By the time the California Democrats left San Francisco Sunday – after the Dominatrixes Against Don and the bleeding man anti-circumcision protests; after Elizabeth Warren stole thunder from Bernie Sanders; after Kamala Harris was cheered for demanding impeachment and Nancy Pelosi was heckled for resisting it — the bottom line on the state party convention was clear:
For Democrats, the agonizing trauma that is Donald Trump — denounced at every turn as a racist, misogynist, homophobic religious bigot – is so overpowering that even at Ground Zero for the progressive movement, they opted for pragmatism over ideology.
Which is good news for Democratic presidential front-runner Joe Biden: While he skipped the event to campaign in Ohio, California Democrats overwhelmingly elected as their new chairman Rusty Hicks, a white male, nuts-and-bolts labor organizer from the Obama-Clinton-Biden wing of the party over Kimberly Ellis, an African-American Bernie backer and champion of the grassroots progressive faction.
“It tells me they want to start organizing and leave the drama behind,” Rose Kapolcynzki, a veteran consultant and combatant in countless intraparty wars, told us in the lobby of the Parc 55 the morning after the vote.
“At some point, people want stability,” agreed consultant Roger Salazar, who served as temporary spokesman for the party. “Even in a city like San Francisco, where there is so much aggressive diversity, having somebody like Rusty come in and say he’s fighting for our values but in a steady way – that appeals to people.”
In short, the simple, singular and pragmatic message of the absent Biden – that Trump is an aberration whose ouster will return the nation to normalcy – at least for one weekend absorbed and assimilated much of the ideological wrangling over impeachment, health care and climate change.
The I-word. To be sure, plenty of candidates and party luminaries, including Rep. Maxine Waters, chairwoman of Financial Services, called for impeachment – although she did so in the context of lavishly praising Speaker Pelosi, who opposes impeachment for tactical reasons. Others, like Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Schiff, who shared the Saturday night dinner speaking slot with Maxine, worry more about the fallout from an impeachment in the Democratic House leading to acquittal in the Republican Senate.
We asked Schiff in a face-to-face conversation after his dinner speech Saturday night (which made us late to our own soiree with fellow hacks at John’s Grill — but we never complain) if impeachment has become a fault line within the Democratic Party, as many Beltway bloviators argue.
“I don’t think so,” he told us. “There’s certainly a difference of opinion about it and it’s a deeply important issue. But I was kind of gratified that of all the things I said tonight the one that received the most prolonged applause was the idea that when the primary is over we’re all going to come together behind whoever emerges. And that will be the case whether they were for or against impeachment or from the left or the center. We are determined not to go into 2020 a house divided.”
Whither progressives. That said, Biden will still face tough challenges debating issues, particularly health care, from the candidates carrying the banner of the lefty progressives.
From the look of things in San Francisco, Elizabeth Warren as of now has by far the most energized progressive push, and appears to be eating into Bernie Sanders’s base, as a younger, fiery and thoughtful voice on the Democratic socialist left.
Warren had a great convention, starting with a huge enthusiastic rally Friday night in Oakland, and delivering the most rousing convention speech on Saturday, which included a clear but soft swipe at Biden.
“Our country is in a crisis,” Warren told the cheering Democrats. “The time for small ideas is over…We need a bold structural change…We dream big and fight hard…Too many people in our party say ‘settle down’…When a candidate tells you about all the things that aren’t possible…they’re telling you they will not fight for you.”
It’s a message – with its implicit critique of Biden — that resonates with progressives like Norman Solomon of RootsAction.org, who told us he’s looking for a candidate “who can open a progressive, populist door.”
And many Democrats are still moved by Sanders’ insistence, delivered to a sparse Sunday morning crowd on the convention floor, that “there is no middle ground” when it comes to climate change, health care, responding to mass shootings, immigration reform and “useless wars.”
“In my view, we will not defeat Donald Trump unless we bring excitement and energy into the campaign and unless we give millions of working people and young people a reason to vote,” Sanders said — a not-so-subtle dig at Biden.
But far more California Democrats at the convention, lined up with people like Erin Lehane of the Blue Collar Revolution — one of the 1,820 delegates who gave Hicks a very surprisingly easy victory.
