Special: 2020 presidential campaign heats up

Feb. 22, 2019 AT 9:46 p.m. EST

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders became the latest candidate to throw his hat into the ring of 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls. The panelists discussed the current field. Plus, the conversation turned to North Carolina, where the state’s election board has ordered a do-over in a contested race after a GOP operative was accused of ballot tampering.

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Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

ROBERT COSTA: Hello. I’m Robert Costa. And this is the Washington Week Extra live streaming on all your devices.

Well, he’s back: Senator Bernie Sanders put his hat in the ring this week for the 2020 presidential race. What obstacles might he face on the road to the Democratic nomination, and how has that party evolved since he last ran for the presidency?

Here to discuss it, Amna Nawaz, national correspondent for the PBS NewsHour ; Philip Rucker, White House bureau chief for The Washington Post ; Mark Mazzetti, Washington investigative correspondent for The New York Times ; and Molly Ball, national political correspondent for TIME Magazine.

Senator Sanders is one of an ever-growing number of candidates who have their sights on the Oval Office.

SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT): (From video.) I’m running for president because a great nation is judged not by how many billionaires and nuclear weapons it has, but by how it treats the most vulnerable.

MR. COSTA: TIME Magazine’s cover story – right here – looks at the most diverse field ever. Senator Sanders, as you remember, was the runner-up in 2016, but that was a very different field. This time around you have to wonder, could lightning strike twice for Senator Sanders, Molly?

MOLLY BALL: Are you asking me if he could come in second again? Yes, I think that’s eminently doable for Bernie Sanders. (Laughter.) No, look –

MR. COSTA: What about first?

MS. BALL: That would be different, right? And so the field has yet to gel, and we are looking at, as you said, it’s already the most diverse, could well be the biggest field for either party in history. There’s already 10 major declared candidates; the record is 17, from the Republicans in 2016. But there’s as many as 20 other, again, major, well-credentialed candidates out there looking at this race. So it’s going to be a really big field and I don’t think we’re going to know until everybody gets in how many people are in Bernie Sanders’ lane. One thing we do know about Bernie Sanders is he has his own lane to some degree. You saw that incredible fundraising total that he posted, blowing all the other candidates out of the water in that initial period after he declared with nearly $6 million, I believe. That’s a lot, and it shows you that Bernie’s people – at least some of those hardcore Bernie people are still going to be with him. They’re not looking for a different candidate who espouses similar policies, like an Elizabeth Warren. They’re not looking for just whoever it is who isn’t Hillary Clinton, which was certainly part of Bernie’s vote in 2016. So if you look at polls – which, you know, aren’t predictive at this point, but tell you where people’s hearts are – he’s getting double-digits, as much as 20 percent of the national and early-state Democratic vote. But again, we don’t know who all’s going to be in the field. We make the case in our cover story in TIME Magazine this week that there really is no frontrunner; that even though Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden lead in these early polls, there’s not an establishment consensus frontrunner, there’s not someone who’s scaring everybody else out of the field the way Hillary Clinton did four years ago. It’s really the most up-in-the-air race in a generation, since probably 1988.

MR. COSTA: Amna, on the issues Senator Sanders’ Medicare for All, talking about expanding payments and subsidies for education, really being someone on foreign policy who’s not a hawk, he’s pulled the party to the left. He did it in 2016. The party’s moved more in his direction. Why is there so much skepticism in the Democratic Party about Senator Sanders despite what Molly just laid out, his strong standing in the polls and the way he’s changed the party’s positions in some respect?

AMNA NAWAZ: Look, I think Molly’s exactly right when she mentioned his hardcore supporters. It’s no surprise he has a loyal base of supporters. They haven’t gone away. It’s also true that they are mostly young and mostly male, and the two groups he had the most trouble with in 2016 were older women and voters of color. And if you look at how the Democrats did in 2018, those are two groups they now realize they cannot take for granted and they cannot discount the political power of. All of their historic gains in Congress were on the backs of the candidates who represented and spoke for those groups. Bernie Sanders has not fixed that problem that he had in 2016.

So the question I keep coming back to, to echo what Molly was saying – and I had this basketball coach in high school when I played center, which is another story, but if I was hanging out in the paint too long he would say: What is your purpose? You know, go to the top of the key, mix things up a little bit. I’m not sure what Sanders’ purpose is in the party at this point. To your point, he –

MR. COSTA: Well, he wants to win.

MS. NAWAZ: Sure he wants to win, but he moved everyone to the left on a number of key issues, all those ones that you mentioned now, the talking points he has – pot legalization, criminal justice, environmental regulations – that is all done. Those things no longer set him apart in this current field.

MR. COSTA: Mark?

MARK MAZZETTI: There’s this lingering anger, right, about what he did in 2016, right? He weakened Hillary Clinton just enough, siphoned off enough of her support so that she was weaker when she ran against Trump and Trump won, right? And so there is this feeling that he may not be the nominee, but he might have enough of this hardcore support to weaken whoever the nominee is and therefore strengthen the chances of Donald Trump. And most Democrats, the one thing they care about is Donald Trump doesn’t become president for a second term, right? So that’s the fear and the groan that you hear among Democrats.

