The Trailer: Democratic socialists consider how to use their clout

In this edition: The Democratic Socialists of America consider their 2020 options, the tragedies in El Paso and Dayton rattle the Democratic primary, and Mississippi gets ready to pick a new governor.

I don’t know what to do with myself without two nightly debates, and this is The Trailer.

ATLANTA — Over the weekend, the country’s largest socialist organization took a few minutes to consider the unthinkable. What would Democratic Socialists of America do if Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the man who almost single-handedly revived their movement, did not win the Democrats’ presidential nomination?

The debate was passionate and short. Three-quarters of DSA members had voted to endorse Sanders in an online ballot months before the Atlanta convention. To many here, he was the only candidate who deserved a full-bore electoral effort from 56,000 socialists — the work that had elected dozens of legislators in the states since 2016. A DSA endorsement would put money and campaign resources behind that candidate.

“As socialists, it’s our job to build movements,” said Robin Peterson, a delegate from Chicago. “Supporting any other candidate on the Democratic side will not do that.”

“There are incredibly real stakes,” said David Duhalde, a longtime DSA activist, who cited the worries of socialists living in swing states. “Trump is just too dangerous to take cards off the table.”

In the end, a majority of DSA’s thousand delegates voted to stick with Sanders. But they left the option open to officially oppose Trump, and many delegates saw Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who agrees with Sanders on many issues and has been gaining in public polls while Sanders has slumped, as a better alternative than they had in 2016. As the DSA has grown, and as Republicans have oriented their 2020 campaigns around the threat of “socialism,” the people who self-identity as socialists have become more ambitious and more strategic. Electing like-minded candidates has given them a new, expanded role in politics; Sanders’s strong 2016 vote made them more confident that they can carry the message anywhere, with or without him.

“People will politely ask me, ‘Hey, what does socialism mean?’ ” said Maine legislator Mike Sylvester. “I tell them, it means that your government doesn’t have to explain to you why they helped you, because you had a piece in not only coming up with the idea, but in creating the policy behind it, and in implementing it.”

The DSA itself, which has chapters in 49 states and the District, is in a new position. It has enough clout to make political opponents stand up and notice that its preferred candidate for president had won 14 million votes in the last election and moved the Democratic Party markedly left. 

“I basically didn’t believe this was a viable strategy until 2016,” said Micah Uetricht, an editor at the socialist magazine Jacobin and a DSA delegate. “Even as a socialist I said I thought that this stuff wouldn’t play in Peoria. And then we learned, in 2016, that the Sanders agenda does play in Peoria.” 

At the DSA’s convention, and at last month’s Socialism 2019 conference in Chicago, socialists relished the notoriety they’d gotten since 2016. Four years earlier, only a handful of elected officials identified with the movement. By the summer of 2019, DSA had helped elect six members of Chicago’s city council, state legislators from places including Maine, Rhode Island and Virginia, and two of the most visible new Democrats in Congress: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan. 

“If the Bernie Sanders movement is successful in the United States, eventually we will run into the same roadblocks that good social democratic movements ran into the ’60s and ’70s,” said Bhaskar Sunkara, the editor and founder of Jacobin, at a panel in Chicago. “But if we can’t put something like Medicare-for-all on the table, we won’t be able to put more personal ownership of the means of production on the table.”

This was exactly the kind of ambition that conservatives had warned against for years, but Republicans and conservative media largely ignored both gatherings. Coverage of the DSA convention on Fox News focused on a few moments when delegates urged “comrades” not to “use gendered language” and not to “trigger anxiety” by talking too loudly. 

A protest outside the convention drew fewer than 10 people. Vice President Pence arrived in Atlanta over the weekend to speak to a conservative gathering, where he mentioned “socialism” 14 times and warned that the Green New Deal and Medicare-for-all would turn America into a failed state like Venezuela. He did not mention the convention of 1,000 actual socialists gathered less than 10 miles away.

