In this edition: Bernie in the Rust Belt, re-fighting 2016 for fun and profit, new campaign fundraising totals, and a fight over think tanks.
I am still waiting for the millionth dollar of royalties for my book, and this is The Trailer.
GARY, Ind. — The streets of downtown Gary were mostly empty except for Bernie Sanders, a camera crew, and a whole lot of reporters. The senator from Vermont, joined by local police and elected officials, walked half a mile through the blighted downtown of a city that has become synonymous with Midwestern industrial decline.
“It used to be a big steel town, correct?” Sanders asked as he passed by boarded-up stores, colorful murals, and a Popeye’s chicken restaurant that was undergoing repair. “Back in the day, was it a diverse community?”
A campaign team trotted backward, cameras rolling, as Sanders learned some grim local history. When he arrived at the city’s Genesis Center, he asked the Hoosiers gathered around a table what they were concerned about, then began to explain how their government had failed them.
“We are, in the United States of America today, the wealthiest country in the history of the world,” Sanders said. “If I came before you today and I said, you know, well, America, we’re a poor country, and we can’t do this, and we can’t do that, that’s not the truth. This is a country that, a year and a half ago, gave a trillion and a half dollars in tax breaks to the top one percent.”
Rather than tailoring his remarks to Gary, Sanders was giving his stump speech; the assumption was that it was exactly what a struggling and forgotten city needed to hear. The candidate’s commitment to “the message” — not “a message,” but the outlook he’s been sharing for more than 30 years — is unlike anything offered in the 18-candidate Democratic presidential field.
Sanders’s four-day swing through five Midwestern states was designed to demonstrate why that message is the one that can defeat President Trump in 2020. Here’s what it looks like:
“Well, a funny thing happened.” The existential question for Sanders’s 2020 bid was why he needed to run again when his most popular ideas — a $15 minimum wage, universal Medicare and free college tuition — had been adopted by younger Democrats. This question is answered very simply in the Sanders stump speech: He was there first, and he can therefore be trusted most.
“The ideas that we were talking about then were considered by establishment politicians and mainstream media to be ‘radical’ and ‘extreme’ — ideas, they said, that nobody in America would support,” Sanders said at his first Midwest stop, in Madison, Wis. “We’ve come a long way in the last few years. Now we are going to complete what we started.”
When Sanders speaks, each of those ideas explodes into an applause line. Among them: “Guaranteeing health care as a right,” “a one trillion dollar investment in our infrastructure,” free child care, and a $15 minimum wage.
“When we talked about the idea of a $15-an-hour minimum wage, it seemed like an impossible dream,” Sanders said in Madison. “Well, since then, we have successfully pressured Amazon and Disney to raise their minimum wage to $15, and just today Costco raised its minimum wage to $15 an hour.”
Sanders’s personal campaigns to get wage raises at big corporations are some of the highlights of his speeches, not to mention his career. When he has finished delivering his stump speech, which usually runs 50 minutes, the audience has heard the senator lay out an agenda that he believes can be enacted as soon as he becomes president. There is no talk of convincing Republicans to get on board, or of the cost; much as Barack Obama did in 2008, Sanders says that repealing most of an unpopular tax cut will pay for his agenda.
“We have a president of the United States who is a pathological liar.” The Sanders stump speech, which always diverges from prepared text and which can be shrunk down for shorter campaign stops, describes a country that wanted more radical change in 2016, but got bamboozled. The president won the Midwest, he says, only because he had promised voters that he would leave their benefits untouched and defend their jobs, while expanding health-care coverage.
“Trump said he would provide ‘health insurance for everybody,'” Sanders said in Wisconsin and Michigan. “Trump promised he would not cut Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid — he was a ‘different kind of Republican.’ Remember that?”
Plenty of Democrats agree with Sanders. Voters saw Donald Trump as more moderate than any Republican nominee for the presidency since George H.W. Bush, and they have come to see him as conservative. The president has been underwater in polling across the Midwest since he took office, and Republicans lost big pieces of his coalition in 2018.
In Ohio, Sanders called on the federal government to deny contracts to General Motors until it reopened a plant in Lordstown. In Michigan, he called on President Trump to scrap the revised NAFTA that was introduced shortly before the midterms, describing it as yet another failure by a president who said he’d get tough on trade, then ballooned the trade deficit.
“For once in your life, keep your campaign promises,” Sanders said. “Go back to the drawing board on NAFTA.”
He also smooths some of the edges off his ideas — the ones that Trump would go after if Sanders won the nomination. In both Wisconsin and Michigan, he described single-payer health care like this: “We say to the private health insurance companies: Whether you like it or not, the United States will join every other major country on earth and guarantee health care to all people as a right, not a privilege.” He was not as direct in calling for the end of the private insurance industry as he has been when pressed in interviews.
