In this edition: Democrats learn to love executive power, Chicago holds a historic election, and a “Tax the Rich” campaign gets serious.
Sometimes I wonder if there’s a more respectful way to refer to big candidate events than “cattle calls,” and this is The Trailer.
Also: At the end of this week, The Trailer will run the latest in our occasional Q&A series, answering all sorts of questions about what has become a wild, idea-stuffed and competitive presidential race. Please submit your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org and put “Trailer” somewhere in the subject, by no later than Friday morning.
On Monday, as they paced the stage of Washington’s Warner Theatre, eight people running for the Democratic nomination for president described a job that would involve a whole lot less talk and a whole lot more campaigning.
“I pledge to be a president who will be traveling all over this country as part of a grass-roots political movement,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
“When we win that office back, that officeholder must lead the greatest grass-roots organizing movement we’ve ever seen,” said Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.).
“As president of the United States, I’ll get out and I’ll stump for this,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), discussing a constitutional amendment to protect the right to vote. “I will get out there, and I will fight.”
The audience, a coalition of activists from environmental, labor and immigrant rights groups, cheered for all of it. Monday’s We the People forum, the largest candidate “cattle call” so far, captured a feeling inspired in part by frustration with the Obama administration and even more by the “only I can fix it” ethos of President Trump.
There’s not much hunger in the Democratic base for a president who’ll cut deals. There’s plenty for a president who will use every tool and trick of the executive branch to beat Republicans — and to undo Trump’s legacy. If that holds, it would mark a real departure for a party that has run on compromise and consensus for decades and did so again in the 2018 midterm elections.
The We the People forum was organized to start that conversation. The Center for Popular Democracy Action, Planned Parenthood, the Sierra Club, the Communications Workers of America and the immigrant rights group CASA selected members to ask questions based on their personal stories, whether they had a specific policy demand or not.
“The people closest to the pain should be closest to the power, ” said Jennifer Epps-Addison, the president of CPD Action.
In a crowded and noisy theater, the candidates agreed that the country was in a state of crisis and that executive power — and constant campaigning to rouse activists — was needed to fix it. President Barack Obama had been discouraged from using “celebrity” politics to keep his base active, while Trump had held rally after rally. What could a more disciplined — and left-wing — candidate do with that strategy?
Every candidate who was asked (and a few who weren’t) promised to bring the United States back into the 2016 Paris climate agreement. Most agreed to policies — voting rights enforcement, felon voter rights restoration, an end to the War on Drugs — that would involve executive decisions about what law enforcement should and should not focus on. One candidate, Beto O’Rourke, suggested that the government should take its cues from voters by asking them directly what they wanted.
“I’ll sign an executive order on the first day in office requiring every single Cabinet secretary to hold a town hall meeting like this, every single month,” O’Rourke said.
Every presidential race gets into questions about what a candidate might prioritize or focus on in his or her first 100 days. But the Trump presidency, which has seen a president scratch out scores of executive orders, then boast that no other politician had dared to act, has eliminated some of the Democrats’ Obama-era self-doubt. When the fact of the Republican-run Senate came up, it was only so Democrats could talk about a grass-roots campaign to take back control.
From the beginning of Obama’s presidency, conservatives in Congress and the media warned that he would try to dismantle American institutions. Much of the worry centered on a bit of airy campaign trail rhetoric, when Obama told an audience that it was on the verge of “fundamentally transforming the United States of America”; Obama was sensitive enough to that critique that he told Fox News that he would be doing no such thing.
“We don’t even remember what it’s like to have a president who’s brave,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), invoking President Lyndon B. Johnson’s work to pass the Civil Rights Act and John F. Kennedy’s advocacy to put a man on the moon — not the “incrementalism” that’s derided by many activist Democrats.
During the 2016 Republican primaries, informed by years of protests against Obama, many of the party’s candidates said the president had acted recklessly and lawlessly. Trump’s readiness to act unilaterally has convinced many Democrats that the Republicans had been insincere. Even while the candidates met at the Warner Theatre, the Trump administration was floating the idea of following the immigration emergency order, which most Republicans had supported, with an “immigration czar,” the sort of non-Senate-confirmed job most Republicans had once opposed.
