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TODAY'S HEADLINES (click to jump there; use your browser's "Back" button to return here)
      •  The Democrats Finally Debate
      •  Trump Attacks Mueller
      •  Mueller's Staff Will Also Testify
      •  House Committee Subpoenas Kellyanne Conway
      •  Warren Has Passed Sanders as the Choice of Progressive Activists

The Democrats Finally Debate

As you may have heard, 10 of the 20-plus Democrats who are running for president were in Miami, Florida to debate last night. This was the first of at least 14 candidates' debates (maybe more, depending on how many rounds after round two are split across two nights). To keep things as interesting as possible, and to provide an alternate approach to the standard debate wrap or "winners and losers" piece, we've developed a series of questions that we will answer after each Democratic tilt. Here goes:

Who helped themselves the most? There are two answers here. The first is Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). She had good fortune, in that her main competition (Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Mayor Pete Buttigieg) were all scheduled for the second night of debates. This afforded her an opportunity, and she seized it. From her position at the center of the stage, she laid claim to more speaking time (9.3 minutes) than anyone other than Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Beto O'Rourke (10.9 minutes and 10.3 minutes, respectively). She was also the first to speak, the first to speak a second time, and the first to speak a third time. And during that early run, when she wasn't talking, the other folks on stage were often discussing her ideas. In short, she took command of the first third of the evening, which is going to be the portion when the largest number of people are paying attention, and when attention spans are the longest.

When Warren spoke, she did so with clarity and conviction. Here is her first answer of the evening, for example:

Her responses, including that one, were often short on specifics, but the crowd liked what they heard (as the cheers at the end of that answer make clear). And, in fairness to the Senator, most of the candidates tended to speak in generalities, which will happen when they have only 60 seconds (or, sometimes, only 30 seconds) to speak. Warren rarely came under attack from her fellow Democrats, which was also good news for her. Undoubtedly, her rivals would like to slow her momentum, but 70% of the candidates on stage were male, and are presumably well aware that aggression directed toward a female candidate could come off very badly.

The other candidate who gave themselves a boost was Julián Castro. Like Warren, he spoke with great conviction. He also demonstrated his policy expertise (considerably more than she did, actually). He got a little lucky on that front, in that several of the main subjects of the night (particularly immigration) are right in his wheelhouse. The Castro moment that will get the most coverage is this one, where he kinda took Beto O'Rourke to school:

Google trends reported that searches for Castro were up 3,000% during the debate, so he clearly managed to turn the event into something of a coming out party.

Who helped themselves the least? O'Rourke. Although he had plenty of speaking time, he did relatively little with it. He seemed nervous, or perhaps tired, because his answers (especially early on) were a little halting. And even on a night where it was noticeable that candidates were dodging hard questions, he stood out for saying much and yet saying nothing. He offered platitudes when asked if he'd support a 70% top marginal tax rate, and neglected to improve on that when given a second chance to answer. The same happened later in the debate, when asked if he favored getting rid of private medical insurance. Perhaps the clumsiest response, however, came when O'Rourke was asked about the Mueller report, and responded by drawing a not-very-clear parallel to the painting of George Washington resigning his commission that currently hangs in the Capitol building. Wednesday was the first time that many voters actually got to hear from the guy who generated so much buzz while running against Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX). Folks like that had to have come away underwhelmed.

Anyone else worth mentioning? Sen. Cory Booker had a pretty good night, overall. His answers weren't always clear, and he sometimes seemed to forget where he was going with a particular point, but everything he said was delivered with real feeling.

How did the moderators do? With five moderators, it couldn't have been easy to get things working like a well-oiled machine, especially for the first debate of the cycle. They split it up, with Lester Holt, Savannah Guthrie, and Jose Diaz-Balart running the first hour, while Rachel Maddow and Chuck Todd running the second. And they did a pretty good job of running a tight ship and asking useful questions.

