In this edition: The mysterious agenda for a second Trump term, the races to watch in today's primaries, and the arguments that blew up the first big down-ballot debates.
The Internet connection I used to file this newsletter was so slow, I almost published under my AOL screen name. This is The Trailer.
This presidential campaign, more than most, has been largely about the president. Donald Trump's reelection campaign has dominated TV and digital spending, gotten front-page placement for its attacks on Joe Biden and crowded out most of what the Democratic nominee is saying.
What has been missing so far is much clarity on what the president would do in a second term. The coronavirus pandemic has reshaped the election and the president's ambitions, with a drumbeat of good economic news replaced by pledges to “reopen and recover” from disaster. Yet even before the crisis, the president's reelection campaign offered surprisingly few clues about the next four years. Appointing conservative judges was key, as was finishing construction of a border wall. But any broader domestic agenda or bills that the next Congress would be asked to pass are harder to see.
In one January interview, at the Davos economic forum, Trump floated a “very big” middle- class tax cut for 2021 if “we win the House back,” suggesting the details could come in 90 days; in another interview there, he told CNBC he would “take a look” at changing Social Security. Ninety days came and went without a tax plan, and the Social Security line, which clashed with the campaign's position, has not reappeared since. “We've done really well with health care, but we're coming up with a plan that's going to be fantastic,” Trump added, though no plan has emerged.
While the president has repeatedly floated an idea, then abandoned it — a plan to replace the Affordable Care Act, a post-midterm tax cut — the pandemic threw any firmer plans into disarray. “New Heights,” one of the last Trump TV spots to run before the pandemic, recapped the job growth and defense investments of the first three years and promised that “the best is yet to come,” the slogan that Trump would repeat at the end of his winter rallies.
But before that, the pitch for a second term was to keep up every project from the first term. Previous presidents have gotten more specific. George W. Bush and Barack Obama, the last two presidents to face reelection, used their election-year State of the Union addresses to preview some possible second-term agenda items. Bush pitched a “personal retirement account” in Social Security and a push to “reform our immigration laws,” while Obama made the tax-the-rich argument that would define his 2012 campaign and suggested a “peaceful resolution” with Iran over its development of nuclear technology.
This year's much-watched, memorable State of the Union address offered fewer coming attractions, in keeping with the president's message: The country had never been better off, and it would be folly to change course.
The administration, Trump said, wanted to send the first man to Mars — a familiar promise that Bush and Obama made, too — and enact the “groundbreaking plan for peace between Israel and the Palestinians” being rolled out by the president's son-in-law, Jared Kushner. It would sign legislation “finally banning the late-term abortion of babies” and advance “health-care price transparency,” one goal stymied by Democrats and one already underway.
In the same speech, the president talked up three pieces of legislation by name: the Education Freedom Scholarships and Opportunities Act, the Advancing Support for Working Families Act, and the Justice for Victims of Sanctuary Cities Act. But none of the bills got much traction afterward, topping out at 15, six and 15 co-sponsors, respectively, and they have not been front and center in the campaign since then.
The broad, less-specific Trump agenda makes for a dramatic contrast with Biden's campaign. That's not wholly unusual; incumbent presidents tout what they've done so far, while challengers have to come up with ideas attractive enough to peel voters away. Joe Biden's campaign, which did not release as many plans as some Democratic rivals, has published agenda items from a first-year passage of an immigration bill to a health-care plan that expanded on the Affordable Care Act and added new ways to pay for it.
The Trump campaign's 2020 site does not have its own issues page and directs voters instead to a micro-site, PromisesKept.com, which breaks the president's record into 14 categories. Part of it is out of date, like an “economy and jobs” section that features pre-pandemic numbers; unemployment at “its lowest point in 50 years,” and a tally of new jobs ends in January. Part of it stops short of campaign rhetoric, like a “health care” section that does not mention a Trump promise to repeal the Affordable Care Act; there's a reference to a repeal of its insurance mandate but not to a Trump-backed lawsuit that argues the entire ACA must be nullified without that mandate. The list of triumphs is heavy on deregulation, something the president can do completely by himself. What could be deregulated next? It's unclear, and absent from recent messaging, which has focused on attacking Biden.
Matt Schlapp, a Trump ally who served as Bush's White House political director, recalled that the 2004 campaign was criticized for not offering more specific policies for a second term. Those it did offer, such as expanded homeownership and Social Security changes, were sold as part of an “ownership society,” an idea that was front and center in campaign messaging but arguably moved fewer votes than the war on terror or the attacks on John F. Kerry.
“I remember sitting in strategic meetings at the White House and being quite concerned that we were going to talk a lot about this ownership society,” Schlapp recalled. “I thought it was fuzzy. And obviously, the whole idea of everybody owning a home didn't turn out to be that sound, policy-wise.”
Trump, according to Schlapp, was unusually well positioned for a second term. That wasn't because a particular priority was being teed up for 2021; it was because Democrats had thrown the book at Trump already, with the sort of investigations and probes that usually bedevil second-term presidents.
