ROBERT COSTA: Hello. I’m Robert Costa. And this is the Washington Week Extra. This year’s field of Democratic presidential candidates is diverse and historic – more people of color, more women than ever before – and eight of the 21 contenders – wow, 21 – traveled to Texas this week to speak to the She The People event, the first-ever presidential candidate forum focused on women of color, one of the Democratic Party’s most loyal voting groups.
Joining me to talk about the role these voters will play in the race for the White House, Karoun Demirjian, congressional reporter for The Washington Post; Jerry Seib, executive Washington editor for The Wall Street Journal; Julie Hirschfeld Davis, congressional correspondent for The New York Times; and Jeff Zeleny, senior Washington correspondent for CNN.
It is, of course, early in the 2020 race, but events like these do matter as candidates introduce themselves to voters and sketch out policies and themes. One contender who has been policy heavy in her campaign is Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. Warren was well-received at this Houston event, especially when talking about the issue of infant mortality.
SENATOR ELIZABETH WARREN (D-MA): (From video.) I want to talk to the hospitals who are – is where most of these births take place, and I want to talk to them in the language they understand, money. If they bring down those maternal mortality rates, then they get a bonus; and if they don’t, then they’re going to have money taken away from them.
MR. COSTA: California Senator Kamala Harris made headlines with her remarks on guns.
SENATOR KAMALA HARRIS (D-CA): (From video.) If Congress fails to act with smart gun safety laws, I will execute executive action – (cheers, applause) – to put in place what is long overdue and people have had the courage to do – or lacked the courage to do.
MR. COSTA: New Jersey Senator Cory Booker repeated his pledge about a potential running mate.
SENATOR CORY BOOKER (D-NJ): (From video.) I will have a woman running mate. To me it’s really clear that we do that.
MR. COSTA: And Senator Bernie Sanders, well, he struggled to attempt to connect with the crowd.
SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT): (From video.) I actually was at the March on Washington with Dr. King back in 1963.
MR. COSTA: You take all that in, it’s a lot to take in. Jeff, you’ve been on the campaign trail covering 2020 at this early stage. When you think about women of color, they were so important in recent Democratic victories like Senator Doug Jones in Alabama winning a special election. Who at this early stage has a strategy and who’s building with that central demographic?
JEFF ZELENY: Well, I think at the event – the She The People event the person who had a plan, to use her language, is Elizabeth Warren. She talks about racial injustice and prejudice and other things in a way that really no other candidate is talking about. Now, we’ll see is that resonates out there or not, but I think she has the most substantial policies. Otherwise, I think you have to say Joe Biden, who of course just got into this race at the very end, but largely because of his name recognition, the fact that he was Barack Obama’s partner and defender, and a right-hand man in every way for so long. I think he probably starts with an advantage, no doubt about it. But he’s not likely to grow support; he’s likely to lose support if someone else sort of takes off. But I think we are at a moment now as we almost head into the month of May, a pretty wide-open race. It’s sort of divided into sections of three tiers, I think, but I don’t think anyone owns the – really what is the single most important or one of the single most important sort of demographic groups; that’s black women.
JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS: I mean, I think that it’s a fascinating sort of array of candidates to watch on that stage and the issues that they chose to go to. One of the reasons I think that Elizabeth Warren seemed to resonate with the audience there was she was talking about concrete issues. She was, of course, talking about, you know, racial injustice and all of the – all of those kind of broader concepts, but you know, maternal mortality is a big issue that we haven’t really heard many politicians, many elected officials talk about. That is something that people feel in their real lives. And in campaigns, you know, people respond to things that are going to matter to them – pocketbook issues, things that affect their health and their children. And so the fact that she has come out with, you know, some of these very specific plans about how she would go at some of those issues I think has been appealing not just to African American women, but to a lot of the Democratic primary electorate.
But it was also interesting to, you know, hear Kamala Harris say that she was going to, you know, use executive actions on gun violence if she couldn’t get legislation through Congress. That is an issue that there is sort of a pent-up demand for not just among Democrats, frankly, but certainly among the audience at that event, and you know, the fact that she’s coming out proactively and saying that that’s going to be a central thing for her I think could end up being, you know, a very important element for her.
KAROUN DEMIRJIAN: Yeah, it’s important for the candidates to start defining themselves on policy issues pretty soon because generally speaking, as you were just making the point, there are these issues that are very, very important to the party writ large, but the how and the what specifically and the what will you do first and will you be successful, how can you guarantee that, matters for everything ranging from health care to student loans to gun violence and to all the other hot-button issues for the Democrats. It is kind of striking how much Elizabeth Warren has been setting the tenor, though, for exactly where the policy should move to, because she’s been very specific about, you know, taxation. She’s been very specific about the small issues too, talking about infant mortality.
