The Morning Dispatch: Will a Late Entry Scramble the Democratic Primary?

Bloomberg and Sessions jump in, plus the latest in trade, and a look at Facebook and Twitter’s conflicting advertising policies.

Happy Friday! If you are a multibillionaire and want to run for president, reminder that today is the final day to get on the primary ballot in Alabama!

Quick Hits: What You Need to Know

  • Attorney General William Barr reportedly declined President Trump’s request to state publicly that he had broken no laws in the Ukraine affair. (The president vociferously denies the story.)

  • Two former Twitter employees have been arrested on charges of spying for Saudi Arabia. 

  • William Roebuck, our top diplomat in Syria, chastised the Trump administration for not pushing Turkey harder not to attack the Kurds. 

  • A judge ordered President Trump to pay $2 million in damages after he admitted to misusing money raised for his charitable foundation for personal ends.

  • House Democrats release the transcript of their interview with former top Ukraine diplomat Bill Taylor, who testified in the most explicit terms yet about a Trump/Ukraine quid pro quo. 

  • The House will begin open impeachment sessions next week, Rep. Adam Schiff said.

  • White House acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney has been subpoenaed as part of the impeachment inquiry, but is unlikely to appear before the House Intelligence Committee on Friday as requested.  

  • A Warning, a book by an anonymous Trump administration official, alleges that Mike Pence would support invoking the 25th amendment if a majority of the Cabinet agreed and that senior officials considered resigning en masse last year in a “midnight self-massacre.”

El Bloombito Might Finally Take the Plunge

For years, billionaire and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has toyed with the idea running for the Oval Office. He came close in 2016, and bowed out earlier this year due to Joe Biden’s perceived strength. But in a development that could immediately scramble the Democratic primary, the New York Times reports that Bloomberg is calling top Democrats to let them know he is seriously considering jumping in and is taking steps to get on the ballot in Alabama, which has a Friday filing deadline.

The news comes as Biden, whose moderate lane Bloomberg would hope to occupy, has struggled to run away with the race. He currently holds a high-single-digit lead over Elizabeth Warren in polls, but has lagged behind his opponents in fundraising, remained as gaffe-prone as ever, and become embroiled in a Ukraine scandal that will likely see President Trump impeached.

Many Democrats view this vulnerability as an opening for a more progressive candidate like Warren or Bernie Sanders. But plenty others are worried such a leftward shift could imperil the party’s chances come November, a view seemingly supported by New York Times/Siena College polling earlier in the week. Hence, Bloomberg. (“What about us?” Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar shout into the oblivion.)

Whether Bloomberg, 78 in February, can catch on and can compete with the existing crop of Democrats is anybody’s guess. But he’s old, Jewish, and he used to be a Republican—a perfect combination of the current three frontrunners. What he also has is name recognition, and $50 billion. And as we discussed in an earlier Morning Dispatch, money like that does count for something.

Back in Session

Mayor Bloomberg wasn’t the only candidate to throw his hat into the electoral ring Thursday. A year after he was unceremoniously booted from the Trump administration, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced he’ll try next year to recapture his old Senate seat, which is currently occupied by Democrat Doug Jones. 

There’s one problem, of course: Trump and Sessions no longer get along. Although the former senator was one of Trump’s earliest and fiercest supporters during the 2016 campaign, Sessions committed an unpardonable sin in the early days of the Trump presidency: recusing himself from the Russia investigation. As that investigation swelled over the following months, Trump grew increasingly resentful that Sessions had abdicated what was, to the president’s mind, his central responsibility: Being a bulldog for the bossman. 

Sessions is coming out of the gate trying to defuse the tension. If you’d never heard of him before you saw his launch video, you’d be forgiven for thinking the most impressive thing he ever did was get fired with grace and good cheer. “When I left President Trump’s Cabinet, did I write a tell-all book?” Sessions begins. “No. Did I go on CNN and attack the president? No. Have a said a cross word about President Trump? No.” 

It may not matter: President Trump rarely gives up a grudge. 

And that may not matter: Jeff Sessions remains widely popular in Alabama. 

Keep an eye on this one. These down-ballot races have frequently been interesting case studies in to what degree Trump’s word is gospel among his supporters. We’re certainly gearing up to see another representative sample now. 

Better Trade Days Ahead?

A hint of good trade news Thursday: The U.S. and China, which are currently hashing out an interim ceasefire in the ongoing trade war, announced that their so-called “stage one” package would include easing off some of the tariffs the two nations have been bludgeoning each other with for the past two years.

This is undeniably an encouraging step for both countries, although questions remain about how large a step it really is. Skeptics will note that, although a modest preliminary agreement has been reached in principle, negotiators have yet to finish actually writing the document—a stage at which trade war negotiations have hit the skids before. And the White House is still pushing a deeply confused and conflicting set of trade policy aims: although his advisers insist that tariffs are merely a temporary tool to pressure China to stop its unfair trade practices, Trump continues to believe that they’re an unalloyed economic good worth employing for their own sake.