“What are they possibly going to do to hobble a second term?” Schlapp asked.
The second-term potential is frequently described that way: a president unleashed to do what he's been good at and his opponents largely helpless to stop him. Donald Trump Jr., the president's oldest song and most active social-media warrior, frequently shares a meme of an anti-Trump protester howling at the moment he was sworn in, with a calendar that tells critics that they're only halfway through an eight-year presidency.
In the short term, as the campaign works to discredit Biden for swing voters, a specific second-term agenda has been replaced by the immediate need to recover from the pandemic. On Monday, with Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina in the White House to talk up the economic opportunity zones created by the 2017 tax cut, the focus was on what Trump had already done; the assumption was not that he needed to do more, but that in a second term, everyone would see the benefits.
“Oh my gosh, 2021 is going to be amazing,” Scott said.
“You rebuilt this economy, all right?” economic adviser Larry Kudlow told Trump. “We got hit by the virus. You’ll rebuild the economy again.”
The Obamacare replacement that never was.
“Are older voters turning away from Trump?” by Geoffrey Skelley
Data on some much-discussed Biden gains among the AARP crowd.
A candidate who was late to compete for Latino votes shapes his border policy.
“How immigrant twin brothers are beating Trump’s team on Facebook,” by Nick Corasaniti
The saga of Occupy Democrats.
“Biden says he would revoke permit for Keystone pipeline,” by Matt Viser and Dino Grandoni
Why a decade-long energy battle could continue into a new presidency.
The case for a shaky online presence.
Watchdog questions about the most controversial part of Cares.
In the states
It's primary day in Oregon and Idaho, where the partisan stakes look low and where one safely Republican district will find out its candidates for the November election.
That's Oregon's 2nd District, where 11 Republicans are fighting it out to succeed Rep. Greg Walden. Knute Buehler, the party's unsuccessful 2018 nominee for governor, came into the race with name recognition and fundraising prowess. But that race put a spotlight on his pro-abortion-rights views, a liability in a conservative district; Buehler would be just one of two pro-abortion-rights Republicans in the House, joining former Democrat Jeff Van Drew, who switched to the GOP last year.
But Buehler has benefited from the size of the field, and first-time candidate Jimmy Crumpacker has captured conservative endorsements over rivals with more elected experience. Democrats ran a credible challenger in 2018 but have a five-way contest between little-known (and poorly funded) candidates now. Similarly, while four Republicans are competing to challenge Sen. Jeff Merkley, the national party has ignored the race, after briefly boosting Merkley's 2014 challenger.
Oregon's four Democratic members of Congress all have primary challengers, though none who've attracted the attention of national liberal groups that have focused on intraparty races elsewhere. None of the Democratic incumbents are seen as vulnerable in November, though Republican veteran Alek Skarlatos — one of the Americans who stopped a terrorist attack on the 15:17 to Paris train five years ago — has raised enough money to make the NRCC's watch list.
The race with the biggest repercussions for liberals? Arguably, the contest for Multnomah County district attorney, the latest battle between traditional prosecutors and criminal justice reformers. Mike Schmidt, the director of the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission, is running as a reformist against Assistant U.S. Attorney Ethan Knight.
Democrats are not investing heavily in Idaho's federal races this year, with sacrificial lambs competing in both House districts and 2018 gubernatorial nominee Paulette Jordan favored in the U.S. Senate primary. Jordan, who would have been the state's first Native American governor, earned national attention in that race.
But she lost it by 22 points, and the campaign ended with frustrated Democrats asking why she spent heavily on consultants while running few ads. She has raised just over $100,000 for this race, and in the final week, her campaign manager quit and mysteriously criticized “the integrity of some of the people Ms. Jordan has chosen, from out of state, to work on her campaigns.” Republicans have not won a Senate race in Oregon since 2002; they have not lost one in Idaho since 1974.
President Trump, “Truth Over Facts.” The Trump campaign has had plenty of fun with Joe Biden's verbal stumbles, but a new micro-site steps it up. In the style of a History Channel documentary, the Trump campaign “investigates” a March speech in which Biden tripped up, then skipped, over the first lines of the Declaration of Independence. “You know the thing!” Biden said. In this video, the gaffe inspires a “quest” to find out whether Biden revealed the existence of a second Declaration of Independence.
Theresa Greenfield, “Knock.” The DSCC-backed Democrat in Iowa has an unimpressive electoral record, ending her 2018 House bid after a campaign manager forged some of her ballot petition signatures. She has reintroduced herself as a Senate candidate with the same biography but a more competent rollout; she's running, she says, because the early death of her husband in a work accident taught her the value of Social Security benefits.
Alliance to Combat Extremism, “Valerie Plame Extreme.” A new group launched to stop the former CIA agent from winning a safe-seat Democratic House primary, the Alliance's first ad practically jumps off the screen. “Is she running to represent New Mexicans,” a narrator asks, “or white supremacists?” The question's accompanied by swastikas being superimposed over Plame's eyes, before a rundown of the praise white nationalists gave Plame for a tweet that copied the headline of an article blaming “America's Jews” for foreign policy blunders.
