Chaos is face of the Demo­cratic race

Un­pre­dictable events, im­peach­ment probe leave party un­cer­tain

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - NATION & WORLD - By Julie Pace, Thomas Beaumont and Steve Peo­ples

WASH­ING­TON — A Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial race that had been largely static through the sum­mer has tum­bled into a chaotic fall, shaped by un­pre­dictable events and the deep­en­ing im­peach­ment cri­sis sur­round­ing Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump.

Less than four months be­fore vot­ing be­gins, fron­trun­ning can­di­dates are fac­ing ur­gent ques­tions about their abil­ity to chal­lenge Trump, prompted by a health scare for Sen. Bernie San­ders, an un­even re­sponse by Joe Bi­den to the pres­i­dent’s ef­forts to tie him to the im­peach­ment in­quiry and nag­ging ques­tions about lib­eral Sen. El­iz­a­beth War­ren’s electabil­ity. Lower-tier can­di­dates are strug­gling just to be heard.

The un­cer­tainty is height­en­ing anx­i­eties among Democrats des­per­ate to de­feat Trump in 2020. Although im­peach­ment could im­peril Trump’s pres­i­dency, the process has also high­lighted Trump’s skill at dis­cred­it­ing his op­po­nents, some­times with base­less con­spir­acy the­o­ries. And Democrats ap­pear no closer to sort­ing out what tac­tics, ide­ol­ogy and per­son is best-suited to over­come that.

Pro­gres­sive can­di­dates like San­ders and War­ren are surg­ing in fundrais­ing and draw­ing sup­port from a wide swath of vot­ers, ac­cord­ing to polls, but face op­po­si­tion from mod­er­ates who ques­tion whether now is the time to start the kind of sweep­ing — and di­vi­sive — eco­nomic and so­ci­etal re­forms they are push­ing. It’s a con­cern some mod­er­ates say has only in­creased against the back­drop of im­peach­ment.

“The di­vi­sions we have in the coun­try threaten the health and sta­bil­ity of our democ­racy. Pres­i­dent Trump has frac­tured so many norms,” former Iowa Gov. Tom Vil­sack said in an in­ter­view. “Like a pa­tient get­ting over an ill­ness or in­jury, we have to first heal the na­tion’s di­vi­sions and reestab­lish our norms be­fore we have the needed strength to suc­cess­fully em­brace and im­ple­ment an ar­ray of big ideas.”

Vil­sack, a long­time friend of Bi­den’s, has not en­dorsed any­one in the 2020 race. He’s been courted by, and con­sulted with, nu­mer­ous can­di­dates, and has spo­ken reg­u­larly with War­ren.

The Mas­sachusetts sen­a­tor has en­er­gized vot­ers with a menu of de­tailed pol­icy pro­pos­als, a folksy, re­lat­able way of ex­plain­ing them and a swell of small­dol­lar do­na­tions that brought in more than $24.6 mil­lion in the most re­cent quar­ter.

That’s in­creas­ingly turn­ing her into a tar­get for can­di­dates who see her calls for over­haul­ing health care and re­bal­anc­ing wealth in Amer­ica as out­side the main­stream.

Pete But­tigieg, the mayor of South Bend, In­di­ana, who is try­ing to break into the up­per rung, has fo­cused in par­tic­u­lar on War­ren’s health care plan, the San­ders’-au­thored “Medi­care for All” sin­gle-payer sys­tem that But­tigieg de­scribes as a “my-way-or­the-high­way ap­proach.”

For now, War­ren sup­port­ers are happy to have San­ders still in the race to help ab­sorb those blows rather than have her be the sole tar­get of the at­tacks.

“Po­lit­i­cally, it’s good for War­ren and San­ders to have each other in the race,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Pro­gres­sive Change Cam­paign Com­mit­tee. “They bol­ster each other’s ideas.”

The con­fi­dence San­ders’ cam­paign felt two weeks ago af­ter an­nounc­ing a $25.3 mil­lion haul in the third quar­ter — the most in the race — was less­ened af­ter the 78-year-old sen­a­tor suf­fered a heart at­tack. He’ll re­turn to the cam­paign on Tues­day for a de­bate in Ohio.

His ad­vis­ers pri­vately ac­knowl­edge that the tim­ing of the heart at­tack — just as the im­peach­ment in­quiry was es­ca­lat­ing — may have helped limit the po­lit­i­cal fall­out be­cause at­ten­tion was fo­cused else­where. But they also un­der­stand that he will have to more di­rectly ad­dress lin­ger­ing health con­cerns.

Jeff Weaver, San­ders’ chief strate­gist, dis­missed any long-term con­cerns, not­ing that the 2020 con­test in­cludes sev­eral older can­di­dates, in­clud­ing the 73-year-old Trump.

“There are a num­ber of older can­di­dates in the race, in­clud­ing the sit­ting pres­i­dent of the United States, and I can tell you with con­fi­dence, there’s only one we can say with as­sur­ance whose ar­ter­ies are com­pletely open,” Weaver said, ref­er­enc­ing the stent pro­ce­dure de­signed to clear San­ders’ clogged ar­ter­ies.

Bi­den, 76, stands as the strong­est ob­sta­cle to War­ren and San­ders, fun­da­men­tally op­posed on pol­icy and pitch­ing a more con­cil­ia­tory ap­proach to gov­ern­ing.

The former vice pres­i­dent was al­ready fac­ing ques­tions about whether he was out of step with the party’s ac­tivist lib­eral base and up for the chal­lenge of tak­ing on Trump be­fore he got pulled into the im­peach­ment in­quiry, which cen­ters on Trump’s push for Ukraine to in­ves­ti­gate the former VP and his son.

Although Trump’s al­le­ga­tions against Bi­den are so far with­out foun­da­tion, the pres­i­dent and his al­lies have ag­gres­sively pressed the charges.

Bi­den re­sponded force­fully last week, but only af­ter days of hand-wring­ing among sup­port­ers and ad­vis­ers who wor­ried he ap­peared ill-pre­pared for com­bat­ing the kind of po­lit­i­cal war­fare at which Trump ex­cels.

Still, Bi­den back­ers con­tend that the fact that Trump has ap­peared fo­cused on try­ing to take down Bi­den al­lows the former vice pres­i­dent to strengthen his electabil­ity ar­gu­ment by pre­view­ing what a one-on-one race with the pres­i­dent would look like.

That’s the fear for some lower-tier can­di­dates — that the head-to-head fight be­tween Trump and Bi­den, and the grass­roots sup­port of War­ren and San­ders, block out their op­por­tu­ni­ties for a late surge.

Ev­ery­one is at risk, in­clud­ing those who have had flashes of suc­cess in re­cent months but are now lan­guish­ing in the sin­gle dig­its in many polls, in­clud­ing Cal­i­for­nia Sen. Ka­mala Har­ris, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke and New Jer­sey Sen. Cory Booker.

PA­TRICK SEMANSKY/AP

Con­fi­dence in Bernie San­ders’ cam­paign fell af­ter the sen­a­tor had a heart at­tack ear­lier this month.

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