Many socialists welcomed the attention, and the confusion, from conservatives. Frank Llewellyn, a longtime national director of DSA, recalled how former Fox News host Glenn Beck would warn about the coming of socialism, portraying the movement as more powerful and influential than it was. The attacks on socialism, he said, were wedded to a Cold War paradigm that resonated for decades but has faded in this century.

“These guys all think that this is 1953, and it’s not,” Llewellyn said, referring to the height of anti-communist and anti-socialist sentiment. “You’ve got a whole bunch of young people who have been harmed by the normal functioning of capitalism and they know it. That makes them angry, and they’re looking for alternatives.” 

Yana Ludwig, a candidate for U.S. Senate in Wyoming, said she was happy to see both Rep. Liz Cheney, who may run for the seat, and former congresswoman Cynthia Lummis, who is already running, spend time denouncing socialism. No Democrat has won a Senate race in Wyoming since 1970.

“Great, let’s have that conversation,” Ludwig said. “It really gave me an opening for the dialogue I want to have with voters, which is: What is socialism, really? Can we find cooperative ways to move forward that help everyone in Wyoming? And I think that talking about it in those terms is helping people feel less afraid of it.”

Conservative mockery of the DSA’s convention had ironically obscured just how radical it was. The DSA had already endorsed the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction (BDS) movement to pressure Israel; in Atlanta, it signed on to a Green New Deal campaign to “decarbonize all sectors of the U.S. economy by 2030″ and “democratize control of major energy systems and resources through public ownership.”

It also signed off on a commitment to “open borders,” going further than any presidential candidate — Sanders (I-Vt.) included — would dare. After the convention, the DSA officially “supports the uninhibited transnational free movement of people, the demilitarization of the US-Mexico border, the abolition of ICE and CPB without replacement, decriminalization of immigration, full amnesty for all asylum seekers and a pathway to citizenship for all non-citizen residents.”

But in Atlanta, where close to two dozen elected socialists joined the delegates, DSA opted not to punish candidates who embraced only part of their agenda. A “litmus test” resolution, which would have required candidates to adhere to five left-wing principles before getting any DSA support, was defeated. A majority of the 16 socialists elected to lead DSA’s political shop agreed with “electoralism,” or gaining political power by competing for public office, and ousting Trump in 2020. After the defeat of the endorsement resolution, DSA released a statement to emphasize that it got behind a “dump Trump” campaign in 2016, after Sanders lost the nomination — and when the left-wing Green Party was urging Sanders voters to abandon the Democrats.

“Look, we’re not voting for the almighty; we’re voting for the alternative,” said Maryland state Rep. Gabriel Acevero. “I think there are a lot of good alternatives to the current person occupying the Oval Office. I just think that Bernie Sanders’s unapologetic advocacy for the issues that really impact working people is what endears and causes people to gravitate towards him.”

Sanders was the only candidate with any sort of convention presence; Winnie Wong, a political adviser to the his campaign, attended in a personal capacity, as did Women’s March co-founder and Sanders surrogate Linda Sarsour. But polls that showed Sanders running weaker than he had in the 2016 primary loomed over some strategic discussions. Some socialists noted that polls had often underrated Sanders in 2016; others said that he was reshaping the Democratic Party, validating the work they’d done for each other.

“Whether Bernie Sanders wins the nomination or not, he’s already won the battle of ideas,” said Chicago alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, the first of the six socialists elected in that city. “Every single candidate is running to the left trying to catch up and copy his platform.”

The idea of Sanders losing ground to Warren was worrying to plenty of DSA members, but others saw a bright side. At a raucous Saturday night party for delegates, Shahid Buttar, a DSA member challenging House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for Congress, said that either a Sanders nomination or a Warren nomination would mobilize left-wing voters and boost his campaign. Warren, famously, has rejected “socialism” as a way to classify her politics; when pushed, she has called herself a “capitalist down to my bones.” But watching someone who didn’t identify as a socialist embrace Medicare-for-all and attack business interests suggested, to them, that they were winning. 