“We won victories in 22 states around the country.” If Joe Biden runs for president, Sanders will be one of just two contenders for the Democratic nomination who sought it before. That comes with advantages; Sanders’s ground team is by far the most war-ready in the Democratic field, collecting the names of every voter who wants inside a rally, passing out signs with slogans that have not changed since 2016.
Sanders stands apart in another way: He seldom discusses the midterm elections, when Democrats broke the Republican majority in the House and swept key races in the Midwest. Instead, he discusses the 2016 election and primary. In Wisconsin and Michigan, he thanked the audience for delivering big primary wins, and noted, at a western Michigan stop, that some had called his victory there “the biggest upset in modern political history.” In both states, he noted that he won “more votes from young people — black, white, Latino, Asian American and Native American — than Trump and Clinton combined.”
No other candidate for the Democratic nomination still talks about Hillary Clinton, whose surprise defeat was traumatic for millions of Democrats. Poking at the primary wounds can be risky; in Michigan, when Sanders reminded the crowd of his successful fight to end the voting power of “superdelegates,” there was a mix of cheers and boos. Mark Craig, 66, a Sanders organizer in Flint, took a cigar out of his mouth to shout a four-letter expletive about the party’s 2016 nominee.
Sanders’s rhetoric also sets him apart from other Democrats, who talk about the midterms as the first step in a Trump removal campaign. Beto O’Rourke talks about the youth voter turnout surge in Texas’s midterm elections. Amy Klobuchar talks about Minnesota Democrats winning every statewide election in 2018, and drops in references to how Wisconsin Democrats beat Scott Walker.
But Sanders, who stumped across the country for Democrats in 2018 — including stops in Michigan — does not get into the local politics. At that same Michigan stop, Sanders said he supported the legalization of marijuana, with no mention of how the state’s voters legalized the drug for recreational use in a landslide.
“This bothers me a little bit.” Sanders, more than any other candidate for the Democratic nomination, dislikes the political press. It’s not personal for him; he does not, like Donald Trump, spend his time onstage prodding the audience to boo the dishonest media. The Sanders critique is the one advanced by left-wing media critics such as Noam Chomsky and Robert McChesney, in which corporate control of the media leads it to cover scandal and gossip, which is not a threat to their power, instead of policy — which is.
That leads Sanders to bristle and attack the premise of questions where other Democrats might be apologetic or evasive. In Gary, for the first time since launching his campaign, Sanders offered to take questions from reporters. He didn’t do so in a “gaggle,” the term of art for when a candidate stands surrounded by cameras and reporters, and takes questions from any direction. He did so with the media gathered across the room from his roundtable, with his supporters looking on.
The first question, from Francesca Chambers of the Daily Mail, was one of the senator’s least favorite subjects: whether making more than a million dollars, as he has since 2016, cuts against his message.
“I didn’t know that it was a crime to write a good book,” Sanders said, to applause from the crowd. “It turned out to be a bestseller. My view has always been that we need a progressive tax system that demands the wealthiest people in this country finally start paying their fair share in taxes. If I make a lot of money, you make a lot of money, that is what I believe. So I don’t apologize for writing a book that was number three on the New York Times bestseller list, translated into five or six languages.”
There was more applause, but Sanders wasn’t done. “This bothers me a little bit,” he added. “Maybe we want to talk about Gary, Indiana. Maybe we want to talk about poverty. Maybe we want to talk about youth unemployment.”
During his Midwest swing, Sanders was the first candidate for the Democratic nomination to plunge into a national controversy and attack the president for a video accusing Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) of forgetting the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But that was on Twitter. On the trail, he is relentlessly focused on his issues and his message, and steers away from anything that could become a distraction. It worked well enough for a surprisingly strong second place in 2016. It hasn’t been truly tested in 2020.
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Some quality time with the candidate who would be the first bachelor president in more than a century.
ON THE TRAIL
WARREN, Mich. — The question that hangs in the air every time Bernie Sanders visits a swing state is the one that makes Democrats break out in hives.
Had Sanders been the party’s nominee in 2016, would he have won?
Sanders himself has hesitated to say so. The people around him have not. In “How Bernie Won,” his memoir of the 2016 campaign, Sanders’s campaign manager Jeff Weaver writes that “Bernie would have won, period.” The “Bernie would have won” mantra has inspired T-shirts, music videos, and more memes than there is earthly time to consume. Sanders, more carefully, tells audiences that the media was wrong about his chances in 2016.
“We were given a one percent chance to win here in Michigan,” Sanders said. “Well, we won in the Democratic primary here in 2016, and in 2020, we’re going to win the general election here in this state.”
The idea that Sanders would have won where Hillary Clinton did not is impossible to disprove; there is, obviously, a lot more proof that Clinton couldn’t win the election. As Sean Sullivan reports from the Sanders trail, a few Democrats such as Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.) openly warn that nominating a 78-year old democratic socialist would throw away the 2020 election away. To rebut them, Sanders need only to point out that Schrader thought Clinton would win.