With that said, there are a few things worthy of criticism. The Holt/Guthrie/Diaz-Balart trio asked a number of questions of the form "Raise your hand if you support...," and then failed to give viewers a clear tally of the result. With a wide angle shot, and seven men wearing dark suits up against a dark backdrop, it wasn't always clear whose hand was up and whose wasn't. Meanwhile, the Maddow/Todd duo are both known for being a bit wordy with their questions, and lived up to that rep yesterday. And both teams did a pretty bad job of making sure everyone on stage got equal (or nearly equal) time. As noted, Cory Booker led the pack with 10.9 minutes. At the other end of the spectrum was Gov. Jay Inslee (D-WA), who got only 5 minutes of speaking time. He will presumably be lodging a complaint with the DNC today, with some justification. Bill de Blasio, Martin Delaney, and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) also came it at under 7 minutes, with the latter silent for almost an hour after her first response.

Issue of the night: Immigration. As with most candidates' debates, there were a series of subjects the moderators chose to address, including gun control, healthcare, wealth inequality, and climate change. However, the immigration portion was the longest, and the most substantive. This is hardly a surprise, given that immigration has been dominating the news this week, and that the debate was held in Florida, a state that is close to 30% Latino.

Snarky line of the night: Inslee came up short on speaking time, but he got good mileage on those occasions where he was given the stage. He landed a heavy blow with this bon mot: "Donald Trump is simply wrong. He says wind turbines cause cancer. We know they cause jobs." That's jobs, environmentalism, and a swipe at the President and his propensity to be conspiratorial in just 15 words. And in case anyone doubted where Inslee stands, the candidates were later asked to identify the greatest geopolitical threat to the United States. Most went with China, nuclear weapons, or both, but the Govenor declared: "The biggest threat to the security of the United States is Donald Trump." That pleased the crowd, to say the least.

Non-snarky line of the night: Speaking with clear emotion in his voice, and alluding to the photograph of two drowned immigrants in the Rio Grande that everyone has seen at this point, Castro declared, "Watching that image of Oscar and his daughter, Valeria, is heartbreaking. It should also piss us all off."

Reddest meat of the night: If anyone didn't know who Mayor Bill de Blasio (D-New York City) is, or that he's quite lefty, well, they know now. "There's plenty of money in this world, there's plenty of money in this country. It's just in the wrong hands," he opined at one point. "[F]or all the American citizens out there who feel you're falling behind or feel the American dream is not working for you, the immigrants didn't do that to you. The big corporations did that to you," he declared later. Note that those sentences could almost have come straight from the pages of the Communist Manifesto.

This isn't quite red meat, but it's red meat-adjacent. Given the debate locale, and the fact that Telemundo was one of the hosts, both Booker and O'Rourke delivered parts of their remarks in Spanish. Some observers thought that was a nice nod to the Latinos in the audience. Others, however, found it to be ham-fisted pandering.

Blunder of the night: It wasn't from one of the candidates, or one of the moderators, but instead from someone who rarely gets mentioned in pieces like this: The sound engineer. For whatever reason, when the first shift of moderators gave way to the second shift, the microphones of the first shift remained live. Chuck Todd's first question couldn't be heard over whatever it was Holt and Guthrie were chatting about backstage. And to solve the problem, Todd actually had to throw it to an unscheduled four-minute commercial break.

A little historical perspective: On July 23, 2007, eight Democrats met in Charleston, SC, for the first debate of that cycle (maybe starting the process in summer of the year before the election isn't so unusual after all). On that night, then-Rep. Dennis Kucinich, who was Bernie Sanders before Bernie Sanders, said:

Because if our Constitution really means what it says, that all are created equal, if it really means what it says, that there should be equality of opportunity before the law, then our brothers and sisters who happen to be gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender should have the same rights accorded to them as anyone else, and that includes the ability to have a civil marriage ceremony.

Meanwhile, former senator and VP candidate John Edwards explained that he was personally opposed to gay marriage, and then-Sen. Barack Obama said that he didn't support gay marriage, but that he supported civil unions. Put another way, being pro-LGBTQ equality was the far left position, while centrist Democrats were ok with just a smidgen of discrimination against LGBTQ folks, and conservative Democrats were ok with more than a smidgen.

On Wednesday, by contrast, four candidates (Booker, Castro, Rep. Tim Ryan, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar) made a point of mentioning their support for gay equality, while two of them (Booker and Castro) specifically noted that they would like to see more done to protect the rights and safety of transgender folks. Meanwhile, Gabbard was effectively told to apologize for her past anti-gay stances, and did so. In short, things have changed quite a lot in just less than 12 years. Well, in one party, at least.

