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636: I Thought It Would Be Easier

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Prologue: Prologue

Ira Glass

Seriously, America? Is this one so hard? This seems like an easy layup-- a 4-inch putt, a slow pitch across the plate, a thing that's so easy that even somebody like me who doesn't care about sports finds himself making sports metaphors. I'm talking about the DREAMers, the DACA kids who were brought to the US as small children. The majority of Americans have wanted to give them a path to citizenship since 2010.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham quoted a Fox News poll on the floor of the Senate this week that shows 79% of the public supports that, including 63% of Trump voters. Leaders of both parties in the House and Senate say they want it. The president says he wants it. In other words, it's super popular. Politicians support it. And yet, we've been trying 2001-- 2001! And we still don't have a permanent fix to this.

There's this thing that President Trump said about his job on his 98th day in office. He said, "I thought it would be easier," which, OK, he was roundly mocked for that. But weeks like this one, I think that too. Like really, with so many things, I really thought our democracy could do these things. Like, why is it not easier?

Well, from WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today on our program, in this week of government dysfunction, we have two stories of lawmakers not able to accomplish tasks that seem, from the outside, very straightforward. Act One of our show is about Republicans. Act Two is about Democrats. Specifically with the Democrats, what are they doing? A year into the Trump presidency, what exactly is their plan? Why does it seem to be, you know, nothing? Stay with us.

Act One: Send in the Gowns

Ira Glass

Act One, Send in the Gowns.

President Trump hasn't got a chance yet to build his wall. One of the first things he did in office was to issue an executive order of what to do when people are caught crossing the US border. Even under President Obama, most of those people got kicked out right away through a process called expedited removal. But there were lots of people who got locked up, processed, and released after a few weeks into the United States while they waited for their day in court, which could take years. And then, often, they didn't even show up in court. It was kind of a mess. Border agents called it catch and release. You probably heard that phrase.

The Trump administration wanted to get rid of catch and release. And so rather than do that, they decided they were going to take this group of people, detain them, and then get them in front of a judge fast, and then quickly deport anybody who should not be here. That, of course, required judges, more than they had at the border at the time. So they started flying immigration judges from around the country from their regular courtrooms to courts near the border. They would be there for two weeks at a time. And so this is an example of politicians seeing something they wanted to fix. They came up with a straightforward plan to do it. And we wanted to know, how's that working?

Well, to answer that, we collaborated with The Marshall Project and their reporter, Julia Preston, who's visited immigration courts for over a decade in her old job as the immigration correspondent for The New York Times. She's broken many stories of this subject. She went with one of our producers, Jonathan Menjivar, to one of these courts. This one was inside a detention center in Laredo, Texas. Here are Jonathan and Julia.

Jonathan Menjivar

The first thing that happened when we got to this immigration court in Laredo was that we couldn't even get inside. Immigration courts are supposed to be open to the public, but this court, it's inside the detention center, which is run by a private prison company. So to get in, you have to get past an employee who's sitting behind a thick glass window.

It was October when we visited, and the window was covered in Charlie Brown Halloween stickers-- Lucy in a wizard costume, Snoopy napping on a jack-o'-lantern. We'd made arrangements in advance with ICE, the Federal immigration enforcement agency, to let them know we were coming. But it didn't help.

Julia Preston

Eventually, we are cleared to enter. You're not allowed to record in court, so you're not going to hear any audio, but I'll just tell you. When we get into the courtroom, I realize I've met the judge before. His name is Barry Pettinato, and I met him when I was reporting a story last summer back in his home courtroom in Charlotte, North Carolina.

In Charlotte, Judge Pettinato was fully in command, and he was running a fast-paced, no-nonsense courtroom. He has a record as a tough judge. It's not easy to win an asylum claim with Judge Pettinato. In Laredo, he told us he was in the second week of a two-week stint. He kind of jokingly asked me if I was following him around.

Pettinato's courtroom in Laredo was hastily arranged last March to accommodate a judge. It's a cramped space with no windows, with the judge and the immigrants up very close to each other. But there is one of those raised wooden podiums for the judge, so it looks enough like a court.

