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The Trailer: Joe Biden has shifted left

In this edition: What the left got out of the Biden-Sanders task force, why votes still aren't counted in New York, and why, yes, a certain rapper still has time to run for president, if he's not joking.

No, the Supreme Court didn't abolish Oklahoma today, and this is The Trailer.

The last time Joe Biden appeared on a presidential ticket, the Democratic Party's platform contained no mention of marijuana. Its health-care language focused on the Affordable Care Act, suggesting that the fight for universal coverage was pretty much won. It promised to “fight inequalities in our criminal justice system,” without spelling out how, and urged that when the death penalty is used, it should “not be arbitrary.”

Biden is happily inheriting a party that has moved to the left, without interruption, since he left the vice presidency. The report this week from his Unity Task Force, the product of a deal between the nominee and primary runner-up Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), found Biden's team inching a little further in that direction — cautious, careful with its wording, but dramatically different from the politics that defined much of Biden's career.

I think the compromise that they came up with, if implemented, will make Biden the most progressive president since FDR,” Sanders said in a Wednesday night interview with MSNBC's Chris Hayes. 

Republicans quickly repurposed Sanders's answer to describe Biden as a catspaw for the country's resurgent socialist movements. “This is surrendering to the socialists,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said in a Thursday interview on Fox News. The Republican National Committee highlighted sentences taken directly from some of Sanders's campaign white papers to accuse Biden of “plagiarism,” a charge that evoked his botched 1988 presidential campaign, if not quite describing a task force designed to merge platforms.

But the basic Republican critique was right. Biden, seen by voters as the most moderate of their two dozen or so options in the primary, has welcomed a shift away from the careful politics Democrats deployed, for decades, to mollify suburban voters. Under his proposals, millions of voters are offered a new government health-care plan, and millions more are offered federal housing and housing assistance. Tax cuts, emphasized for years to convince swing voters, aren't prioritized.

“In 2008, one of the things we had to constantly fight in places like the I-4 corridor was taxes,” said Steve Schale, an Obama-Biden campaign veteran who's now a strategist for the pro-Biden super PAC Unite the Country, referring to a vote-rich stretch of Florida cities and suburbs. “I bet you we ran more ads about Barack Obama cutting middle-class taxes than anything. We had to win that fight. Our ad strategy was built around keeping that fight neutral.”

Tough-on-crime politicking has been de-emphasized, too. The party's 2012 platform did not mention the “war on drugs.” The 2016 platform, reshaped by Sanders delegates, condemned the drug war for the “imprisonment of millions of Americans, disproportionately people of color.” The task force's paper, with Biden's name at the top, pledges to “end the failed ‘War on Drugs’ ” entirely.

That's still less than Sanders and his allies wanted, and skepticism of the task force, from the beginning, assumed that Biden would invite the left inside his tent to make it less relevant but not deliver. The task force does not recommend a right to strike for public workers, a right that the left wants but that is not favored by leadership of the biggest public-sector union. It recommends the legalization of medical marijuana but not the full legalization now favored by most voters. And criminal justice reform advocates noticed that the task force recommended only that qualified immunity, which protects police from lawsuits, be “reined in,” not ended. 

Even so, that's more than Biden needed to offer to the left and Sanders supporters, and more than most defeated candidates have gotten. While Sanders won just 29 percent of pledged delegates throughout the primaries, he appointed 40 percent of the task force, giving him more influence on a high-profile set of recommendations that will shape the party's platform than he was going to get on the platform itself. While Sanders's path was vanishing by early April, his decision to drop out gave Biden three months as the de facto nominee, instead of the drawn-out contest feared by Democrats. And polling by the New York Times and Siena has found just a handful of Sanders supporters, and no Warren supporters, frustrated enough by the primary to consider backing President Trump.

Sanders's interest in the platform of a party he does not belong to has been one of the senator's great contradictions. In primary mode, he has excoriated the party's “establishment.” When the 2016 and 2020 primaries were over, he focused intensely on changing the party's official positioning, even though nothing binds a party to govern on its platform.

