ROBERT COSTA: Hello. I’m Robert Costa. And this is the Washington Week Podcast. It’s been two years this week since President Trump took office, the halfway point of his term, and Democrats who want to replace him in the Oval Office are starting to line up. Two more candidates recently announced their plans to run in 2020.
Here tonight to discuss the latest, Elisabeth Bumiller, Washington bureau chief for The New York Times; Jeff Zeleny, senior White House correspondent for CNN; Yamiche Alcindor, White House correspondent for the PBS NewsHour; and Margaret Brennan, moderator of Face the Nation and senior foreign affairs correspondent for CBS News.
This week Senator Kamala Harris of California and South Bend Mayor in Indiana Pete Buttigieg – I went to Notre Dame; I can get it right – (laughter) – they joined the race for the Democratic nomination. They both break the traditional mold for presidential contenders. Harris is one of the only black women to ever jump in. Representative Shirley Chisolm of New York was the first in 1972. Buttigieg is gay, an Afghan war veteran, and a Rhodes scholar, and a Millennial. What do these 2020 candidates bring to the table, and how might they reshape politics in America? Mayor Buttigieg, Jeff, in South Bend, you were with him when he announced. What do you make of this, someone who is unknown nationally but thinks he has a shot in this Democratic Party?
JEFF ZELENY: Completely unknown nationally, and he actually came to Washington and announced just about a block or so from the White House; he was here for a mayors’ conference. So he announced an exploratory committee. He’s been traveling around a lot. He actually ran to be the chairman of the Democratic National Committee last year, was unsuccessful at that. But, look, he is someone who – he leaned into his age. He’s 37 years old, just, you know, right above that constitutional requirement of being 35. But he used that as an asset, and he believes that the young people in this country of his generation are more aware of the consequences that older politicians like the president, he said, are passing on to them. He said he will be – it’ll be 2054 before he is President Trump’s current age, and he used that to make his point about paying for the tax cuts, what the climate’s going to be like, et cetera. It’s a little hard to imagine him emerging as a frontrunner or winning this nomination fight, but he is sharp, smart, and clearly wants to have a voice in this contest here. But what it struck me as the generational divide inside the Democratic Party is huge. It’s going to be a sub-theme of the story. He’s 37; Bernie Sanders, if he gets in, which we think he will, 77. That’s four decades apart. So it’s one of the things confronting the party, this generational divide.
MR. COSTA: What do you make, Elisabeth, of Senator Harris? Major state, California; seen as a fresh face; a vibrant presence on the campaign trail – what else should we know about her?
ELISABETH BUMILLER: Well, she’s a former prosecutor, so she was tough on law and order. That’s good running in this environment. Look, she presents well. She asked very tough questions in – on various hearings on the Hill. You know, look, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama paved the way for her. And I think that if you’re looking for an antidote to Trump as the Democrats are, if you’re looking for somebody totally different, if you’re looking – you know, the women are – it’s the big story of 2020 – you know, she does OK in the polls. I mean, she’s a – she’s a real candidate. She’s a – it’s not a – she’s not a far-flung possibility; she’s a real possibility.
MR. COSTA: Several of the candidates and potential candidates have gotten out in front of stores that may follow them in the campaign. Senator Harris said she regrets part of her decisions when she was San Francisco’s district attorney and California attorney general. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has walked back some conservative positions. And Representative Tulsi Gabbard said she regrets anti-LGBTQ comments she made in the 1990s. It’s not easy when you get out there on the campaign trail, Yamiche, and your record gets under scrutiny. Who else are you paying attention to in the 2020 field?
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: I would go back to Kamala Harris because she’s someone who is really a – I think in my mind a frontrunner for this. I sat down with her about maybe two months ago for an hourlong interview, and in that interview I asked her, well, what – who needs to be running on the Democratic side that can – that can defeat Trump, and she said someone who needs to be blunt, someone who needs to be able to tell the ugly truth. And to me it was very interesting that she not only announced on MLK Day – Martin Luther King Day – she also went to Howard, her – the school that she went to, but it’s also a historically black college and university, and she’s also going to be going to a sorority event for the first African-American sorority. So there’s this idea that Democrats for a long time have talked about diversity, but she’s putting diversity and race at the center of her campaign in a way that we haven’t seen before. I will add to that that her campaign colors pay homage to Shirley Chisolm. So she’s not just saying: I’m black, you should vote for me. She’s saying: I understand diversity, I also understand all this prosecutor stuff and criminal justice. And I should say Senator Harris, when I sat down with her, she was talking about working with Republicans. So even though Joe Biden got into some trouble this week talking about his work with Republicans, she also said I’ve done – I’ve done things, we can work across the aisle if we can both come together and make logical decisions.
MR. COSTA: What about Biden? You have so many great contacts in the foreign policy community. Are they pushing him to run to be a voice for more internationalism in the party and against President Trump’s nationalism?