A detail that may fly under the radar: The campaigns will surely notice this, but we're not sure if anyone else will. The DNC has not made a point of announcing exactly how the candidates' locations on stage were chosen, but it clearly is linked to polling and/or fundraising, because Warren was front and center last night, and Biden/Sanders/Buttigieg will be front and center tonight. In any case, being a frontrunner already makes it likely that the candidate will claim more than their fair share of the speaking time. And being center stage heightens that possibility, because they are right in the line of sight of the moderators. The pictures here are arranged exactly as the candidates were on stage; the number shows where they ranked in terms of speaking time:

candidates ranked by speaking time

In short, the people on the margins were literally marginalized. If the DNC really wants to be able to say they gave everyone a fair shake at the end of debate round #2, they need to work on this.

On a scale of 1-10, how contentious was it? In terms of slings and arrows hurled at other Democrats, about a 3. There were a few scattered dustups, such as the one between Castro and O'Rourke noted above. The snippiest moment came when Gabbard expressed her dissatisfaction with Ryan's answer to a question about the ongoing war in Afghanistan:

Still, the tense moments were pretty rare and, even when they did happen, weren't all that tense.

In terms of potshots fired across the aisle, on the other hand, it was more like a 6. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) was mentioned a dozen times, and none of them involved compliments on what a great fella he is. And, of course, Donald Trump came in for some withering fire. Klobuchar was particularly notable on this front, describing the President as "all foam and no beer" and later observing that, "this president is literally every single day 10 minutes away from going to war, one tweet away from going to war. And I don't think we should conduct foreign policy in our bathrobe at 5:00 in the morning." Ouch.

On a scale of 1-10, how much will this debate move the needle? 5. Warren did nothing to interrupt her upward momentum and Castro (and probably Booker) got a nice boost. That said, the needle-moving potential of this debate was pretty much baked in before the candidates ever took the stage. On one hand, the high level of interest in the first debate of the cycle gave it some significance. On the other hand, 10 candidates and 60-second answers limited the ability of the candidates to accomplish all that much.

The bottom line: DNC Chair Tom Perez has to be pretty happy with what he saw, since everyone had one or two good moments, and they focused most of their time on things besides tearing one another apart. However, Wednesday's debate must also have firmed up his conviction that the field needs to be winnowed after a couple of rounds, so the candidates can move beyond extended sound bites.

We will be right back at it again tomorrow, after another 10 candidates debate. We're also going to try to do a debate-centric Q&A, so if you have any questions after Wednesday's debate (or after Thursday's), please send them along. (Z)

Trump Attacks Mueller

At some point, man bites dog ceases to be news. Man bites man, too. But when the biter is the president and the bitee is Robert Mueller, it's still news, at least for now. Yesterday, Donald Trump lashed out at the former special counsel, no doubt because he is more than a little nervous about what Mueller will tell Congress on July 17. Mueller is unlikely to reveal more than is in his report, but few people have read it. A large number are expected to watch the public hearing, however, and will learn about the contents of the report for the first time.

If the Democrats ask a simple question like: "Did you see evidence that Donald Trump committed a crime?" Mueller is almost certainly going to answer "yes," because it's in the report. That sound bite, if it occurs, could be played endlessly on TV for weeks and again during the 2020 campaign. So naturally, Trump is extremely agitated about Mueller testifying before the House Intelligence Committee. Making things even worse for the President is that Chairman Adam Schiff (D-CA) is a former prosecutor who worked in the U.S. Attorney's office in Los Angeles. He knows how to ask questions, and he also loathes Trump as much as any member of Congress. In addition, Mueller will also testify before the House Judiciary Committee. That's the one that handles impeachments.