But Sanders’s Midwest tour, designed to demonstrate the clout and popularity of his message in the region, was also a tour through places where it had failed. The 2018 elections were mostly good for Midwestern Democrats, but mostly bad for Sanders.
In the run-up to 2018, Sanders made 12 endorsements in statewide and congressional races across the Midwest. One went to an incumbent, Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), who won in a rout. One went to now-Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia (D-Ill.), who was also supported by the congressman he was replacing in a safe Chicago seat.
The other 10 endorsements went to candidates who lost either the primary or the general election. Six Sanders candidates lost primaries for governor (Abdul El-Sayed in Michigan) or the House (Marie Newman in Illinois, Pete D’Alessandro in Iowa, Greg Edwards and Richard Lazer in Pennsylvania, Brent Welder in Kansas).
The other four candidates lost general elections, with Pennsylvania’s Jess King falling in a seat that had been drawn to elect a Republican, and Iowa’s J.D. Scholten losing in the state’s most conservative district. Indiana’s Liz Watson and Wisconsin’s Randy Bryce lost in red-tinted seats that looked to be tests of the Sanders theory that white working-class voters could be roused by a populist message. Instead, Watson ran slightly ahead of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 numbers, while Bryce ran even with them.
These defeats have not taken up much space in Sanders’s narrative; as mentioned above, he doesn’t talk much about 2018 on the trail. And the candidates who fell short do not say that the message lost. While they ran on Medicare-for-all, free college tuition and dismantling Immigration and Customs Enforcement, they say the election was lost on other issues.
“The whole district was gerrymandered to elect a Republican,” Randy Bryce said in an interview. “We chased Paul Ryan into retirement, so they nominated a guy [now-Rep. Bryan Steil] with no record, who told everyone he was going to save Medicare. I firmly believe that we would have defeated Paul Ryan.”
Wisconsin Democrats didn’t disagree; they said that Bryce’s defeat was a testament to a brutally effective Republican campaign that publicized his 1998 arrest for drunken driving and a past child support dispute with his ex-wife. Supporters of El-Sayed, who ran a Sanders-style campaign that promised a universal care plan for Michigan, said that he had been similarly damaged for reasons unrelated to his politics — questions about whether he was eligible to run, given some votes he had cast in New York before returning to the state.
El-Sayed, who introduced Sanders at his Warren rally, said the senator would have won in 2016, and that Republicans were fooling themselves if they thought his Medicare position was a loser in the Midwest.
“There’s pretty good polling to suggest that focusing on Medicare-for-all, on a real people-centered politics and policy, can beat Donald Trump,” El-Sayed said. “What people recognize is that they’re paying an arm and a leg for health care, and then, if they’re sick, they have to pay an arm and a leg to use it.”
But the fact remains that no Democrat has gotten the chance to test that theory statewide as a nominee, and there are real questions about whether the party’s voters would even want to.
Sanders’s 2016 win in the Michigan primary was arguably the biggest upset of the entire contest, for either party. But according to the exit polls, just 11 percent of voters said that their top priority was a candidate who “could win in November” — and just 27 percent of those voters backed Sanders. Sanders performed the best with voters who wanted an “honest and trustworthy” candidate, who far outnumbered the “electability” voters, and who went for Sanders by 58 points. A large part of Sanders’s appeal was that he came across as a candidate who said what he thought, and trusted voters to hear it; the idea that he could win in November was, for many voters, remote.
“We did listening sessions after the election and asked people: What was Hillary’s message?” Wisconsin Democratic Party chair Martha Laning recalled. “People couldn’t tell me anything but ‘stronger together,’ and ‘get out and vote.’ I was being told by the campaign that Hillary was going to put in the biggest infrastructure package since FDR, and it would create 60,000 jobs in Wisconsin, but that message wasn’t getting out to people.”
Pete Buttigieg. It turned out that his “special announcement” in South Bend, Ind., today was that he was running for president. (No points if you guessed that.) The speech, expanded from the short stump he has been working out in early states, focused on his “bumper sticker” of “freedom, security and democracy,” and rolled out fellow mayors of medium-sized cities to argue that the 37-year old had the experience to be president.
Cory Booker. He relaunched his campaign with a rally in Newark; he had rolled out his candidacy two months ago with a video, not a big public event. Around 4,000 voters showed up to hear Booker’s pitch for a “real progressive movement” that “refuses to stall out in righteous indignation” and “channels that indignation into the work that actually improves people’s lives.”
Amy Klobuchar. She headed to Colorado, which has replaced its caucuses with a traditional primary, to talk to Boulder students about her “underdog” campaign.