The secrecy of the task forces prevented the sort of messy, televised fight that Democrats went through in 2016, when Sanders supporters in an Orlando hotel ballroom shouted “shame!” if a Sanders plank was voted down. It has given the left a tool to use in whatever form these platform discussions take. 

While Medicare-for-all proponents made up a majority of the health-care task force, they did not try to put Biden on record for a policy he famously considers unworkable. They did successfully urge a major revision to his health-care plan, calling for poor people not eligible for Medicaid to be “automatically enrolled” in a public health-care option — a change from Biden's proposal that new enrollees join through interactions with other government programs.

None of this made it into Biden's Thursday economic speech near Scranton, Pa., the centerpiece of a days-long policy rollout that was delayed by a month of civil rights protests. That speech emphasized a “buy American” proposal adopted in part from Elizabeth Warren's (D-Mass.) campaign, to the consternation of some Trump allies, who wanted the president to move first on a similar policy.

But the Republican response to the task force didn't spend much time on the details, either. It has become a frequent feature of this campaign: The Trump campaign incorrectly assigned a far-left position to Biden, making a position that he holds, one that's merely much further left than the Obama-Biden platform, sound more moderate. The task force's climate plan, shaped in part by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), moved Biden's date for a renewable energy economy up by 15 years. The Trump campaign, meanwhile, accuses Biden of wanting to “ban fossil fuel energy” entirely, based on a garbled Biden comment about ending fossil fuel subsidies.

While they criticized the “socialism” of the task force plan, conservatives did not spend much time picking through it. “Now we know what he meant when he said to transform America,” Fox News host Sean Hannity told viewers Wednesday night, referring to use of the word “transform” in a Biden tweet last week. After arguing that Democrats would seize “the means of production,” and after mocking a short clip of Biden tangled up in a sentence, Hannity focused instead on comments by Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, then brought on the president's first son to discuss whether “Joe Biden knows where he is,” moving past the details of what he would run on.

Biden has shown a willingness to embrace many of the left's priorities. It's unclear what parts of that his opponents will choose to notice.

Reading list

“Liberals want more from Biden than an anti-Trump message,” by Sean Sullivan

The ongoing demands from the base to their nominee.

“A time to bail,” by Mickey Kaus

A Trump-backing Democrat's worries about 2020.

“Despite risks, Trump invests big in attacks on Biden’s age,” by Steve Peoples

The pros and (so far mostly) cons of the “is he losing it?” campaign.

“Trump who? Senate GOP candidates in tight races avoid any mention of the president in campaign ads, by Seung Min Kim

Why the president, the key figure in so many House primary ads, is absent in swingy GOP Senate ads.

“A black Republican feels the sting of racism but is silent on Trump,” by Jeremy W. Peters and Kathleen Gray

How John James is trying to navigate racial turmoil without attacking a president who sometimes stokes it.

“Republicans look into holding their convention outdoors,” by Josh Dawsey

An August convention in Jacksonville's heat and rain showers? It could happen.

Dems in disarray

It has been 16 days since New York's primaries, the first held under pandemic rules that made absentee voting easier. And as Thursday began, the candidates in New York City's five boroughs were still waiting to find out the results of that vote.

“It's ridiculous,” said Suraj Patel, a challenger to Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney who used another, unprintable word to describe what it's been like not to know the result in one of the primary's closest races.

So, what happened? Initially, and according to the law, New York City was going to start counting ballots a week after the primary. That was delayed for a not particularly surprising reason: Lots of people cast ballots. An estimated 379,614 Democratic voters returned absentee ballots, blowing past the record and tripling the absentee ballots cast in 2016, when the presidential race was more competitive and before a change in voter registration laws that made it easier for New Yorkers to vote in party primaries.