Trump's specific complaint is that Mueller destroyed thousands of text messages between FBI agents Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, who worked on the Russia case. However, this is not true. The texts were indeed lost, but due to a technical glitch that had nothing to do with Mueller. And, in any case, thousands of other messages between the two lovers were made public, so we have a pretty good idea of what the missing texts said. The Justice Dept. inspector general examined the situation closely and reported that their affair and attitudes toward Trump did not affect the investigation at all. But when all you have to grasp at are straws, you grasp at straws. (V)

Mueller's Staff Will Also Testify

Robert Mueller isn't Donald Trump's only problem. Adam Schiff let it be known that he has requested or subpoenaed some of Mueller's top associates to show up in Congress, as well to testify in executive session. He didn't specify who will testify. The important thing, however, is that Mueller has been playing everything close to his vest since the investigation began, but some of the others may be willing to talk much more openly now that it is over and Mueller is no longer their boss.

In particular, Andrew Weissmann, one of Mueller's top deputies, is writing a book about his time on the special counsel's team. Other aides who are likely to be appear are Andrew Goldstein (who dealt with Michael Cohen, George Papadopoulos, and Roger Stone) and Jeannie Rhee, who was deeply involved in the case that led to the indictment of two dozen Russian military intelligence officers involved in the Russian hacking. Weissmann, Goldstein, Rhee, and others on Team Mueller may be much less guarded in their testimony than Mueller himself, especially in closed session. However, if Schiff learns something that he thinks should be made public, he can request/subpoena new testimony in public. Much as Trump would like to gag Mueller and his staff, they are all private citizens now and their work has been completed and made public, so it is inconceivable that any court would block their appearance, no matter what argument the White House might make. (V)

House Committee Subpoenas Kellyanne Conway

The House Oversight Committee voted yesterday to subpoena White House aide Kellyanne Conway to appear before the Committee. The vote was largely along party lines, 26-16, with Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) being the only Republican voting with the Democrats to approve the subpoena. The Office of Special Counsel issued a report saying that Conway has repeatedly violated the Hatch Act, and Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-MD) has a few questions for her about that.

At this point, Conway has three choices. She could show up and defend herself vigorously. She could show up and take the Fifth Amendment on every question. Or she could refuse to show up at all, which would probably lead to a citation for contempt of Congress and would throw the matter into the courts, with an uncertain outcome. While many Trump loyalists turn on him once their own necks are on the line (see Cohen, Michael; Flynn, Michael), Conway may just be loyal enough that she'll take her chances with serious consequences. (V)

Warren Has Passed Sanders as the Choice of Progressive Activists

Normally we just ignore polls that are unscientific or suspect, or are conducted by groups with an axe to grind. We will make an exception today, though, because this poll may show something no other poll is showing. It's a straw poll that the activist group conducted of its members, asking them who they wanted to get the Democratic nomination.

There are more than a few grains of salt to keep in mind here. A poll in which people can decide for themselves whether to participate or not is hardly scientific and certainly not random. Further, a poll of only people who belong to a certain organization gives at best an idea of what all members of that one segment of the electorate thinks. Nevertheless, the straw poll is noteworthy because Elizabeth Warren is crushing Bernie Sanders, the former favorite of the left. Several national and state polls have shown Warren rising rapidly and that could be due to voters on the left dumping Sanders for Warren. Here are the results for all candidates scoring 1% or more.

Candidate Pct.
Elizabeth Warren 37.8%
Bernie Sanders 16.5%
Joe Biden 14.9%
Pete Buttigieg 11.7%
Kamala Harris 6.8%
Undecided 2.2%
Beto O'Rourke 1.8%
Andrew Yang 1.1%
Jay Inslee 1.1%
Cory Booker 1.0%
Amy Klobuchar 1.0%

What's also interesting here is that among the activists, the same five candidates show up on top as in the national and most state polls, just in a different order. Also noteworthy is that 0.4% want someone else. Having 23 or 24 candidates doesn't give them enough choice. You can't please everyone.

The poll also asked members what the top three qualities are that they look for in a candidate. The winners are:

  • Inspires the public with deep progressive values and will move us toward a more progressive future
  • Makes the connections between racial, social, and economic injustice
  • Prioritizes reversing Trump's hate-fueled, xenophobic, anti-Muslim, and racist policies

Now again, this is not a scientific poll and certainly does not give a good view of what Democrats are thinking, let alone the country as a whole, but it may give some insight into what left-wing activists want. Further, given that Warren had a pretty good debate last night, it suggests that Sanders better really shine tonight. (V)

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
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