Nevertheless, anything’s better than the spiral of tariff chicken we’ve been dealing with up until now. And good news can’t come soon enough for the domestic manufacturers that President Trump promised the moon in 2016—and who have been suffering as the tariffs have piled up.

Trump Manufacturing: Rise and Fall

During his first two years in office, U.S. manufacturing boomed under Trump’s light regulatory touch and pro-business agenda. But that growth faltered as pressure from the trade war mounted late last year. Seeking to prop up the flagging domestic steel and aluminum industries, Trump inadvertently unleashed a wave of economic pain on the rest of the sector. Manufacturers by the thousands were slammed twice: first by the increased cost of imported materials, then, for companies that exported to China, by Beijing’s retaliatory tariffs slapped on their finished products. In the latter half of 2019, the manufacturing sector has actually contracted.

“The absence of a lot of new regulations and the certainty of knowing that there weren’t going to be a lot of new regulations, plus of course tax reform, really was rocket fuel for the American manufacturing sector,” Cato Institute scholar Scott Lincicome told The Dispatch. But once the trade war kicked in, “all the manufacturing data … they either plateau or they start going down.”

This trend has been particularly pronounced in the so-called Rust Belt—the Great Lakes states that were industrial powerhouses through most of the 20th century and where manufacturing still occupies a much larger portion of the regional economy than the rest of the country. Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan have all lost thousands of manufacturing jobs this year. Consumer confidence has started to sag.

“I don’t think that there is, as of now, widespread public alarm in the state about the manufacturing sector,” Charles Franklin, a prominent Wisconsin pollster at Marquette University, told The Dispatch. “On the other hand, the job losses are pretty significant. And so if we have a second year in a row with those kinds of losses, then I think you will see the issue rise more on the public agenda, the public consciousness, and in political rhetoric here.” 

What’s a Factory Worth, Anyway?

A couple points here. There’s a sense in which it’s unfair to Trump to get tunnel vision about manufacturing: The rest of the economy is still going gangbusters. Even in the Rust Belt, overall unemployment remains very low, although it’s crept up in recent months.

And yet, a big part of the president’s populist pitch was his promise to reverse this trend: to create economic conditions in which manufacturing wouldn’t continue to waste away, where laid-off factory workers in dried-up towns wouldn’t have to suffer the indignity of experts chirping at them to buck up and move to the city and reskill in a line of work more useful to the 21st-century economy. Wisconsin’s economy is still booming under Trump—but when you lose your warehouse job in Medford, it doesn’t do you much good to hear about how many new tech jobs there are in Madison.

Does all this run the risk of hurting Trump in 2020? It’s hard to say. On the one hand, Trump swept the Rust Belt only with razor-thin margins in each state: It wouldn’t take massive blue-collar defections to put his chances there in jeopardy. 

On the other, plenty of Trump’s 2016 supporters in the region are still holding out hope that he’ll bend China to his will—which, in the long run, would provide another boom to American industry. Kurt Bauer, president and CEO of Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, told The Dispatch that when they survey their members, almost half say they’ve been adversely affected by the U.S.-China tariffs—but that fully two-thirds support the tariffs anyway.

And, of course, many of the president’s supporters aren’t about to abandon him over a little economic pain, because it’s his cultural message that they were drawn to in the first place.

All of which is to say: The president needn’t panic over his manufacturing slump just yet. But if he was serious about his bombastic promises to usher in a new golden era for American manufacturing, it’s plain that something has to change.

Digital Double Standards

Let’s talk about political advertising. Whether it’s this health care-focused spot from Joe Biden or Donald Trump’s surprise World Series ad (which had seven figures behind it, a Trump campaign official told The Dispatch at the time), prepare your eyeballs and eardrums for a steady stream of dramatic lens flares and “I’m _____, and I approve this message” emanating from your television over the next year.

But you might be seeing less of them on your phone.

Last week, Twitter announced, via CEO tweet thread, that it was banning all political advertising on the platform; the site will not allow ads promoting either candidates or issues after November 22. “A political message earns reach when people decide to follow an account or retweet,” CEO Jack Dorsey said. “Paying for reach removes that decision, forcing highly optimized and targeted political messages on people. We believe this decision should not be compromised by money.”

The move came just weeks after Facebook made waves by neglecting to take down a Trump campaign ad that made some dubious claims about Joe Biden and his involvement in Ukraine. The ad was also running on MSNBC, Fox News, ABC, CBS, YouTube, and Twitter, but Facebook specifically rebuffed the Biden campaign’s request to take it down. “Our approach is grounded in Facebook’s fundamental belief in free expression, respect for the democratic process, and the belief that, in mature democracies with a free press, political speech is already arguably the most scrutinized speech there is,” Katie Harbath, Facebook’s public policy director for global elections, told the Biden campaign in a letter obtained by the New York Times. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg gave a speech the following week arguing that while tumultuous times can create calls to “pull back on free expression,” he believes we must continue to stand for it.