MARGARET BRENNAN: There is definitely a big push of anyone who worked in the Obama/Clinton administrations behind Joe Biden, and also saying, look, watch the clock here, because so many people are jumping in. But from what I’ve been told from those around the former vice president is that he thinks he has some time to be able to put together a team and see if some of these younger candidates perhaps steal some of the momentum. Do you, at the end of what has been a pretty successful, distinguished career, want to run with the risk of losing, or are you waiting for that surety that if you get in you really do have a shot?
One other thing I would say that I think is interesting here, particularly as we anticipate more candidates – those already holding office in the Senate – to jump in in the next few weeks, is look at how many women we have or anticipate running. I’m looking forward to talking about what their agenda is, and not their gender. I think that’s going to be interesting.
MR. COSTA: Alexander Burns at the Times had a strong story about Biden and Republicans. What did it reveal to you?
MS. BUMILLER: Well, I think that Biden is more of a centrist, right? And that’s not the flavor right now in the Democratic Party that is – with a big push on the left with progressives. I think that would be good in a general election. It’s really bad in a primary – in primaries, as we all know.
MR. ZELENY: We saw him do something really interesting this week, the former vice president. He walked back and apologized in ways that he hasn’t done before for his support for the 1994 crime bill. And he said that it – you know, it damaged a generation, you know, for the disparities of the sentencing laws. So I’m told by a lot of people close to him that he is inching closer to a run. And he wants to be president, of course, but has not made that final decision. But there is a campaign apparatus waiting for him, if he gives a signal to flip a switch. But, boy, we all remember from 2015, he was also close to running but decided not to. But a lot of donors and others are saying he needs to make his decision pretty quickly.
MS. ALCINDOR: One thing that I keep thinking about is how we’re going to have debates on the Democratic side. There are a lot of progressives that I’ve been talking to this week who say: I really like a lot of these different people. What’s the difference? So I think the Democratic National Committee is going to have to make some tough decisions. We’re hearing that there are going to be two nights of debates. There’s going to be this kind of random order where they’re going to try to have people. They’re not going to just say, OK, Kamala and Joe, you guys are the top people, so you get to sit in the middle, and all – and the 37-year-old, you can go to the kids table. They’re not going to do that in this case. But I think it’s going to be very, very hard to figure out how to let all of these people have equal time to make their case to the Democratic Party and to America.
MR. COSTA: What about Senator Elizabeth Warren? She’s out there. She’s on the campaign trail. She’s progressive. Is she finding a spark, from what we can tell? Margaret? Too soon to say?
MS. BRENNAN: It’s too soon to say. But it’s terrible, but the first thing I thought of was the Saturday Night Live skit from last week, with a dead-on impersonation of her, but saying: Look, basically, like, America needs me. And sort of teasing her and the language that she’s been using of a fight, a fight, a fight. And that’s what she sees herself as needing to wage right now. One of the things I would say is where is the difference, as you just raised that point. We have so many progressives. She can say: My brand has true to this going back years, and years, and years, in academia and the rest. But how does that change if you get Bernie jumping in? Do you go farther left? Is there room for a centrist here?
MR. COSTA: Well, that is the question. Michael Bloomberg, hovering on the sidelines. A lot of money.
MS. BUMILLER: (Laughs.) As always. As always. I don’t know what the – I don’t know what the latest is. I know he certainly wants to be president. He would like to run for president. He almost got in last time and decided to stay out. So I just – I still wonder about a billionaire New York businessman running for president.
MR. ZELENY: On the Democratic side, as –
MS. BUMILLER: Right. (Laughs.) Right, right.
MS. BRENNAN: Against the billionaire from New York.
MS. BUMILLER: Right, right, right. And certainly he was a good New York City mayor. Being president is a lot different. But I know there’s a lot of people in New York who would like him to run.
MR. COSTA: Final thought, Jeff, on Beto O’Rourke. Beto, as he’s known.
MR. ZELENY: Beto, yes. Beto is 46. He is a – just lost a Senate race in Texas. But, boy, he’s still doing a lot of musing. Was driving across the country deciding what he is going to do. He has a big online presence. He almost beat Ted Cruz but didn’t. But he raised $80 million on the way to doing it. So I would say the biggest question mark in this field right now is him. If he gets in, he sucks a lot of energy out. A lot of comparisons to Barack Obama. There are some comparisons, but also many differences.
But the question here is not who is the shining star at the beginning. It’s who can climb their way up after being knocked down. Every one of these candidates – from Joe Biden to Beto O’Rourke, whoever – is going to have, you know, hurdles and obstacles. And it’s who survives those. So we’ll see if he gets in. I was down in El Paso last week. Friends of his said they genuinely don’t know. He’s deciding out loud about it. But he sort of fits the dreamer idea in the party. But he has competition. A lot of company.
MR. COSTA: A lot of competition. It’s our podcast discussion because there’s so much news. No one’s really talking about it, but everyone’s talking about 2020.
And that’s it for this edition of our podcast. You can listen wherever you get your podcasts or watch on our Washington Week website. While you’re online, check out the Washington Week-ly News Quiz. I’m Robert Costa. Thanks for joining us. And we’ll see you next time.