The format of Monday’s event — three questions per candidate — did not reveal everything that the candidates thought a president could do. But several candidates emphasized ways that the president could act, without going through Congress, to achieve left-wing and liberal goals. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee suggested that, just as the Trump administration had nixed some of the Obama administration’s climate and fuel standards, a president would be able to boost the renewable energy industry by requiring the government to buy its products.
“The federal government has vast authority to procure; it’s really a thousand-pound gorilla in our supply chain,” Inslee said in an interview. “It can drive all kinds of clean technologies throughout the supply chain, by requiring clean technologies, cleaner fuels, cleaner materials, less wastage.”
Julián Castro went in a similar direction, following the forum with the release of an immigration plan that would deprioritize the arrest of immigrants who crossed the border but had not committed other crimes. The logic behind it grew from the experience Democrats had with Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — denounced by Republicans as executive overreach, challenged in the courts, but robust enough to survive the Trump administration so far.
Many of the questions at the forum were about big constitutional projects, the sort of things presidents could not do on their own. Several were about what a president could do to expand voting rights and to prevent another election where the winner of the popular vote did not move into the White House. Several more were about judges and whether Democrats would respond to the Republicans’ 2016 blockade of Obama’s Supreme Court nominee — and the subsequent moves to make it easier for a president to get his judges confirmed.
Instead of executive action, the Democrats talked about leading campaigns to browbeat Republicans. Only Sanders hesitated, saying to Planned Parenthood activist Ebony Wiggins that it could be a mistake to increase the size of the Supreme Court.
“The next time the Republicans are in power, they will do the same thing,” Sanders said.
Within 24 hours, a liberal group, Pack the Courts, was running Facebook ads attacking the senator for “being naive.” But the very fact that the issue was being floated in public forums, and that Democrats were answering, demonstrated how much this primary’s conversation was moving on from the bring-both-sides-together talk of primaries past.
“California considers nation’s strictest police use-of-force standard after Stephon Clark shooting,” by Scott Wilson
This isn’t a campaign trail story — not right now — but California’s debate about changing the definition of when lethal police action can be justified could resonate in Democratic politics. It sounds simple and centers on changing a “reasonable” standard to a “necessary” standard for action. But the legal implications are enormous.
“How the Trump Era Is Molding the Next Generation of Voters,” by Emily Badger and Claire Cain Miller
Are voters who discovered politics for the first time recently adjusting to it well? The answer won’t surprise you!
“Five 2020 Democrats took the stage in Iowa. None had answers,” by Art Cullen
The chief moderator of the weekend’s “Heartland Forum” argues that the presidential contenders did not say enough about how they would act in the White House.
ON THE TRAIL
CHICAGO — On Sunday, less than 48 hours before the mayoral campaign came to an end, Toni Preckwinkle arrived on friendly turf to meet a very small crowd. The People’s Church, an institution on Chicago’s west side with a replica of Jerusalem’s Western Wall, could seat a few hundred people; fewer than a hundred had come to see Preckwinkle. The candidate’s allies, some of whom had known her for decades, asked her supporters to keep hope alive.
“Don’t let the polls drive you to a decision!” said Jason Ervin, an alderman campaigning alongside Preckwinkle. “It’s not the numbers you see in those polls; it’s the heart of the people we need to be concerned with.”
The race to replace Rahm Emanuel, a major national figure in the Democratic Party who became a deeply unpopular mayor of Chicago, is ending with a lack of suspense that belies its historic nature. If elected, Preckwinkle, the 72-year-old president of the Cook County board, would become the first black, female mayor of this city. If she loses, it will be to Lori Lightfoot, a 56-year-old attorney who would be the first black, female and gay mayor of the city.