MR. COSTA: Phil, when we were covering 2016 Senator Sanders had this movement-style politics, and you look at the field now – the potential field, too: Beto O’Rourke, the Texas congressman; Senator Harris from California drawing big crowds wherever they go – does Senator Sanders face competition in that movement side of the Democratic Party, that energy?

PHILIP RUCKER: Absolutely. You know, part of what fueled Bernie Sanders’ campaign in 2016 is he was the only, you know, really strong option for Democrats if they didn’t want Hillary Clinton, and she was such a flawed candidate that so many progressives, so many Democratic activists wanted something else and they just gravitated around Bernie. Now they have 20 options, maybe more, and some of them are really exciting options. Kamala Harris has a spark and is drawing big crowds and a lot of energy. Beto O’Rourke, if he were to get into the race, certainly would be expected to do that because he did that in the Texas Senate race last year. And so it’ll be a challenge for Bernie Sanders to rebuild that coalition entirely.

MR. COSTA: Why are the progressive side of the Democratic Party – Senator Sanders, Senator Harris, and others – jumping into the 2020 race; but Mayor Bloomberg, the ex-New York mayor, Vice President Biden, still hovering on the fence, waiting on the fence? Why aren’t the more center-left Democrats jumping in at this time?

MS. BALL: Well, the sense that we got from our reporting was that particularly the centrist white men are hanging back waiting for Biden. They want to see – and what we hear in our reporting is that he has more or less made up his mind to get in, but until he does we reported that Mayor Bloomberg is unlikely to run if Biden is in the field; former Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe unlikely to run if Biden gets in the race. If he doesn’t, then there is perceived to be an opening for a moderate old white dude. But there’s – but the appetite for that in the Democratic Party is perceived as somewhat limited and they don’t want to crowd the lane. They don’t want to get in a race that they don’t think that they’ll win. There is an avowed moderate in the race in Senator Amy Klobuchar, and she could really benefit from having that lane more or less to herself if there are more progressive candidates. And I do think that you see, you know, Elizabeth Warren certainly in that progressive lane, but candidates like Cory Booker and Kamala Harris and potentially Beto if he gets in more straddling the two camps, more saying that yes they have liberal bona fides but they, you know, want to bring people together, want to work across the aisle, not purely, you know, fight the other side.

MR. COSTA: Amna, we’ve heard about Senator Klobuchar and how she’s treated her staff, multiple reports from the Times and the Post and elsewhere that she’s been tough on her staff. How you define tough is up to the person reading the stories. Does that matter politically? Is that something that’s going to hang on her candidacy, or is it more of a Washington story?

MS. NAWAZ: You know, right now it’s hard to tell. I do think in these early stages – and we have to remember, these are the early stages – a lot of those details that kind of provide some distinctions between the candidates end up getting blown into bigger stories because that’s the only detail and insight we have into who these people are, even though they’ve been serving in public office for years. I think we also cannot discount that there is lingering double standards for male candidates and female candidates, although that’s been diffused a little bit because there are so many female candidates. So I think we have to take all of that reporting and some of the analysis with a grain of salt. I don’t know that many people would look at a lot of the male candidates and say that they haven’t been tough on their staffs as well.

But to Molly’s point, you know, Senator Klobuchar’s staking herself out there as sort of a center-left candidate. Joe Biden would obviously crowd that space if he did move in there. And also important to point out, when you look at New Hampshire polling early, you’ve got Senator Sanders coming from a neighboring state, and he’s not even winning in those polls right now. So it’s really difficult to see where this is going to shake out. And still, we have to say this again, early, early days.

MR. RUCKER: Yeah. One thing to stress is the debates haven’t even begun, and those are such important inflection points in a nominating process, where people get to size up these candidates side-by-side. They’re challenged. They’re pushed on issues. And you form impressions about them. And this time four years ago Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker looked to be the Republican nominee. He never even made it to the Iowa caucuses. And after Walker, you had Jeb Bush, and so many other candidates, before Trump even got in the race. So we are so early.

MR. COSTA: That’s so true. In campaign politics you cannot assume anything. And that’s why I have – we talked a lot about the Mueller report during the broadcast. On the Republican side you have to wonder, Mark – and I’d like to get others’ thoughts on this too – William Weld, the former Massachusetts governor, he’s toying with a run for the Republican nomination. Larry Hogan, the Maryland governor, he’s thinking about it. Could that Mueller report be a tipping point for Republicans? Now is not the time, they all say, to jump in and challenge President Trump. But if that Mueller report’s pretty rough for the president, maybe some Republicans could be tempted to actually mount a primary campaign.