“I think Bernie’s retained 75 to 80 percent of his support in our district,” Buttar said in an interview, “but at the end of the day, if it’s Warren, she’s an acceptable second-choice alternative for many of us. She might be the One Ring to Rule Them All, you know — the one figure who could unite all the factions in the party.”

READING LIST

” ‘How do you stop these people?’: Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric looms over El Paso massacre,” by Philip Rucker

The White House is still working to separate the president from white nationalists who celebrate him.

“Bevin and Beshear blast each other while McConnell hears from raucous Fancy Farm crowd,” by Phillip M. Bailey and Deborah Yetter

Kentucky’s general election kicks off with its annual outdoor insult-fest.

” ‘I just don’t have words’: Beto O’Rourke shows raw anger as his hometown mourns,” by Jenna Johnson

The man who has made El Paso the center of his presidential campaign is now expected to speak for the city.

“Joe Sestak: The most interesting Democrat you forgot was running,” by Jim Geraghty

An appreciation of one of the last candidates to enter the race.

“Democrats say Trump, condemning bigotry, should look in the mirror,” by Chelsea Janes

A Latino conference in San Diego previewed the party’s new messaging about the president.

2020

The aftermath of mass shootings in Ohio and Texas has defined the past few days of the Democratic primary. As we saw over the weekend, it froze the (sometimes confusing) argument Democrats had been having over President Barack Obama’s legacy. Here’s what to watch as the Democrats try to balance their previously scheduled campaign events with a nervous national mood.

Joe Biden. He was relatively slow to respond to the El Paso shooting once the suspect’s motivation — anger at “the Hispanic invasion of Texas” — became clear. While a number of Democrats raced to TV cameras, Biden spoke about the shooting at some Saturday events and went dark on Sunday, apart from a fundraiser where he referred confusingly to “the tragic events in Houston today and also in Michigan the day before.” But he swiftly corrected himself, then gave more rousing remarks at Monday’s Unidos conference in San Diego and in an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper.

“There is no question that his rhetoric has contributed to at a minimum, at a minimum, of dumbing down the way in which we as a society talk about one another,” Biden told Cooper. “He looks like he’s just flat abandoned the theory that we are one people.” 

Grief at personal loss has defined Biden’s career — his events often begin with remarks by people who, like he, have lost loved ones to cancer. Biden began his campaign by saying he was moved back into politics by the president’s marble-mouthed equivocation between white supremacists and antifascists at the 2017 protests in Charlottesville. And Biden, nearly alone among the Democratic candidates, can say he passed real gun control legislation: The 1994 assault weapons ban was included in the crime bill.

Cory Booker. On Wednesday, he’ll deliver a speech about white supremacy at Charleston’s Emanuel AME church, where a white supremacist murdered nine African Americans in a 2015 killing rampage. The church has been careful about letting candidates come there and film there; other Democrats have visited without the media’s glare. Booker, who speaks frequently and passionately about gun crime in Newark, has also taken high-profile stances on race, as when he testified against the 2017 nomination of Jeff Sessions to become attorney general.

This could be the biggest moment in his campaign since it began; it could be the umpteenth example of Booker delivering a well-received speech, without voters moving toward him from another candidate.

Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Long before last weekend, the Dayton mass shooter allegedly retweeted positive messages about both of the leading left-wing Democratic candidates for president. At least twice Tuesday, the Trump White House emphasized those tweets to ask whether the media had a double standard in how it talked about the president and how it talked about Democrats.

Sanders has been here before; two years ago, after the shooter who attacked a Republican baseball practice was found to have campaigned for him, Sanders gave a Senate floor speech condemning him. “Real change can only come about through nonviolent action, and anything else runs counter to our most deeply held American values,” he said.

Warren has never been in a similar position, and the facts around the Dayton shooter remain murky. Democrats, and Democratic voters, have no interest in comparing the Dayton situation to the El Paso one, where the shooter clearly used rhetoric similar to the president’s. But Republicans want both candidates to face questions.