And she was the first person to say, loudly – with the biggest megaphone, at least – impeachment, we should go for it. And the fact that she’s – people are following is going to make it very interesting to see if they – other candidates do kind of try to move in to fill that space with policy proposals of their own, or if this just becomes a question of who packages it and sells it the best.
MR. COSTA: That’s a great point, about who’s going to move in on the policy front, because we just talked in the show about Vice President Biden. We know he has a message against President Trump, referendum on President Trump. What about on policy – on these policies that were really animating the discussion at She The People? Where does he stand? Where could he make a move?
GERALD SEIB: Well, look, he can talk about any subject, right? And so I think he has to decide where he’s going to be on the ideological spectrum, not just does he have policy positions but, you know, what are you going to say about Medicare for All as the guy who’s kind of hanging his hat in the center of the – the center left, not the far left? And what are you going to say about climate change? What about the Green New Deal? He’s going to be forced to address issues like that. And I think you’re right, Elizabeth Warren has kind of set the tone in policy terms for a lot of those subjects.
And I think a lot of us have been waiting for her to have her moment as a result of that. And I think you’ve finally seen in the last week a couple of instances in which you think maybe this Elizabeth Warren moment might be arriving. She’s got intellectual appeal and a kind of an emotional appeal. And we hadn’t been seeing it much. And I think that clip indicated we’re seeing it.
MR. COSTA: Let’s step back for a minute, because if you think about She The People, it is shining a light on an important demographic for the Democratic Party. But when you look at the primary process for Democrats, a mostly white state in Iowa for the caucuses, a mostly white state in New Hampshire for the first primary. And then you get to South Carolina – Nevada’s going to come first, then South Carolina fourth this time around. Sixty percent of the vote in the South Carolina Democratic Primary in 2016 was African American. So only once you get to South Carolina it seems like these issues really get pushed to the fore. Is that part of why She The People almost seems unique for this Democratic Party? It’s so much driven by Iowa and New Hampshire.
MR. ZELENY: It is. And it always has been, largely because of inertia, I think. There’s never been kind of a different system put forward. And the next cycle is always upon us before there’s sort of a change of the calendar.
MR. COSTA: But it’s such a diverse party right now.
MR. ZELENY: It is a diverse party, particularly with the candidates. That’s one of the things that I think obviously is the biggest challenge for the Joe Bidens of the world. You know, there are five credible female candidates, elected officials, running. Two African American candidates, young candidates, an openly gay candidate, et cetera. So it’s very diverse. Yet the two frontrunners of the party are two white men in their upper 70s. (Laughter.) So you know, we’ll sort of see how this goes. But there’s no question the organizing structure of the primary process is lagging behind where the party is progressively here.
MS. DEMIRJIAN: I mean, the party’s been aware of this for a while. That’s why Nevada vaulted into the early state group, because it made the argument that it has a large Latino community and that’s a big part of the Democratic voting bloc in Nevada. But it’s been very, very hard to dislodge Iowa and New Hampshire from their wanting to be the first of each type of contest for the party. And, you know, you saw all the contests move up earlier in the calendar. If they’re going to move up any earlier we’re going to be doing this around Christmas. I mean, that’s going to be very, very awkward. So unless you do everybody on the same day, it seems like they’re just holding on very, very –
MR. COSTA: One final question. Watching all these clips, I think back to 2016. Senator Bernie Sanders did well in New Hampshire, and then he comes into South Carolina and Secretary Clinton starts picking up speed. Has – he got a muted reception, perhaps worse than muted, at this event. Has he addressed these issues from 2016 with minority voters this time or not?
MS. DAVIS: I don’t think he has. I mean, I think what you saw there – I think you’re being charitable in terms of a muted reception. Is that, you know, there’s still – that people are still not comfortable with him. People in that audience, among African American women – frankly, among African American voters in general, and among a lot of other female voters there is – you know, he has some ground to make up there. And when you look at him where his standing is in the polls right now, he’s obviously in, you know, the top two of most of the polls that we’ve seen. But that’s going to start to be an issue for him. And you have to imagine he’s trying to put together a strategy to speak to them. But when you hear him talk, he’s talking in the ways that he talked in 2016. It sounds like the same Bernie. And so the question is, what can he say, what can he do, how can he respond to those concerns? Because they’re clearly out there.
MR. COSTA: All right. Well, that’s it of this edition of the Washington Week Extra. You can listen wherever you get your podcasts or watch it on the Washington Week website. While you’re online, check out the Washington Week-ly News Quiz.
I’m Robert Costa. See you next time.