Eric Swalwell. He held his own hometown rally in Dublin, Calif., just moments after Buttigieg finished up at his rally, with somewhat less national media on hand.
How does a campaign convince the wandering eye of a Facebook user to click on a lesser-known candidate’s ad? Give it a countdown clock. The adin rotation for Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) schedules just 20 seconds for the user to, well, take a one-question survey about climate change. It’s the first one of this we’ve seen, cutting through what has become the Facebook norm — a clip of the candidate speaking in a human-looking setting, such as a kitchen.
Kirsten Gillibrand’s presidential bid raised $3 million in its first quarter, the smallest haul among the six senators running for president. Like most of those other senators — Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, and Cory Booker — Gillibrand rolled much of her Senate war chest into her presidential campaign fund. (Booker, who is up for reelection next year if he does not become the party’s presidential nominee, has a small cash-on-hand number that suggests he didn’t divert as much Senate money.)
By the end of Monday, every candidate’s information will be public. For now, here’s the fundraising totals that we know:
Sanders — $18 million
Harris — $12 million
O’Rourke — $9.4 million
Buttigieg — $7 million
Warren — $6 million
Klobuchar — $5.2 million
Booker — $5 million
Gillibrand — $3 million
Yang — $1.7 million
This campaign is starting much earlier than the 2015 race; two years ago, just Ted Cruz and Ben Carson declared before the end of March, and neither got to eight-digit fundraising until the next quarter. Something to watch for: whether the president’s campaign will announce more money raised than all of the Democrats combined.
DEMS IN DISARRAY
The Ilhan primary. For at least the second time, the Democratic candidates for president have been urged to respond to comments from Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), one of the first Muslim women elected to Congress. The first eruption came after Omar said she resented being asked to pledge “allegiance to a foreign country,” referring to Israel; Bernie Sanders, more than any other candidate, defended Omar from the charge that she was accusing American Jews of dual loyalty. (Omar’s statement did not mention Jewish people.)
This week’s eruption took longer, and made less sense, beginning after a clip of a weeks-old Omar speech to the Council on American-Islamic Relations began circulating on the right. Although the speech had gotten TV coverage at the time, the clip focused on one sentence: “CAIR was founded after 9/11, because they recognized that some people did something and that all of us were starting to lose access to our civil liberties.”
Democrats did not respond until Friday night, after the president tweeted a video that repeatedly cut together Omar’s “some people did something” line with footage of 9/11. Sanders was first out of the gate, and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) followed, both of them attacking Trump for, in Warren’s words, “inciting violence against a sitting congresswoman — and an entire group of Americans based on their religion.” Over 24 hours, every leading Democratic candidate chimed in, with activists watching who mentioned Omar by name, who explained what the outrage was and who seemed to imply that Omar was in any way at fault.
“Trump is awful, but I’m also angry at Democratic Party leadership for their lackluster response and dismissive attitude toward,” tweeted Waleed Shalid, a spokesman for the left-wing Justice Democrats. “In 2016, they told Muslims and people of color that Trump was a threat to democracy and our lives. Today, they’re barely putting up a fight.”
CAP on notice. While he was tearing through the Midwest, Bernie Sanders sent a letter to the Center for American Progress asking it to stop “using its resources to smear Senator Booker, Senator Warren, and myself, among others.” The spark was a piece in ThinkProgress, the center’s news site, which highlighted Sanders’s wealth and his reluctance to release his tax returns, which caused plenty of angry discussion but little expectation that Sanders himself would swing back.
“I and other Democratic candidates are running campaigns based on principles and ideas and not engaging in mudslinging or personal attacks on each other,” Sanders wrote. “I will be informing my grass-roots supporters of the foregoing concerns that I have about the role CAP is playing.”
In the past, CAP has held an “ideas summit” every May, inviting presidential candidates and potential candidates to speak; this year’s conference, next month, had already been reformulated to feature rising stars who are not running for president. But Sanders’s letter was about plenty more than CAP’s think tank work, with the senator writing that “Center for American Progress leader Neera Tanden repeatedly calls for unity while simultaneously maligning my staff and supporters and belittling progressive ideas” — something she mostly does on Twitter. (Tanden has not commented, instead tweeting a statement from the think tank.)
“No one at CAP or CAP Action knew about this article or [an associated] video’s existence before publication,” said CAP spokeswoman Daniella Gibbs Leger. “We cannot and will not muzzle ThinkProgress, an editorially independent journalistic enterprise, and we believe it’s wrong for any political leader to demand it do so.”
Sanders’s letter got a rapturous reception on left-leaning Twitter, seen as evidence that he was pummeling the political establishment, as he promised he’d do in 2020.
. . . one day until Bernie Sanders’s town hall on Fox News
. . . 10 days until the Democrats’ Women of Color forum in Houston
. . . 73 days until the first Democratic debates