On Thursday, Warren’s campaign spokesman Kristen Orthman delivered a response: “There is absolutely no place for violence in our politics and Elizabeth and our campaign condemn it in the strongest possible terms. Leaders have a responsibility to speak out and to not incite violence. But let’s be clear — there is a direct line between the president’s rhetoric and the stated motivations of the El Paso shooter. This is an attempt to distract from the fact that Trump’s rhetoric is inciting violence as extremist-related murders have spiked 35 percent from 2017 to 2018.”

Beto O’Rourke. He suspended campaign events to head home this past weekend and has not said whether he will return to Iowa, as scheduled, at the end of the week. In the next 24 hours, as the president travels to El Paso, O’Rourke will be in the spotlight in a way that has escaped him since his campaign began — arguably, since the president’s trip to El Paso earlier this year, before O’Rourke was a candidate. Just as Biden is identified with statesmanlike grief, O’Rourke has let loose with frustration and anger at the president, at what he’s seen as frivolous media questions, and at years of rhetoric that he sees as responsible for violence coming to a peaceful city.

Everyone else. The gun safety movement was growing more influential in Democratic politics even before this weekend; this is a moment when Democratic voters want details on how the candidates will tackle that issue.

South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg is emphasizing his ideas for fighting white nationalist domestic terrorism and, on Wednesday, holding an event with the mayor of Parkland, Fla. Former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper, facing rumors that he will have to quit his flagging campaign, is reemphasizing how he passed and signed gun-control legislation after the 2012 Aurora theater shooting. Rep. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, still struggling to make a debate stage, is turning his pugnacious rhetoric on the NRA and GOP; so is Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio, who has been in Dayton since the attacks.

POLL WATCH

New Hampshire Democratic primary (Suffolk, 500 likely Democratic voters)

Joe Biden — 21% ( 1)
Bernie Sanders — 17% ( 5)
Elizabeth Warren — 14% ( 6)
Kamala Harris — 8% ( 2)
Pete Buttigieg — 6% (-6)
Tulsi Gabbard — 3% ( 2)
Michael Bennet — 2% ( 2)
Cory Booker — 1% (-2)
Andrew Yang — 1% ( 0)
John Delaney — 1% ( 0)
Amy Klobuchar — 1% ( 0)
Kirsten Gillibrand — 1% ( 0)
Tom Steyer — 1% ( 1)

This is Suffolk’s first look at New Hampshire since April, two debates and scores of candidate campaign stops ago. Its findings here sync up with what other pollsters have seen in the first primary state: Warren climbing from the doldrums, Biden remaining steady but only narrowly ahead, and Sanders strong but far below his 2016 support level. Here, as in every state, voters want electability: By a 22-point margin, they prefer a candidate who can “defeat Trump” to one they merely agree with.

Who did the best in the debates? (Quinnipiac, 807 Democrats)

Elizabeth Warren — 28%
Joe Biden — 15%
Kamala Harris — 8%
Bernie Sanders — 8%
Cory Booker — 7%
Pete Buttigieg — 4%
Tulsi Gabbard — 3%
Andrew Yang — 2%
Marianne Williamson — 2%
Beto O’Rourke — 2%
Julián Castro — 1%
Amy Klobuchar — 1%
Mike Bennet — 1%

This national poll, which found Warren and Sanders benefitting from their debate performances, found Biden with another commanding “electability” lead; 49 percent of Democrats believe that he has the best chance to win the election, 37 points higher than Sanders. But by a nearly 2-to-1 margin, the same Democrats felt that Warren delivered a stronger debate performance — and one of the questions that often comes up among Democratic voters is whether Biden’s alternatives could stand up to Trump on a debate stage.

AD WATCH

Greg Murphy, “A Life of Service Continues.” What’s it like to campaign in 2019 for a safely Republican seat? Like this: With the primary behind him, Murphy, who plans to join the House Freedom Caucus after next month’s election, runs through his career as a doctor who “stepped up to serve in the state legislature.” Murphy’s 3rd Congressional District of North Carolina tends to vote Republican by a landslide, but the stronger his total vote, the better positioned he is for redistricting — whether mandated by a court in 2020 or passed in 2021.