2020 election in Virginia (Roanoke, 563 registered voters)
Joe Biden: 51% ( 3)
Donald Trump: 39% (-1)
The commonwealth has dropped off even the most optimistic Republicans' maps; suburban voters around Richmond and Washington have moved too decisively toward Democrats to make the state competitive. What's interesting here is that Biden's favorable rating has declined slightly since the last poll, in February, and the president's favorable rating has increased a bit, a negative 22-point rating transforming to a negative 13-point rating. A change in attitudes simply didn't change voters' preferences. And as in other states, the president's pandemic-era bump is far smaller than the governor's, as Ralph Northam's approval rating and favorable rating have both jumped by 19 points.
Joe Biden's futile battle against geese honks continued this week, when a Monday call-in to an AAPI conference was occasionally drowned out by their noise. “God almighty,” Biden said, before returning to his basic message: He'd restore decency and reject racism. “You deserve better than a president who aggressively and childishly insults an Asian American reporter,” Biden said.
President Trump continued holding events at the White House, often expanding beyond the coronavirus focus, and met with Senate Republicans at their Tuesday lunch and with farmers about the food supply. “We're going after Virginia, with your crazy governor, we're going after Virginia,” Trump said. “They want to take your Second Amendment away. You'll have nobody guarding your potatoes."
Dems in disarray
Democrats met last night for debates in two very different races — the June 2 primary for Iowa's Senate nomination and the primary for New York's 14th District, currently represented by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Both got testy, with well-funded challengers to Ocasio-Cortez and to DSCC-endorsed Theresa Greenfield using much of their time to warn that the party couldn't afford them.
“I … built a progressive business to provide paid family leave that has 65 percent of our leadership being women,” perennial candidate Eddie Mauro said in his opening statement for the Iowa debate. “And when times were tough, during the last Great Recession, I took a pay cut. Then we have a single worker. Others in this race can't say the same.”
That was a shot at Greenfield, whom Mauro is also attacking on the airwaves for layoffs at the business she founded. Mauro, who has largely self-funded this campaign and two unsuccessful races for lower offices, had previously released internal polling that found voters viewing Greenfield less favorably when they learned about the layoffs and viewing retired Navy Vice Adm. Michael Franken less favorably when told that he'd voted only twice in Iowa and owned a home in Virginia.
Greenfield ignored Mauro, while Franken, who has raised less money but picked up the endorsement of the Des Moines Register, fired back and touted the reason he'd bought the Virginia home, which was to work for the Obama administration.
“This is what's done in the Navy,” he explained. “I've moved four continents, over 28 moves. It was 2012 when I purchased that house, just to correct the record.” At another point, Franken struggled to recall the details of the Cares Act, and Mauro emphasized that he had “read the bill.” But throughout, Franken and attorney Kimberly Graham, who has modeled her challenge off the Bernie Sanders campaign, appeared more comfortable than Greenfield and Mauro, the candidates with a bit more electoral experience. (None of the four have won elections, but Franken and Graham have never tried.)
“Who won Iowa?” Graham said when challenged on electability, referring to the February presidential caucus. “You could argue that was Bernie Sanders. So, I think that says a lot about where a lot of Iowans think this country needs to go.”
There were no electability questions in New York, which gave former CNBC anchor Michelle Caruso-Cabrera her first real chance to confront Ocasio-Cortez. Caruso-Cabrera repeatedly called the incumbent “divisive” and ineffective and brought the conversation back, several times, to a vote Ocasio-Cortez missed during an illness, accusing her of going “MIA” and of hiding out in a “luxury apartment in D.C. with a Whole Foods in the lobby.” Ocasio-Cortez grew more irritated as the night went on.
“No one's ever seen this person before,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “Who are you? Like, where is your family from? Where have you lived? No one has seen you in this community before.”
Caruso-Cabrera, who is not from the district, argued that she would better represent it by voting more reliably with Democrats. Some of her attacks fell flat, such as an argument that Ocasio-Cortez was hypocritical to favor higher taxes because “her mother moved to Florida to avoid the taxes in New York.” But Ocasio-Cortez brought the conversation back to the reasons she'd voted occasionally against party leadership.
“When people say divisiveness and all of this stuff, listen, not all Democrats are the same,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “Some Democrats believe in not protecting immigrant rights. Other Democrats believe that we should subsidize Big Pharma and health-care corporations. I'll be very honest about that. But we can come together. That's the reason I [went] with Vice President Biden and tried to push and try to see what our possibilities for our next term are," a reference to the task force Biden had already added her to.
New York's primary, slotted for June 23, will continue to feature a presidential contest at the top of the ballot, after the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit upheld a decision to reinstate it, overruling the decision of the state's election board to cancel it.
… 14 days until the next primaries
… 35 days until New York's presidential and congressional primaries
… 90 days until the Democratic National Convention
… 97 days until the Republican National Convention
… 167 days until the general election