MR. MAZZETTI: Sure. I mean, that’s what everyone is waiting on. On the Democratic side, they’re waiting to see whether it’s strong enough that they might want to initiate some kind of impeachment proceeding. And if that were the case, well, then who are the Republicans who would think about running in two years? And even short of an actual impeachment, would Trump be so weakened by the results of this investigation that they would have to find someone else? And, you know, a lot of people probably look in the mirror and say: Well, why not me? And so certainly there’s a lot of those calculations going on on the Republican side.

MR. COSTA: And one of the people who says why not me, we can see right here, we have sipping a latte perhaps, or at least a presidential black coffee. I’m a black coffee guy.

MS. BALL: Maybe it’s a Frappuccino. I don’t actually know what his drink is.

MR. COSTA: But you have Howard Schultz, the former Starbucks CEO. He’s running as an independent – thinking about running as an independent. I’m not sure he’s formally declared. And you have Schultz thinking about it. He could – even if Weld and Hogan never run, or never really run real campaigns, could Schultz pull some Republicans into an independent campaign in the way Ross Perot did with his bid in 1992?

MS. BALL: That’s certainly the pitch that he’s making. And, look, he might not even be the only one. If you hang around a lot of Washington cocktail parties, you hear a lot of hankering for some kind of independent candidacy, some kind of –

MR. COSTA: What about among voters?

MS. BALL: Those people get to vote, right? Maybe some of them even live in swing states. (Laughter.) But the point being, yes, there’s a lot of discontent in America right now with the two political parties. Howard Schultz is not wrong about that. However, it is fascinating to see the firestorm, not to say panic, that his potential candidacy has provoked, particularly among Democrats who really think that, you know, now is not the time, with so much on the line. They see the stakes here as existential. They really think that the Democratic nominee is going to have to save the republic from Trump.

And to have Schultz in there, potentially drawing away, they think, voters mostly from the Democrats, right? Certainly there are some Republicans who are – who would – are dissatisfied with Trump, who might be drawn to a centrist candidacy. But the thought is that given Schultz’s stances on the issues, he would appeal more to moderate center-left voters, draw votes away from a Democrat, and potentially be a spoiler in our two-party, winner-take-all system.

MR. COSTA: Before we go tonight, while the 2020 campaign heats up, there is a last unresolved contest that’s been hanging around for a while that’s now headed toward a special election, in North Carolina’s consistently Republican 9 th Congressional District. After weeks of investigations into widespread alleged voter fraud to support Republicans, the state board of elections voted Thursday to set up a new election. The allegations centered around political operatives who allegedly sought to aid a Republican candidate, Mark Harris, by illegally collecting and filling out absentee ballots in his favor. On Thursday, Harris called for a new election.

MARK HARRIS: (From video.) I believe a new election should be called. It’s become clear to me that the public’s confidence in the 9 th District seat general election has been undermined to an extent that a new election is warranted.

MR. COSTA: The vote count from November’s election had Harris leading Democrat Dan McCready by a few hundred votes. McCready has announced his intent to run in the new election, but it’s unclear whether Mr. Harris will run. North Carolina’s voter fraud allegations, of course, are the latest chapter in this fierce national debate over voter rights.

And you’ve been tracking voter right debates for a long time, Amna. What do you think of this North Carolina story? What does it tell us about what’s happening both there and nationally?

MS. NAWAZ: Well, the details of this are so specific, so I wouldn’t want to draw conclusions about what we’ve seen happening in other districts, in other states, for a long time. They are really stunning. I mean, you heard in this last week of these hearings and testimonies, Mark Harris, the Republican candidate, saying he had no idea this operative he’d hired was doing anything illegal. He’d been assured that they weren’t doing anything illegal by collecting the absentee ballots, in some cases filling them out, before submitting them. It was his own son who then testified and said: I told my dad, this guy’s problematic. What they’re doing does not seem right. You could have potential problems here. And then the position became untenable and he had to call for a new election.

It does however bring into a focus a large issue we have in our elections year after year, which lingers and does not get enough attention and does not get measured. And the things we don’t measure, we cannot fix. You have the president on one side calling again and again for vast investigations into voter fraud – meaning, people illegally voting. We all know, evidence shows, data shows, study after study shows, the real problem we have in our elections is that enough people do not have their legal access to the vote. And that will continue to dominate discussions in this election and 2020.

MR. COSTA: What about Russian interference or foreign interference in the upcoming elections? Is that still a threat?

MR. MAZZETTI: Sure. If you talk to intelligence officials and they say it publicly. They do see it. They are already seeing attempts by the Russians, by the Chinese to do similar things that the Russians kind of seemed to have a monopoly on in the last election – or, in the 2016 election. This is just – it seems to be a reality now that we’re maybe more attuned to, but it’s not as if the, you know, Washington bureaucracy got together after 2016 and said: We’re going to fix this. They’ve complained about it, but there’s been nothing that has really been done to coherently deal with the next presidential election. So expect a lot of the same problems.

MR. COSTA: That’s it for this edition of the Washington Week Extra. You can listen wherever you get your podcasts or watch on the Washington Week website. I hope you watch it live now. And you can watch it livestreaming every Friday as well. I’m Robert Costa. Thanks for joining us and see you next time.

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