There has never been a big-city race like this, but voter interest has been low; national media coverage of Chicago in the past few weeks has focused more on the drama around actor Jussie Smollet than the race for mayor. Polling has given Lightfoot, who has never run for office, a commanding lead over Preckwinkle, and the insurgent candidate’s supporters have begun warning more about complacency than about the other candidate.
“I don’t care what the polls say, because Trump is in the White House,” said Rep. Robin Kelly (D-Ill.) at a Sunday rally at one of Lightfoot’s South Side campaign offices. “Don’t tell me what the polls say. I don’t want to leave a single stone unturned.”
For many voters, and for the editorial boards of major newspapers — both have endorsed Lightfoot — the election has been boiled down to a question of which candidate would defy the “machine,” a term that can be stretched to cover lots of what Chicagoans are sick of.
Lightfoot, who surged past the dynastic candidacy of Bill Daley to make the runoff election, benefited enormously from the fact that she had not run for office. Preckwinkle, backed by the Chicago Teacher’s Union that had clashed endlessly with Emanuel, represented change from the previous administration, but less of a clean break from the city’s politics.
“Everywhere I go in this city, I hear that people want change,” Lightfoot told reporters at a quick South Shore campaign stop Sunday. “People are really excited about taking their city back from a corrupt political machine.”
Both Lightfoot and Preckwinkle have portrayed themselves as the “progressive” candidate — in a city where Republicans are largely irrelevant, that’s the turf the election has been fought on.
In her stump speech, Preckwinkle says that the mayoralty is “not an entry-level job.” She and her endorsers have rounded on the front-runner for suggesting that some of the schools closed during the Emanuel years be turned into police training centers. In one of their final debates, Preckwinkle accused Lightfoot of having “defended corporations accused of age and race discrimination,” while Lightfoot stayed on message: Voters could fall for the attacks, or they could dismantle the machine.
“The machine was built to last, but we can overcome it if we unite together with our brothers and sisters all over this city and speak in one clear voice that change is coming,” Lightfoot said at one Sunday rally.
The specter of a Preckwinkle defeat is worrying left-wing and labor organizers, but many have ignored the race to work downballot. Three city council candidates endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America advanced to runoffs; if successful, they will join DSA-endorsed Carlos Ramirez-Rosa to become the city council’s first socialist caucus. In February and tonight, groups such as the Working Families Party focused on electing a “progressive slate” of candidates to build a beachhead against a mayor who will not, as Emanuel did, have enough financial support to ignore pressure groups.
“[They] are rejecting corporate Democratic policies and championing a huge tax on corporations, reining in the Chicago police department through a community policing council, and stopping tax dollar giveaways like the luxury mega-development Lincoln Yards,” said Working Families Party spokesman Rob Duffey. “If the progressive slate wins, it will be a full repudiation of Rahm Emmanuel’s Third Way politics.”
IN THE STATES
Chicago’s elections are just some of the races that will be decided tonight; two of them, with less political power at stake, will tell us more about the state of the parties in two swing states. In both of them, Republicans are closing with hyper-national messages.
Wisconsin. Conservatives have a 4-to-3 majority on the state’s elected Supreme Court and are hoping to increase that majority with an upset tonight. Brian Hagedorn, a conservative state court of appeals judge, has been boosted by $1 million in ads asking Republican voters to remember the Brett M. Kavanaugh hearings and turn out. Lisa Neubauer, the chief judge on Hagedorn’s court, has run what has become a familiar campaign for this office — an attack on Hagedorn’s old conservative writings (in which he attacked same-sex marriage and abortion), and an emphasis on her endorsements from fellow jurists.
Eric Holder’s National Democratic Redistricting Committee shoveled $350,000 into the race; the former attorney general also made one of his first campaign swings through the state since announcing that he would not run for president. “Too often we focus on the presidential election,” he told reporters. “We’ve got to make sure that people understand that this is a consequential election.” Neubauer, who said that she would reject outside money, offered to recuse herself if Holder’s group brought a case before her court.
A Democratic win would not change the balance of the court; a loss would demonstrate the first real power of the “remember Kavanaugh” attack in a swing state. (In 2018, that attack mostly benefited Republicans in deep red states.)