The result: We may not know many results in New York until this weekend and may not know full results until August. Only decisive races outside the city, such as the big GOP victory in a special election for a western New York congressional seat, or races with clear landslides, such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's primary win, have been called. 

Some Democrats who seem to be winning their congressional races, like Ritchie Torres and Jamaal Bowman, are stuck in limbo. And earlier this week, Rep. Eliot L. Engel, who has not conceded defeat to Bowman, filed a lawsuit asking for a “manual count of all paper ballots,” raising questions about whether some votes cast for Bowman may have been illegitimate. While Bowman ended Election Day up by 10,000 votes, nearly 40,000 absentee ballots are left to count.

“Thousands of voters who duly applied for their Absentee Ballots did not receive them in a timely manner that would have allowed them to cast their ballot in said primary election,” Engel's attorneys wrote. “Upon further information and belief, votes were also cast by absentee ballots by voters who also voted on the voting machines either during early voting or on June 23, 2020. The counting of such absentee ballots is not permitted and would constitute a voter improperly casting two ballots.”

Bowman's campaign has decried the lawsuit, citing the “clear, decisive lead” of Election Day. “Jamaal is ready to represent the people of New York's 16th District — in fact, he has already been using this time to work with the community,” Bowman's campaign manager Luke Hayes said in a statement. “But, because of this lawsuit, that important work is being put on hold so Jamaal can work with our legal team to make sure everything is squared away.”

Still, New York's primary, coming weeks after Pennsylvania's troubled primary, has exposed the problems big states are facing in transitioning to a pandemic-ready system. States that have replaced in-person voting with absentee voting have systems set up for voters to learn when and why their ballots have been rejected, for reasons that can vary from weather damage to a sloppy signature. New York doesn't have such a process, and the Democratic-run state has just a few weeks to decide whether to create one, adding another layer (albeit a protective one) to the convoluted election system.

The votes from Tuesday's primary in New Jersey, which was not as beset by problems as New York's, are also being counted. There was one significant upset, as first-time candidate Amy Kennedy rolled past Brigid Callahan Harrison, a major defeat for the south Jersey Democratic machine. While at least 42 percent of precincts remained uncounted as of Thursday afternoon, Kennedy had 62 percent of the vote in a multicandidate race, and Harrison had conceded. Kennedy will face Rep. Jeff Van Drew, a former Democrat who switched to the GOP and easily won his own primary.

Delaware's presidential primary wrapped up quickly, with just three of 435 precincts outstanding after Election Day. Joe Biden, who represented the state in the Senate for 36 years, won 89 percent of the vote on a relatively high turnout. With most ballots counted, 90,976 Democrats had taken part in what, by this week, was a beauty contest; Biden will take all 21 available delegates. That was close to the 93,630 votes cast in 2016, when the race between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders remained competitive, and not far off the 96,374 votes cast in 2008, when the contest between Clinton and Barack Obama took place on Super Tuesday.

Republican turnout was lower. Just 32,589 votes were counted after 99 percent of precincts reported. The president had 28,689 of those votes, with the rest going to California businessman Roque de la Fuente, who has made a hobby out of appearing on ballots. That was a decline of more than 50 percent since 2016, when 69,892 Republicans voted in a primary that three candidates, including Trump, were still competing in, and it was far off the 2008 result, when 50,239 Republicans turned out and most voted for John McCain.

Ad watch

NRSC, “Death Tax.” National Republicans have worked quickly to define Theresa Greenfield, a Democrat who has never held office, and tarnish her preferred image as a farmer who became a small-business owner. This ad goes back to a deep, sturdy well: accusing a Democrat who would raise the estate tax of wanting to punish farmers. “The coronavirus outbreak has hit Iowa farmers and small businesses hard,” a narrator says. “Theresa Greenfield would make their pain worse.”