She told Calbuzz that Democrats need to remember that working families are their backbone and their basic economic needs must be the focus for the party: “No party, to be effective, can be on the fringe,” she said. “I don’t think Californians who are struggling to make ends meet are focused on impeachment – they’re just trying to support their families.”
Another intriguing sign of pragmatism: While some Democratic speakers framed opposition to the Republican’s national push to outlaw abortion as a matter of privacy and women’s rights, at the Women’s Caucus, under the leadership of Christine Pelosi, Planned Parenthood attorney Maggy Krell emphasized that “abortion is health care,” while Speaker Pelosi herself focused on “family planning” — common sense, kitchen table formulations that make all the screeching about infanticide by the wingnut GOP evangelicals in Trump’s base seem even more extreme, and offer a non-culture war argument that suburban woman of all ideologies can support.
Pelosi – who is from the city herself – is not one to get up and argue, as former SF County Supervisor David Campos did at one venue, that “San Francisco’s values are America’s values.”
Some other take-aways:
Biden was smart to stay away. As Rose K told us: “He wasn’t going to win on the applause meter.” More: being out of the way likely helped Hicks and Co. rally their labor support without the distraction that Biden would have created, by dominating the news.
Warren’s chants need work. Waiting for their hero to arrive for her Saturday speech, Warren supporters actually chanted this: “Bold/Struc-Tural/Change! Memo to chant leaders: Stick with “Dream Big! Fight Hard!”
Impeachment is a tactical difference, not an existential fault line. Pelosi, whose foot-dragging on impeachment has annoyed, if not enraged, progressives, nonetheless got a hero’s reception, despite the outcries of a small number of pro-impeachment lefties who tried to interrupt her Saturday speech. And when pro-impeachment bandwagoneer Tom Steyer, who also was given an opportunity to speak in the name of inclusivity, was about to come to the kicker of his address, in which he called out Pelosi by name to lead “or get out of the way,” ka-boom, his walkoff music suddenly rose up and the words were drowned out as he was played off stage. A mere coincidence, no doubt.
Winning by losing. As we forecast, former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper had a breakthrough moment – getting himself plugged into the news cycle by getting booed by the Bernie faction when he proclaimed that “socialism is not the answer” to achieving progressive policy goals. Maryland Rep. John Delaney, the last candidate to speak on Sunday morning, got similar treatment when he mildly argued that Medicare for All is “not good policy” and drew a long and loud chorus of booing from the Bernie bots, about the only people left in the hall by that point. Whether or not it benefits the two long shots, it’s a bad look for the Dems – makes them look as intolerant as the Legions of Trump.
We’re from the press, we’re here to help. After two years plus of being labeled Enemies of the People, we admit it was refreshing to hear Christine Pelosi urge people to make room at the Women’s Caucus for “our friends in the press.” Aww.
On the other hand, despite the terrific work by Roger Salazar and Hilary McLean to handle media, arrange interviews, organize announcements, etc. for the party, the press room food was poorly supplied, weirdly staffed and filled with sketchy people with press passes who represent no known media outlet. One of these nutjobs grabbed Kamala’s microphone at a Move On event.
Democrats can’t compete with the Reps on the swag of hatred. A tour of the vendor and exhibitors haul yielded no buttons or posters with the vicious brand of personal loathing — Kill Hillary! Jail Obama! — that we routinely find at Republican conventions. They’re all really nice.
Best demo. Outside the hall, both Erotic Workers for Decriminalization of Sex Work and the guys in white pants with red paint on the crotch carrying Circumcision is Child Abuse fit the bill for old-school San Francisco street theatre.
Calbuzz rankings of the 14 candidate speeches:
Biden – Won by staying away.
Warren –Raised the roof.
Booker – Inspiring, even if “this campaign is about love” is pretty hokey.
Mayor Pete – I’m the only Millennial in the race.
Harris – Adequate speech that met expectations but not much more
Running for Veep or Cabinet Post
Klobuchar — Best joke of the weekend: Her fundraising prowess includes raising $17K from ex-boyfriends.
Castro – Best pitch on immigration.
Beto – I speak Spanish, too
Inslee – The “clean air wing of the party” is a good line.
Running for the Exercise
Hickenlooper – Nobody paid attention til he got booed.
Swalwell – Clever line thanking delegates: “You cut our time in hell in half “ by working for the Blue Wave.