Pennsylvania. The vacant 37th state Senate district will be filled today after a pricey and nasty election with real resonance for both parties — it overlaps with the congressional district that Rep. Conor Lamb (D) won in 2018, auguring the Democrats’ good political year. Pam Iovino, the Democratic nominee, ran and lost the congressional nomination to Lamb but has campaigned with his full support and worked to win the same kind of voters — frustrated moderate Republicans — who elected him. Republican D. Raja has run more of a pure base election, portraying Iovino as a radical ally of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).
Both campaigns have closed out the race by invoking the president. Republicans are running robo-calls with Donald Trump Jr. endorsing Raja and sending mail that promises a vote for Raja is a “vote for President Trump’s agenda.” Democrats are targeting their own voters with mail that highlights Raja’s very Trumpiness, telling voters that Raja “thinks that Donald Trump is ‘a great first step.’ ”
The 37th District, held by Democrats for years, switched to the GOP in a 2015 special election; a switch back would give Democrats their first state legislative flip of the year.
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John Delaney for America. The first Democrat to go on the airwaves in Iowa — way back in January 2018 — is running a 60-second New Hampshire spot, his first.
“Yes, we need to get rid of Trump, but I’m not going to promise you that when we get rid of him, all of our problems go away,” Delaney says. He makes a series of familiar Democratic promises (“we will make the American dream a reality when we stop giving tax breaks to the rich”) that are branded, at the end, as “the truth, for a change.”
Pack the Courts. The grassroots group is making a small, $5,000 digital buy, which might not be notable if it wasn’t for the target: Bernie Sanders. A new ad, which has begun running on Facebook, highlights the senator’s comments at the We the People forum in which he criticized “court-packing” and warns left-wing voters that “Bernie is being naive,” because the right “will pack the courts if they get the chance,” and Democrats need a response. (Worth noting here: Activists on the left consider the blockade of Obama court nominee Merrick Garland to have been a form of court-packing.)
“Bernie’s political revolution won’t be complete until he addresses the Supreme Court, which is prepared to strike down his entire agenda the day it passes,” said Sean McElwee, the director of polling and research at Pack the Courts.
If the election were held today, would you vote for Trump, the Democrat, or an independent? (Wason Center, 1,001 likely voters)
Democrat – 48%
Trump – 37%
Democrat – 34%
Trump – 33%
Independent – 16%
Every poll on this question, whether paid for by Howard Schultz or by someone else, finds basically the same result. There is a sizable bloc of voters, currently a majority, that strongly disapproves of the president. There’s also a perception that the Democratic Party is liberal — obviously, not wrong — and an openness to considering a third-party candidate. Here, just 10 percent of Trump supporters consider backing an independent, while 29 percent of voters inclined to back Trump’s Democratic opponent say they could go third party.
Schultz’s extended testing-the-water tour is expected to last for at least a few more weeks; if he does run, his candidacy would become a sword of Damocles, hanging over the Democrats’ heads. In a head-turning column for The Nation, in which he urged Democrats to reject the Bernie Sanders candidacy, Eric Alterman warned that Sanders could “deliver the country to Trump” in part by “increas[ing] support for the likely spoiler in the race,” former Starbucks chief executive Schultz.” Even as a private citizen, Schultz has used his megaphone to attack the Democrats as unacceptably far left, amplifying the president’s own message.
The Democrats’ scramble for cash has its front-runner so far: Bernie Sanders. On Tuesday morning, the senator from Vermont’s campaign announced that he had raised $18.2 million since becoming a candidate for president Feb. 19. After shooting for 1 million donations, the campaign pulled in “nearly 900,000″ from around 525,000 donors, according to campaign manager Faiz Shakir.
“No bundling, no sneaking off to posh fundraisers with nice hors d’oeuvres — that may be other campaigns, but not ours,” Shakir said on the call.
