ROBERT COSTA: Hello. I’m Robert Costa. And this is the Washington Week Podcast. On our last show of 2018 we’re taking a look at the Democratic Party and where it’s going in 2019.
Joining me, Shawna Thomas, Washington bureau chief for Vice News; Brian Bennett, White House correspondent for TIME Magazine; Lisa Desjardins, congressional correspondent for the PBS NewsHour; and Erica Werner, congressional correspondent for The Washington Post.
President Trump has transformed the Republican Party over the last two years, and in just a few days the Democrats are going to take control of the House of Representatives and the composition of power in Washington will certainly change. And the 2020 presidential campaign season will soon gear up. There are a lot of names out there. Some of the most talked about are current and former lawmakers: Joe Biden, Beto O’Rourke, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Julian Castro, Amy Klobuchar, Cory Booker, and Mike Bloomberg, and that’s just to name a few. How this potential crop of candidates and the new Congress reshape the Democratic Party, well, that’s the question for 2019.
Shawna, a lot of names.
SHAWNA THOMAS: So many.
MR. COSTA: We talked about Mitch Landrieu on the broadcast, the former mayor of New Orleans. How do you see this field developing in the presidential race? Is it the mayors like Garcetti of Los Angeles, Landrieu of New Orleans, Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, versus the governors, versus the lawmakers? Or is it –
MS. THOMAS: The John Hickenloopers or –
MR. COSTA: Or John Hickenlooper, the governor of Colorado.
MS. THOMAS: Or the men with money: Tom Steyer, who’s showing up in places like South Carolina where my team covered him recently; Michael Bloomberg, is he going to think about running for president – does he think he can run as a Democrat, does he need the party infrastructure, or does he go rogue and run as an independent. I think the thing is there are so many Democrats who all look like they’re going to run, we’re going to start to see this shake out pretty fast because people have to hire staff. People have to get Iowa chairs onboard. People have to start to think about how much money they’re raising. And as, you know, I said in the broadcast, if California is successful, really, in moving up their primary – and I think they have been – then you need a lot of money to run in California. It’s not the door-knocking of Iowa or New Hampshire, which people are still going to have to do. It is literally getting on television, which is expensive there. So I think as we see who is able to actually raise that money, who is actually able to pick up those big fundraisers and people are saying I’m working for this person or this person or this person, that will start to winnow the field a little bit. But right now everyone sees this as their chance.
MR. COSTA: What do you think about Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota? She had a moment challenging then-Supreme Court nominee, now-Justice Brett Kavanaugh in the fall; her back and forth went viral, as they say, got a lot of attention. Could she get some traction?
LISA DESJARDINS: Absolutely. You know, I was there in that hearing room when that happened, and she definitely had commanded attention in a room that was already very dramatic, and you could tell that was really kind of the first very clear misstep that we’d seen from Justice Kavanaugh. You know, I think she also has a difficult path, though, in a way, being from the – she’s not well known nationally. She has not established herself as sort of owning any particular issue or any particular perspective. People like her as someone who can respond to Trump potentially, but she hasn’t shown yet that she can really land a punch on an opponent. So she – and I think many Democrats are in that same category.
MR. COSTA: Well, some Democrats would say she landed a punch on Kavanaugh.
MS. DESJARDINS: Well, I guess that’s fair, that’s true. But I think – I think that it’s a different level when you’re talking about having to go up against President Trump himself. You know, I think Democrats, what’s interesting to me is they’re actually a little bit behind of where Republicans were or where – in the 2016 cycle or where Democrats themselves were in the 2008 cycle. 2008 cycle, two years previously we already had an Obama-Clinton – we already knew that they were among the frontrunners. They weren’t the only ones, but they were really clear. Now we don’t know who it is. And, you know, the first announcements for Republican candidates in the last cycle were in March of the previous year. So March is only a couple months away, and it’s really not clear where things stand.
BRIAN BENNETT: It’s going to be really interesting to see how Trump influences the Democratic primary because you know he’s going to weigh in. He’s going to weigh in on candidates, and in some cases that’s going to give jet fuel to that candidate; it’s going to bring more attention to that candidate. Or, you know, he has a way of penning things and coming up with nicknames that can stick, so it could be a liability.
MS. DESJARDINS: I could see him spending the shutdown, like, thinking of nicknames of Democrats, you know? (Laughter.)
MR. BENNETT: Yeah, maybe he’s – maybe he’s taking your list and making a list of nicknames.
MR. COSTA: Well, he’s already made fun of Beto O’Rourke.
MR. BENNETT: That’s right, that’s right. He, like –
MR. COSTA: He hasn’t come up with a nickname yet.
MR. BENNETT: Right, but he’s said that, you know, I thought you pick a winner, someone – you don’t pick someone who lost a race to run. So that’s one of his talking points now about O’Rourke; I’m sure we’ll hear more about him and about other candidates from the president.
MR. COSTA: When you talk to people inside of the White House, maybe leave the names aside, get some candid answers, having a real talk about 2020, does anyone give them a little bit of a scare?
MR. BENNETT: Well, Trump himself has talked about – he thinks that the only person who can challenge him is someone we don’t talk – we don’t talk about now, like a nobody, kind of like Bill Clinton coming out of left field in 1992. So I think in his own mind he feels like a Mitch Landrieu or someone that doesn’t right now have a huge national profile could be someone that could challenge him.