Judge Pettinato takes the bench and, right away, it's clear that things aren't going as smoothly as they did in his home court in Charlotte. Pettinato has this big stack of blue files, and initially, it's not clear which case he's supposed to hear. An immigrant is called who has the identity number 991, but the government doesn't seem to have the file for that person. In fact, it seems that person may already have been deported. But they do have a file for immigrant 919. Maybe they're supposed to hear that case instead?

"Was that just bad data input?" Judge Pettinato asks. It isn't even 9 o'clock in the morning and he already seems exasperated.

Jonathan Menjivar

We soon find out he's not the only one. During a break between cases, the government attorney-- he's the immigration court equivalent of the prosecutor, and someone who generally wouldn't talk to the press-- he walks up to us and seems eager to share his frustration. He tells us the whole Laredo court is, quote, "just a bad setup." He explains how it works, or rather, how it doesn't really work.

The judges come and go every two weeks. The clerks also come and go every two weeks. But the clerks don't necessarily come with the judges, so the judges may be working with clerks from some other part of the country they've never met before. There are two attorneys for the government. They come and go every four weeks. The Spanish language interpreters, who have to be in the court much of the time, are also coming and going. Everyone is coming and going. And there's no overlap between one rotation of judges or prosecutors and the next rotation. The government attorney tells us the result is just plain chaotic.

Julia Preston

A few minutes later, Judge Pettinato spends some time trying to get one lawyer on the phone, but it keeps disconnecting. Next up, there's an Albanian who agrees to participate in his hearing in Spanish, even though he doesn't really speak Spanish. "Me hablo mucho Italiano. Entiendo un poquito Español," he tells the interpreter. I speak a lot of Italian. I understand a little Spanish.

The more time we sat in the courtroom, the more I realized we were noticing things I had never seen in years of observing immigration courts. There was no posted hearing schedule. Case files often went missing.

Judge Pettinato was trying to move things along, but instead of efficiency, there were time-consuming mishaps and delays. And as a result, immigrants who were detained and anxious and who expected to have an orderly process and a fair hearing weren't really getting that. Nor were they getting the speedy treatment the Trump administration intended, or anything close.

Jonathan Menjivar

A lot of the fumbling happens because of a simple dumb reason. All of the files are still kept on paper. All immigration courts around the country work this way, but it's an especially big problem in Laredo.

During one hearing, there's a lawyer, this guy who's driven up three hours from Weslaco, Texas. He's there to ask for a bond so his client can be released. But here's the hiccup. The files for this court in Laredo, they're not actually in Laredo, at least initially. They're filed in another immigration court 150 miles away in San Antonio. And every case file, it has to be physically sent here. And sometimes they don't make it, like with this lawyer.

"You may have submitted it, but we don't have it," Judge Pettinato says to the lawyer. "I filed it in San Antonio," the lawyer says. "Well, that could explain it." Judge Pettinato's eyes roll as he says this. It's a strange thing to see in a courtroom, a judge openly mocking the flaws of the court he's running. Even stranger are the knowing nods in the room. Everyone here-- the lawyer, the clerk, the government prosecutor, even the interpreter-- they know this hearing can't go forward because of the haphazard way this courtroom has been set up.

Judge Pettinato sets the bond hearing for a week out-- a time, remember, when some other judge will have replaced him. The guard then escorts the woman from Honduras that this whole hearing was about out of the courtroom. She's stuck in detention for another week, having no idea what will happen with her case.

Julia Preston

When you start asking around in Laredo for someone who really knows what's going on in this court, there's one lawyer whose name keeps popping up-- Paola Tostado. She's a real Texas highway rider lawyer from Brownsville, three hours to the south. She makes the drive to Laredo sometimes three times a week, keeping an eye out for a Texas breed of antelope called a nilgai. It's the size of a horse, and it can appear on the highway at 5:00 in the morning when she's driving to court.

While most lawyers were wearing muted black in that dingy detention center, Paola announced her presence with a scarlet dress and 4-inch spike heels. And in a court filled with all these rotating judges, Paola, this young lawyer who graduated from law school in 2015, she seemed to have become a resident expert. We saw Judge Pettinato defer to her judgment a couple of times when she was in court. She's very persistent and confident.

