.” rally to support health-care workers, joined by celebrities and fellow Democrats. And he gave his first long policy interview in some time, sitting with Michael Grunwald, a reporter who closely covered Biden during the rollout of the 2009 stimulus package. After selling a recovery bill that was designed to stay under $1 trillion, Biden expressed his interest in doing a lot more, with more money, in 2021.
“I think there’s going to be a willingness to fix some of the institutional inequities that have existed for a long time,” Biden said. “Milton Friedman isn’t running the show anymore.”
Dems in disarray
Eighteen days ago, Bernie Sanders suspended his campaign for president, while asking supporters to keep voting for him. Only if he accrued as many delegates as possible, Sanders explained, could “shape the new platform of the Democratic Party and the other issues that the DNC deals with.”
This have-his-cake-and-eat-it approach had never been tried, but on paper, it could work. If Sanders could win 1,189 delegates, a quarter of the entire delegation, his forces would be able to challenge DNC rules and platform planks at the convention. Sanders needed to win only 300 or so more delegates to hit the threshold, and his birthplace of New York offered 274 of them.
Enter New York's Board of Elections. On Monday, after a delay last week, it will vote on whether to remove Sanders from the June 23 primary ballot, citing the suspension of his campaign. The vote must be unanimous, and hope for Sanders supporters rests with board co-chair Andrew Spano, who told HuffPost's Daniel Marans that he was “wrestling” with the decision.
“I recognize that Sanders and his people have done a lot of work over the years, and they’d like a voice, and this is one way they get a voice at the convention,” he said last week.
That's an understatement. Sanders allies are frantically lobbying to save the primary, which was originally scheduled for this coming Tuesday and which is now being held simultaneously with congressional primaries — meaning that most of the state's counties would be holding elections that day anyway.
“This is not what democracy looks like,” said Larry Cohen, the chairman of the Sanders-founded grass-roots group Our Revolution and a member of the Democratic National Committee group that hammered out new primary rules this cycle. “In the environment we're in, our people, tens of thousands of people, are going to be crazed if the New York Democratic Party is going to determine who the delegates are.”
… two days until the Ohio primary and the special election in Maryland's 7th District
… 16 days until the special elections in Wisconsin's 7th District and California's 25th District
… 113 days until the Democratic National Convention
… 120 days until the Republican National Convention
… 190 days until the general election