Royce West, “Real Democrat.” The black Democratic state legislator from Dallas has been the underdog in next week's runoff, which was substantially delayed by the pandemic. His closing message against MJ Hegar, the candidate backed by most national Democrats, portrays her as a Democrat-come-lately based on a story that was aired two years ago: her 2016 protest vote for Carly Fiorina in the primary. “She admitted to voting Republican when Trump ran for president, even when Republicans were trying to repeal Obamacare,” the ad says, leaving the (incorrect) impression that Hegar may once have backed Trump.

Plains PAC, “Failed.” A new PAC was created to attack former Kansas secretary of state Kris Kobach, whom national Republicans view as the weakest candidate for this seat, Plains focuses on two issues: Kobach's unexpected defeat in the 2018 gubernatorial election and his use of staffer Joe Suber to file his paperwork. While the ad focuses on Suber's racist social media comments, it does not mention that Kobach cut ties after those comments were aired publicly.

Poll watch

How do you interpret the slogan defund the police? (Monmouth, 867 adults)

Get rid of police: 18%
Change the way police operate: 77%

It has been one month since “Defund the Police” was painted by Washington, D.C., activists, next to the city-approved street art that read “Black Lives Matter.” It's been a few weeks since the Trump campaign began running TV ads that portray a dark future in which a defunded police department, consisting of a voice mail and not much else, tells a caller to dial a number for the crime being committed and wait five days. But this is the first question asking voters to define “defunding” and finds that the least popular iteration of the idea — literally ending policing — is not the way most voters view it. Just 27 percent of self-described conservatives think activists want to “get rid of police,” as do just 16 percent of white voters with college degrees. If that holds, it's a serious blow to the Trump campaign's theory that suburban voters can be turned back from Biden if they believe that he will abolish police departments, a position he does not hold.

Candidate tracker

The biggest news affecting President Trump this week was largely out of his control: the Supreme Court's 7-to-2 decision allowing Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance to subpoena the president's tax returns.

“A 3 year, $45,000,000 Mueller HOAX, failed, Trump tweeted after the decision came down. “Investigated everything… won all against the Federal Government and the Democrats send everything to politically corrupt New York, which is falling apart with everyone leaving, to give it a second, third and fourth try. Now the Supreme Court gives a delay ruling that they would never have given for another President. This is about PROSECUTORIAL MISCONDUCT.”

The repercussions from that case, and a separate case led by House Democrats, are complicated; The Post's Robert Barnes has the details. But while it's unlikely that the president's tax documents will be resolved before November, the court has rekindled interest in one of the president's least popular positions. Polling has consistently found that less than 40 percent of voters believe Trump should conceal his tax returns. 

In 2016, Trump repeatedly said he would release the returns at some point before the election. While he never did so, it was a prima facie admission of a political problem: Voters were uncomfortable with secrecy around a candidate's finances. Trump was able to fight voter concerns such as “honesty” and “corruption” to a draw with Hillary Clinton, raising questions about donations to her family's foundation and demanding transparency about paid speeches she gave. (In the end, a hack of John Podesta's email would make those speeches public and give Trump something to work with.) 

Joe Biden, who holds a large lead over Trump on the “honesty” question, is less exposed. He responded to the decision with a link to a 2019 video he made asking Trump to release the returns, then otherwise remained focused on the rollout of his economic plan.

The court's decision dominated the president's other moves this week, though there is still speculation over whether one of the two conservatives justices who ruled in his favor, Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas, will retire before the election. On Wednesday, the president focused on the passage of the USMCA trade deal, welcoming Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to the White House for the sort of event that might get lost in the news cycle but live on in campaign advertising.

“In the United States, the extraordinary contributions of Mexican Americans are felt in every industry, every community, and every facet of our nation,” the president said from the Oval Office. “From art, to commerce, to science, to medicine, the Mexican people are incredible. They upheld our highest values: God, family, and country. They launch small businesses, propel industries, and they serve heroically in police departments and in our great military.” 

The Inevitable Kanye West Explainer

As of this moment, five days after Kanye West tweeted that he was “running for president,” Kanye West is not running for president. He has filed no paperwork with the Federal Election Commission. And his sole interview about the “campaign,” with Forbes editor Randall Lane, did not offer many clues to a possible governing agenda.