One other campaign — Elizabeth Warren’s — has ruled out holding campaign fundraisers, and she has yet to release her totals. But Shakir’s comment did apply to Sen. Kamala Harris, who announced Monday that she’d raised $12 million since the start of her campaign, from more than 138,000 donors. (Sanders’s campaign said 167,000 of his donations came from California; he lost the 2016 primary there by seven points and has made it clear that he won’t concede anything to the state’s junior senator.) The attack also applied to Pete Buttigieg, who raised $7 million from an undisclosed number of donors.
Buttigieg, the first candidate to release a fundraising total, set a surprisingly high bar for his rivals. It is likely that several of the senators in the race, with big fundraising networks built over years, will lag behind him in at least one metric, money, when they release their first-quarter numbers. Sanders set another kind of bar, as the total number of campaign donors has become for Democrats what crowd size at rallies is to the president — the truest measure of whether a candidate is popular. (This observation comes to The Trailer from Paul Kane.)
Andrew Yang, the entrepreneur running on universal basic income, raised $1.7 million from at least 80,000 individual donors, his campaign told the Daily Beast. Former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke, whose first-day fundraising total exceeded Sanders’s, has not released his first-quarter tallies.
Joe Biden. His political operation — there’s no campaign yet, and that matters — has spent three days pushing back on former Nevada legislator Lucy Flores’s allegations that Biden had acted inappropriately in a 2014 encounter. Bill Russo, Biden’s spokesman, released a statement attacking the speculation about photos that show Biden getting physically close to women by attacking the coverage; “the important conversation about these issues are not advanced, nor are any criticisms of Vice President Biden validated, by the continued misrepresentation of the Carter and Coons moments, or a failure to be vigilant about a cottage industry of lies.”
Justin Amash. The Republican congressman from Michigan has propped open the door to a libertarian presidential bid; since Bill Weld left the party to challenge the president as a Republican, no experienced politician has emerged as a third-party candidate.
Amy Klobuchar. She released a video from her weekend Iowa trip, emphasizing that she was the first 2020 Democrat to see the damage from last month’s devastating floods and meet with the people recovering.
Julián Castro. He rolled out the first comprehensive immigration plan in the Democratic field, pitching an end to new border wall construction and pathways to citizenship for people who had temporary status under the Obama administration.
Terry McAuliffe. He told radio host John Fredericks that he will “soon” decide whether to run for president, with a lot of speculation about how fun it would be to run.
Michael Bennet. The senator from Colorado is headed back to New Hampshire this week, holding a meet-and-greet Sunday.
Seth Moulton. He’s heading Nevada for two days of meetings and events, finishing his tour of four early primary states ahead of a potential 2020 decision.
WHAT I’M WATCHING
Tax March, a two-year-old liberal group initially founded to compel the president to release his taxes, is launching a new project called “Tax the Rich.” It’s as direct as it sounds: It will spend at least $1 million on an ad campaign designed to move the Democratic Party on a conversation about paying for social programs with higher taxes on the wealthiest.
“We have found that taxing the rich is an incredibly popular thing,” said Tax March Director Maura Quint. “It has broad support not just from Democrats and independents, but even plenty of Republicans. But within D.C., when we talk to elected Democrats, there’s been some disbelief in the popularity of taxing the rich. We want to change that.”
The campaign has tapped Sue Dinsdale, the director of the left-leaning Iowa Citizen Action Network, to run a campaign in the first caucus state. Plenty of activist groups do this sort of change-the-debate organizing in primary states, where candidates have to meet voters and reporters tend to listen; the ACLU is running a $30 million pressure campaign across the primary states to get candidates talking about criminal justice restructuring and immigrant rights. Tax March’s next move: activist trainings in Washington and grass-roots organizing in Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Maine, New Hampshire and Nevada, all states with 2020 Senate races or early presidential primaries.
. . . one day until Democrats start descending on New York for the National Action Network’s gathering
. . . 13 days until presidential candidates must release their fundraising totals
. . . 80 days until Jim Clyburn’s fish fry in South Carolina
. . . 119 days until the second Democratic presidential debate