The blowback from Democrats was swift and severe. Mark Warner wrote a letter to the company demanding answers. Ron Wyden tweeted that the company should listen to its own employees and “stop microtargeting political ads without public transparency.” To demonstrate what she believes to be the policy’s absurdity, Elizabeth Warren even ran a fake Facebook ad herself, which was approved, claiming Zuckerberg had endorsed Donald Trump’s re-election.

So those were the headaches Twitter was hoping to avoid by banning political ads altogether. But the migraines have continued. In a statement provided to The Dispatch on Thursday, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy called Twitter a “guinea pig for an experiment in restricting free speech,” arguing “the push to ban political ads appears to be an attempt to satisfy a loud minority that is interested in banning speech they do not like.” Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale called the ban “yet another attempt by the left to silence Trump and conservatives.” 

Before you start to think these gripes about bias are baseless, check out this tweet from Dorsey: 

That’s the CEO responding to Elizabeth Warren, who, despite criticizing Facebook for allowing misleading political ads, is also criticizing Twitter for not allowing them—because the restriction extends to liberal organizations as well. Dorsey’s reply—“Taking all this into consideration”—is foreboding. Ultimately, the ban will come down to what Twitter deems “political” and what it doesn’t; the company has promised to explain more fully its policy in the coming days, but don’t be surprised if groups like Planned Parenthood or Greenpeace are magically exempted.

And that’s the fundamental problem with any other approach to advertising and speech than the one Facebook has taken. It’s far from perfect. There’s a lot of garbage on the site, and misinformation runs rampant—particularly since truthfulness is asymmetrical betwixt various campaigns. But in placing minimal restrictions on advertising, Facebook has removed itself and its employees from the role of neutral arbiter having to make individual determinations over what is and isn’t political and what is and isn’t true. Twitter’s proposed method? McCarthy said it “implies Americans around the country are unable to think for themselves.”

The judgments these companies have to make are not always as straightforward as some like Elizabeth Warren might have you believe—particularly when there are potentially hundreds of millions of them every single day. Is a post pointing folks to a Catholic adoption agency “political?” What about a tweet celebrating Palestinian heritage?

Plus, current policy dictates broadcasters are “prohibited from refusing to run even obviously false political ads,” Berin Szóka, president of the free market internet policy think tank TechFreedom, told The Dispatch (italics ours). Why should social media be held to a different standard? Mark Warner argued “this comparison is inapt,” and that Facebook should behave like cable networks that face no such requirement. But Fox News isn’t facing nearly as much heat for running Trump’s campaign ad.

When asked by The Dispatch what standard or guideline she would implement were she in charge of Facebook and Twitter, Warren’s campaign declined to comment. Perhaps because the answer would seem to be: “People who share my worldview can run ads, but people who don’t can’t.”

Worth Your Time

  • Christopher Collins and Sophie Novak dove deep on Clarksville, Texas’s, demise for the Texas Observer, asking why the town was starting to crumble. “When a rural hospital dies, the community around it starts to follow suit.”

  • We’ve been covering this Ukraine business pretty heavily in The Morning Dispatch, but this piece still took our breath away. It’s the behind-the-scenes story of how freaked Ukrainian officials tried to figure out how to wheedle their promised and desperately needed military aid out of a mercurial president they didn’t know much about: scouring his Twitter feed for clues as to what would appease him and what might make him mad, debating whether they really ought to make their promised capitulatory announcement on CNN given Trump had denounced it as “Fake News,” and so on. It’s engrossing and darkly funny and worth reading to the end. 

  • Tom Junod wrote a piece in The Atlantic about his friendship with Mister Rogers in advance of the movie, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, being released. They just don’t make ‘em like Fred Rogers anymore. “Remembering him as a nice man is easier than thinking of him as a demanding one.”

Presented Without Comment

Something Fun

Presidential rallies are weird: Part policy lecture, part motivational speech, part tent revival, part goofy rock concert. Sometimes it’s hard to discern the correct way to behave. This kid, however, has it figured out.

Toeing the Company Line

  • Jonah has faxed a fresh new midweek G-File down from his mountaintop yurt. Medicare-for-All, technobabble, the word “Brobdingnagian”—it’s all there. Give it a read!

  • The French Press is back with a vengeance. Thursday’s edition delved into populism, and the dangers that lie therein. But if he keeps peddling this LeBron > Jordan nonsense, we’re going to have to stop plugging his pieces.

  • And if that’s not enough Dispatch for ya, there’s a Remnant! Jonah had Fox News’ Chris Stirewalt on the podcast to discuss Tuesday’s elections and the impeachment saga. Check it out here.

Let Us Know

What dance move is likeliest to go viral next at a Trump rally? 

  • YMCA (Christianity is respected again!)

  • High Hopes (If it’s good enough for Pete Buttigieg, it’s good enough for The Donald!) 

  • The Macarena (Record-low Hispanic unemployment!)

  • Flossing (Let’s be honest: This is the winner.)

Reporting by Declan Garvey, Andrew Egger, and Steve Hayes.