Paola told us she had this case that was emblematic of the messed up situations lawyers and immigrants find themselves in when a court isn't running properly. The case involved a guy from El Salvador who wanted to appeal after he didn't pass his first asylum interview. Paola drove up to San Antonio to speak with the court clerk and see her client's file.

Paola Tostado

And the court clerk informed me that the case was closed, that the judge had closed the proceedings.

Julia Preston

Meaning his case was over. Done.

Paola Tostado

And I said, well, that's impossible because my client is still in detention. And she's like, well, if you can give me some sort of proof that he is still in detention, which is ridiculous.

Julia Preston

Ridiculous because the proof that he was in detention was that he was still in detention. But the clerk had no record of that. The problem was that, if the case was formally closed, to get any order from the court to have the man released, Paola would need to get the case reopened. She tried ICE, the court in Laredo, the clerk's office in San Antonio, but nobody could figure out why a judge-- a judge who was no longer there-- had closed the case.

Everyone was baffled, but everyone was also passing the buck. The man sat in detention in Laredo month after month. For any court, this is about as bad as it gets. The government was detaining this man, but legally, the court had no basis to hold him. And still there was no way to get him out because the case was closed. Finally, the immigrant solved the problem himself. ICE brought him a deportation order and he signed it.

Julia Preston

He just gave up.

Paola Tostado

He just gave up. Exactly. He said, no, they just brought me the documents. I signed them. I want out of here. I want to go. I can't do this anymore.

Hotline Recording

Welcome to the automated case information hotline.

Jonathan Menjivar

This wasn't an isolated incident. On the day we were there, Paola had another case just like it, a client who was in detention. She worried that he would despair and self-deport, as well. Paola called the hotline you can dial in to check the status of any case. She pressed a few buttons, and we got an update on her current client.

Hotline Recording

The immigration judge closed proceedings on your case at Laredo SPC 4702 East Saunders, Laredo, Texas, 78041 on August 23, 2017.

Jonathan Menjivar

The hotline says his case was closed on August 23, 2017. That was months ago, but he was still in detention, still in need of a hearing to get his case moving-- a hearing he can't get because his case is closed. The system does not contain any information regarding a future hearing date on your case.

Paola's client, he's in total limbo.

Paola Tostado

He just sounds defeated. He just says, I just don't want to be sitting here waiting for nothing. If I'm waiting for something, if you tell me I have a court in two months, then I'll wait for that court in two months. But there's no court for me. So the question of the day here is, if we would be in another court, would this still be happening? Or is it just because we're here in Laredo and we're in an immigration court, which is-- it's not organized? Or who is there to blame here if there's someone to blame?

Jonathan Menjivar

Did you just put air quotes around "immigration court?"

Paola Tostado

[LAUGHS] Yes. It's crazy. You wouldn't think this would be happening.

Jonathan Menjivar

Your question of would this be happening in another court, what do you think?

Paola Tostado

I highly doubt this would be happening in another court.

Jonathan Menjivar

A day after we recorded this interview, this second client of Paola's was suddenly released, and he didn't even have to post bond. ICE gave no explanation why they let him go.

Julia Preston

Back at the courtroom, at one point, Judge Pettinato looks at the stack of blue files in front of him and whispers to his clerk, "the problem is, I can't do all of these." In fact, the immigration court system is drowning in cases. There's a huge backlog-- at last count, 650,000 cases waiting to be resolved. That number doubled in the last five years under President Obama. 650,000 cases works out to be about 2,000 for every judge, so immigrants often wait several years to have their cases heard.

The Trump administration's plan to rush judges to the border was supposed to help with the backlog. If they could quickly turn away illegal border crossers, they could keep new cases from building up in the system. But sending a judge down to a border court for two weeks means that all the cases that were ready to go on their home docket have to be postponed and rescheduled. On Judge Pettinato's Charlotte docket, for example, because of how behind they are there, the cases he had scheduled for the two weeks he was in Laredo had to be reset to late 2018, about a year away. In practice, the backlog in Charlotte just got bigger.