“I don’t know if I would use the word ‘policy’ for the way I would approach things,” West explained. “I don’t have a policy when I went to Nike and designed Yeezy and went to Louis and designed a Louis Vuitton at the same time.”

West's quasi-declaration may be a stunt, and West himself, according to the last poll taken since he announced his support of President Trump, is more popular with Republicans than Democrats. Still, the rumination of a Grammy-winning hip-hop artist is as good a reason as any to explain how bizarre presidential ballot access laws are now and how the coronavirus pandemic has, perhaps surprisingly, made them easier to follow.

The rules governing third-party and independent candidates vary wildly from state to state. It is already too late for West, or any other independent, to petition for ballot access in five states: Indiana, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina and Texas. Before the pandemic, that was a longer list. Several big states, like Colorado and Illinois, have delayed their deadlines or lowered the signature requirements for access. And confusing laws like Nevada's (the deadline is in August, but petitions need to start circulating tomorrow) and New Hampshire's (the deadline passed June 12) are being attacked in court.

West would need only to do what he's already doing — nothing — for some ballot access laws to get relaxed. According to Richard Winger, the editor of the indispensable Ballot Access News, there are ongoing cases, brought by current third-party candidates, that could relax rules from Alaska to California to Georgia. In the District of Columbia, independent presidential candidates must file 5,000 signatures, while independents seeking other offices need to file only 250, language that seems ripe for a challenge.

“There's an awful lot of lawsuits,” Winger said, “and we're not done with them.”

West, who told Forbes that he would create a new Birthday Party if he ran for president, could still try to access ballots in states that offer a total of 467 electoral votes. In three states — Colorado, Louisiana and Oklahoma — he could make the ballot by paying filing fees, totaling $36,500. In Nevada, he'd have to start getting signatures tomorrow. But the clock doesn't run out for independent candidates to file until Sept. 4, when the filing period closes in Arizona, Kentucky, Mississippi and Rhode Island. (There'd be fewer options for West if he insisted on running with a Birthday Party, and not, in some states, as an independent; in Alabama, California, Kansas, South Carolina and West's adopted state of Wyoming, the deadline for new political parties has passed.)

Under current laws, which could be changed by judges, getting a new candidate on these ballots would require a certain number of signatures to be gathered, then submitted, then found to be valid by the states — with the exception of Vermont, which waived its signature requirement. Getting on Tennessee's ballot takes just 275 valid signatures, while getting onto Florida's takes 132,781. The rest of the states that haven't locked down their ballot lines yet have requirements somewhere between those numbers, and some, such as New Jersey, have begun to allow electronic signatures in lieu of pandemic-unfriendly in-person signatures.

All of that is doable, though it will get harder every day. West told Forbes that he would take 30 days to decide on a run. If the clock started with West's July 4 tweet, the decision would need to come by Aug. 3. By then, under current state laws, ballot access will have closed in Arkansas, Illinois, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Vermont, Washington and West Virginia. A new candidate could still, in theory, get on enough ballots to be eligible for 272 electoral votes. But a candidate who declared Aug. 3 would have just 24 hours to get 2,000 valid signatures and make the ballot in Wisconsin. 

None of it matters if this is, as speculated, a stunt. West would not have to file any paperwork with the FEC until he collected at least $5,000 for a campaign. The same day that he tweeted about his 2020 ambitions, a former child star turned bitcoin influencer named Brock Pierce actually announced a campaign and began exploring ballot access options.

“He's really taking it seriously,” Winger said of Pierce. “You should write about him instead of Kanye West.” 


… two days until the Louisiana primary
… three days until the Puerto Rico primary
… five days until runoffs in Alabama and Texas and the primary in Maine
… 39 days until the Democratic National Convention
… 49 days until the Republican National Convention
… 57 days until some absentee ballots start going out
… 117 days until the general election