Dan McCready, “Family.” The Democrat in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District has mostly run positive ads about his story — veteran comes home and starts a business. His first negative TV spot against Republican Dan Bishop focuses on the issue McCready cited most in recent campaign events, Bishop’s vote against a prescription drug bill in the Republican-run legislature. “We got slapped with an $8,000 bill, things insurance refused to pay,” says the mother of a (now healthy) baby who asks why the Republican candidate could be so callous.

Congressional Leadership Fund, “Greedy McCready gamed the system.” Both conservative independent expenditure groups in North Carolina have zeroed in on the same issue: McCready’s solar energy fund and how it stood to benefit from North Carolina expanding its use of solar. The ads have cited the same sources, too, usually the conservative Washington Examiner; local newspapers have been more measured in coverage of McCready’s career and investments.

IN THE STATES

It’s primary day in Mississippi, and if no candidates crack 50 percent of the vote tonight, they’ll head into runoffs in just three weeks.

The Republicans’ race for governor is not crowded, but it’s expected to be more competitive than the eight-candidate Democratic contest. Tate Reeves, the state’s two-term lieutenant governor, is the narrow favorite over Bill Waller, a retired judge whose father was a Democratic governor in the era before Republicans became truly competitive.

“People like to vote for people who are likable,” Gov. Phil Bryant told the “Other Side” podcast last week. “Bill Waller is a very likable guy.”

A close race would probably result in a Reeves vs. Waller runoff; a third candidate, state Rep. Robert Foster, has lagged behind, but drew national attention after refusing to travel alone with a female reporter.

The Democrats’ primary has been less dramatic, with longtime Attorney General Jim Hood facing seven little-known candidates. Hood is white and personally opposed to abortion rights; his challengers are black, more liberal and running underfunded campaigns. Four years ago, Mississippi Democrats were embarrassed when a truck driver who ran no actual campaign won their nomination for governor. They don’t expect to repeat that, but the turnout will be telling: Just 288,686 Democrats bothered to vote in the 2015 primary, the lowest total vote for the party since 1927, when the Mississippi GOP barely existed.

WAIT, WHAT?

Mike Gravel’s “patio campaign” for the presidency is over, and the former senator from Alaska has made a decision about his endorsement: He’s supporting Bernie Sanders, but he’s not supporting Tulsi Gabbard.

On Tuesday morning, Gravel endorsed Sanders in a video filmed at his home office in Northern California, and Sanders tweeted a thank-you message.

“We have a simple choice,” Gravel said. “We can have the democratic socialism of Bernie Sanders to benefit all Americans, or we can have Republican socialism which benefits the 1 percent and leads us to a constant state of war.”

But just a few days earlier, on the online news show CN Live, Gravel had laid out a different endorsement strategy. He was enormously impressed by Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, and he’d just talked to her about the ways he could support her campaign.

“She’s going to put out a press release where I’m one of her surrogates, and then she’s going to go off in September to do her two-week military stint,” Gravel said. “During that time, I will be one of her surrogates, doing all of the media on her behalf. That’s what she was asking me, and in a heartbeat, I will help.”

So, who is Gravel supporting? Both candidates.

“The plan right now is that Gravel will be endorsing Bernie and will continue to support Tulsi,” Gravel’s campaign team said in a series of Twitter direct messages. “He had a call with [Sanders campaign manager] Faiz Shakir that swayed him, and he’ll probably be doing some surrogate work on her behalf as well as for Bernie. The way we’re putting it is that he’s going to endorse Bernie but support Tulsi. We’re not calling it a dual endorsement but some might.”

Neither Shakir nor Gabbard’s campaign spokesman responded to questions about the deal. Gravel, who made no public appearances during his four-month campaign, was polling below 1 percent by the time he quit.

COUNTDOWN

. . . two days until the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines
. . . three days until the Iowa Wing Ding in Clear Lake
. . . 13 days until the Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum in Sioux City

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