ERICA WERNER: And we’ve seen that it can really be very difficult for Democrats to navigate how to respond to Trump and how to parry with him. For a while we thought that Senator Warren was doing a pretty good job of that. They would get in Twitter fights. She was very aggressive, really stood up to him. But then she kind of took the bait on the whole issue of her Native American heritage, put out that DNA test that really seems to have backfired, and now she’s not kind of seen at the top of the heap. So Democrats really have to be careful, and it really is hard to do battle with Trump.
MR. COSTA: What about Vice President Biden? Where is his decision-making process, based on your conversations with Democrats? It seems like he hasn’t made a decision.
MS. THOMAS: It’s been a very long decision-making process, is what we know. He is definitely talking to people around him about it. And he’s trying to figure out, does he really want to go through this process? He knows pretty intimately what it’s like, since he’s actually run for president, as well as vice president, multiple times.
MR. COSTA: Going back to the 1980s.
MS. THOMAS: Exactly. But it – to me, it’s still unclear whether he is going to actually pull the trigger or not. So we will see. I mean, I think there’s a lot of people out there who would say, you know, is this the new blood and face of the Democratic Party we want to see running? And I think that’s a question he’s probably considering himself.
MR. COSTA: Is that really – the Beto O’Rourke, is that about a generational debate in the Democratic Party? You look at the Democratic leadership in the House, they’re all over the age of 77. And people like Bernie Sanders, senator from Vermont, 77 years old, I believe. How’s that younger generation going to assert itself?
MS. DESJARDINS: That is a huge sort of shifting of tectonic plates that’s happening slowly for Democrats. And you feel that frustration from younger generations that they’re having trouble moving up. I think as far as Joe Biden goes, what he brings – what he lacks in sort of generational energy is he’s great with unions. He’s great with, like, white working-class voters, the voters that a lot of Democrats think they lost and that’s why President Trump is in office. You know, but there is an issue with history. The thing I think the most about when I think about these presidential candidates, going all the way back to the ‘80s, every time a party nominates someone who should have gotten the nomination an earlier time, it never works. Think about Hillary Clinton. You can go back, you can talk about Bob Dole. That didn’t work. All of these candidates that sort were, like, you know, runner ups. Romney was the same way, McCain was the same way. This, oh, he could have won last time, let’s nominate him now. It never works.
MR. COSTA: What about Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio? He was able to win in 2018, a tough year. The Republicans won the gubernatorial race in Ohio. Yet, Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, shares in some ways the instincts of President Trump on trade, a protectionist. Could he get some oxygen in this political atmosphere?
MS. WERNER: Yeah. I mean, I think that he does have a strong argument to make, that he’s shown how a Democrat can win in a state like Ohio – and win big. He has a lot of populist tendencies and can make the case that he’s had achievements for unions and working-class people. I do think there is a question, as you were raising as regards to Mitch Landrieu, as to whether it can be or is going to be a white man – another white man this time around, with the diversity and the energy from young people –
MR. COSTA: Senator Harris, Senator Booker –
MS. WERNER: Right, that we’re seeing Democrats want and gravitate towards. And Brown also can’t really claim to be, you know, a new face or part of a new generation. So I think he definitely has a case to make, though.
MR. BENNETT: One topic that’s made the White House nervous going into 2020 is health care. And they know that their moves on the Affordable Care Act have been popular with their base and Republicans, but when it comes to general voting public it’s not as popular. And there’s more and more anxiety about Trump’s moves on Obamacare. And so they have – they know they have a struggle to make a case for health care going into 2020.
MR. COSTA: Could you see the White House – I know there’s an immigration shutdown now – but could they move to try to do something on health care to reassure those voters on that issue? Maybe do something on infrastructure to try to move toward the center? Because sometimes you wonder with President Trump, not grounded in ideology, even as he fights down – on the shutdown, could he actually try to pivot at some point to the center?
MR. BENNETT: So I haven’t seen any indication of that even though, you’re right, that’s a possibility for the president. He’s said in the past he wants to work on infrastructure. And he’s also said in the past he wants to deal with something on health care. But we haven’t seen any good faith efforts to do either of that. And we haven’t heard of anything inside the White House on active policy ideas to accomplish that.
MS. THOMAS: I would expect to see Nancy Pelosi make some move on the Affordable Care Act, because of the – because of the court case where, you know, a judge said it was unconstitutional, basically, to sort of shore up, like, here is congressional intention. Now, does that get through the Senate? I can’t tell you. There are Republican senators who are also worried about a judge trying to dismantle the ACA and it’s going to get appealed.
But I think one interesting thing about the ACA, and 2020, and elections, and how all this fits together, is there were multiple Republican states this past time around, in 2018, that expanded Medicaid. Idaho. I went out and covered it. They expanded Medicaid, which is a part of Obamacare. People don’t want to lose some of the perks of the Affordable Care Act. And no one is saying it works perfectly, and I get that. But that is also something that the Republicans have to think about.
MR. COSTA: That’s a great place to end it, because as much as this 2020 conversation is often about personality, it also comes down to policy, as Shawna laid out for us right there.
That’s it for this edition of the Washington Week Podcast. You can listen wherever you get your podcast or watch on our Washington Week website. I’m Robert Costa. Have a happy new year and we’ll see you next time.