Gillibrand – I am a woman,
Tusli – “I will govern with Aloha.”
Delaney – Trump hair jokes fell flat.
And for the dedicated nerds who actually care about issues, here’s some of our interview with Adam Schiff (which we shared with the Los Angeles Times).
CB: Is Donald Trump in debt to Russians?
AS: I don’t know what financial relationship Donald Trump may have with Russian interests. We know that he certainly tried to consummate a massive real estate deal during the campaign and lied about it. And we know that his business sought to get the Kremlin’s assistance to make that deal happen and it’s hard to imagine something more compromising than that. Whether his financial entanglement goes beyond that, I don’t know. Chairman Waters and I have subpoenaed financial institutions to get their records. We intend to try to follow the money and find out.
CB: Is Trump functioning as a Russian asset?
AS: I wouldn’t describe him as a Russian asset but I think it’s our obligation to make sure that American national security policy is not driven by his financial interests.
CB: Do you think it might be?
AS: He certainly wanted to consummate a business deal in Russia and people around him and maybe Mr. Trump himself believed that in order to do that he needed Putin’s approval. And in light of that it certainly provides a plausible explanation for why he can’t seem to criticize Vladimir Putin.
CB: Why can’t the Democrats make the case that Trump at this point is functioning on behalf of the Russians?
AS: I don’t know that I would agree with the premise. If you asked the American people whether they think the president has stood up to the Russians, I think they would say “no.”
CB: But is he functioning for them? You think he might be?
AS: I think many people perceive that when it comes to Russia, he’s not acting in the national interest. And they don’t know why. We know in the case of North Korea that there are a variety of other motivations at play – you know, the flattery of Kim Jung Un, the attacks on Joe Biden by Kim Jung Un. I think the desperation, having reneged on the Iran nuclear deal, to somehow make a deal with North Korea means that the president’s bargaining position is weak compared to Kim Jung Un.
CB: Has Trump sold out American interests?
AS: I certainly think that when he sides with the Kremlin over our own intelligence agencies he is being deeply unpatriotic, that he is tearing at the morale of the hard-working men and women at our intelligence agencies, he’s causing sources to dry up and it’s an open invitation to the Russians to interfere further. I think the message that Putin walked away with from Helsinki was—the same message that concluded their last phone conversation –and that is when the president says he believes this is all a hoax and he says it to the man who perpetrated an attack on our democracy, he is inviting him to do it again and telegraphing that he’s too weak to stand up to the Kremlin.
CB: Has impeachment become the fault line in the Democratic Party?
AS: I don’t think so. There’s certainly a difference of opinion about it and it’s a deeply important issue. But I was kind of gratified that of all the things I said tonight the one that received the most prolonged applause was the idea that when the primary is over we’re all going to come together behind whoever emerges. And that will be the case whether they were for or against impeachment or from the left or the center. We are determined not to go into 2020 a house divided.
LATimes: Why is it so important for you and Speaker Pelosi to hold the line on impeachment?
AS: I think this is too big, too important, too consequential to be driven by the politics of it – whether it energizes our base or their base whatever the case may be politically. I don’t know what the answer is, I just know that for us it’s not the right question…What’s best for the country. Do we go through that wrenching experience, that ultimately very divisive experience particularly if we know what the result is likely to be? And there are powerful arguments that we should and damn the consequences. I’m not there yet. I may get there.
LAT: What would it take to get you there?
AS: If at the end of the day when the litigation is over and the court orders the administration to comply with the oversight requests of Congress and he still refuses and ignores the third branch of government as well as our own, then he will leave us no choice. But we may get there before then. The administration does seem to be pushing us in that direction…
Schiff defines the dilemma: If we don’t impeach him what does that say to future congresses and presidents about whether this kind of conduct is compatible with the office. By the same token if we do impeach him and he’s acquitted in the Senate and there’s an adjudication that that conduct is not impeachable, that may be a worse precedent.
CB: Which is worse?
Both are problematic and the reason we’re in this terrible dilemma is that one party has completely forsaken its obligations under the constitution and become just an extension of Rudy Giuliani.
Only in San Francisco can you find a urinal with the warning: “RECLAIMED WATER DO NOT DRINK.” Thanks for the heads-up.