Jonathan Menjivar

The thing is, not all the courts with these temporary judges look like Laredo. Some of the border courts have the opposite problem. They have more judges than they need, so judges have ended up sitting around in empty courtrooms with nothing to do. We talked to a judge named Lawrence Burman, who normally sits in a court in Arlington, Virginia. His first border detail was to a court in Jena, Louisiana.

Lawrence Burman

The problem was that we had four judges there, and there was really only enough work for two judges. So I had a lot of free time, which is pretty useless in Jena, Louisiana. I couldn't really do anything except review the other files for Jena. And once I reviewed all of them, read the newspaper OR read my email.

Jonathan Menjivar

Out of 10 court days in Jena, there were two days where Judge Burman had no cases at all. Meanwhile, back home, he could have been moving forward with as many as 50 cases a day. Instead, dozens of those cases were rescheduled to the next date he had available on his calendar, which, because of the enormous backlog in Arlington, is three years away, in 2020.

A sitting federal judge isn't allowed to do an interview. That's why you're not hearing from Judge Pettinato. But Judge Burman is also a high-ranking official with the National Association of Immigration Judges-- it's kind of like their union-- so he can talk to reporters in that capacity.

And before we move on, Judge Burman wanted to make it clear. What he's saying here, these are his views and things he's heard from other judges across the country. They are not the views of the Justice Department or the court system.

Julia Preston

Judge Burman never went to Laredo, but he's talked to other judges who've been there, and he confirmed all the problems we saw. He said Laredo was especially notable because there was never a crisis there in the first place. Prior to President Trump's order, all their cases were being heard by judges in San Antonio via a video system. The system wasn't great, but it was working. All the emergency shuffling did was replace judges in San Antonio hearing cases by video with a live judge in Laredo, which, for a while, left some of the judges in San Antonio with empty dockets.

Lawrence Burman

So basically, a judge who was already on the border-- San Antonio's not exactly on the border, but it's not too far-- had nothing to do. Another judge was pulled away from his docket and sent down there, presumably just so that they could say that they rushed more judges to the border.

Julia Preston

The "they" in this case is the Justice Department, which is run by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. They are actually the ones who oversee the courts. A peculiarity of the American immigration court system is that it's part of the executive branch, which is why the President can rapidly change the priorities of the court like this.

Lawrence Burman

The Department of Justice doesn't really understand what we do and probably don't care very much in the final analysis. It just wants to present to the attorney general the fact that they're doing everything that they can. So I assume that they just sent as many judges to the border as they had courtrooms to put them in without much regard to how many cases there actually were there. It's almost as if the Department of Justice and [INAUDIBLE] management are trying to see how they can make the system less and less efficient.

Julia Preston

In the name of efficiency?

Lawrence Burman

Well, I don't know what they think they're doing, but what they're doing is not efficient. Just my opinion and opinion of practically every judge that I know.

Jonathan Menjivar

Like we said, President Trump's plan for these courts was to process people and deport them quickly. And during our week in Laredo, we did see some bad hombres come through the court-- immigrants who'd gotten involved in drug trafficking. There was one Mexican who worked with a human smuggling ring, harboring other undocumented immigrants for $100 a pop.

But in general, these emergency border courts were designed to handle a crisis at the border that isn't happening. In 2017, Customs and Border Protection recorded the lowest level of illegal migration in 45 years. President Trump made it clear that he was going to be tough on immigrants. And after he won the election, the numbers declined sharply.

Many immigrants who are coming now are people who we can't deport quickly-- asylum seekers who have a right to have their case heard before an immigration judge. We spent a little time at the border in Laredo. And within just an hour, we saw eight people who had presented themselves to authorities requesting asylum. The numbers that are really way up over the last year are not at the border. They're the rest of immigrants inside the country, in towns and cities that are losing judges for weeks at a time to these border courts.

Julia Preston

The Trump administration has said they're pleased with the results of this surge of immigration judges, that it's been a success. The director of the Justice Department agency that oversees the immigration courts said, and I quote, "mobilized immigration judges had completed approximately 2,700 more cases than expected if they had not been detailed." Essentially, he argued that judges who were sent to the border, about 100 of them in all, they completed 2,700 more cases than they would have if they'd stayed in their home courts. But that doesn't take into account that sending judges to the border meant that at least 22,000 cases around the country had to be rescheduled in the first three months alone-- perhaps for a year, as in Judge Pettinato's Charlotte cases, or perhaps three years, like in Judge Burman's courtroom.

We reached out to the Justice Department for comment. They didn't respond to our request for an interview, but they did answer some questions over email. An official stressed that the backlog in immigration court is getting better. To be clear, they haven't actually reduced the backlog. It's still increasing. But they point out that it's increasing at a slower rate. It was growing at over 3% per month when President Trump took office, and it's less than 0.5% now. But it's unclear if this change was because the Justice Department sent judges to the border or because of other efforts they've made to reduce the backlog, like hiring dozens of immigration judges.

There was one other fact they wouldn't explain. Unceremoniously, at the end of last year, the Justice Department decided to stop sending judges to Laredo. They went back to the old video system. We asked them why that decision was made and got no response.

Our last morning in Laredo, we saw a case that told us a lot about many of the immigrants who were being deported by this court. It was a hearing for an undocumented Mexican man named Fernando. He wasn't a recent border crosser. He had no criminal record, so he wasn't a priority for deportation, even for the Trump administration, which says it's focusing on getting rid of criminals.

We met his girlfriend, Irma, in the waiting room. She said together they were raising four children, all American citizens born here. Fernando had been picked up by local police after getting into a loud argument outside a Laredo bar. He wasn't charged or convicted of anything, but the cops turned him over to ICE.

But when Fernando started laying out all the details of his story-- this was just a few minutes into his case-- Judge Pettinato interrupted him. "Sir, I've got a whole bunch of cases going on today. I get the gist." The judge was ready to issue his decision. Fernando would have to leave the country.

He and his girlfriend looked stunned. Fernando choked up. He kept putting his head in his hands and staring at the wall. It was pretty clear he and Irma hadn't expected a decision. They thought this was just going to be a procedural hearing and they'd have time to get a lawyer. In fact, in a regular immigration court, that's exactly what would have happened. I've seen it many times. But now Fernando wouldn't get a chance to fully tell his story to a judge.

These border courts are designed for speed. That's their whole point. And this is what that looks like. Judge Pettinato took a moment to explain to Fernando that, even though it was commendable that he wanted to stay in the US to help his family, legally, there was no way he could allow it. That same afternoon, Fernando was put on the bridge to Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.

Ira Glass

Julia Preston and our producer, Jonathan Menjivar. That story was produced in collaboration with The Marshall Project, where Julia's a contributing writer. The Marshall Project does in-depth reporting on the criminal justice system. You can read the print version of Julia's story at themarshallproject.org.

Coming up. OK, we and our staff truly did not understand what's happening with the Democratic Party, and we spent a few months trying to figure it out. What we learned in a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

Act Two: Fighting Amongst Demselves

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's program, I Thought It Would Be Easier, stories about how difficult it seems to be lately for politicians to get things done, even things that seem pretty straightforward. We've arrived at Act Two of our program. Act Two, Fighting Amongst Demselves.

So one of the most basic things a political party is supposed to do is stand for something and articulate it. And a few months into Donald Trump's presidency, the questions, what does the Democratic Party stand for? What are they doing? What is the strategy? They've grown so large that it had the power to render grown people speechless.

Joe Scarborough

The Democratic Party, um, is-- is--

Ira Glass

Arguably, the national headquarters for impatience with the Democrats is the studios of MSNBC. Here's one of their anchors, Joe Scarborough.

Joe Scarborough

I'm talking about the national party is clueless. Where is the Democratic Party? Mika, where are the Democrats?

Mika Brzezinski

I'm praying.

Joe Scarborough

No, no, I'm dead serious.

Mika Brzezinski

No, I'm serious, too.

Joe Scarborough

What has happened to this party?

The Democrats have lost over 1,000 state legislative seats over the past eight years. They've lost the White House to a guy who nobody would even hire as their CEO. They've lost over a dozen Senate seats. They've lost over 60 House seats over the past eight years. And the Democrats still don't know who they are. What is wrong with this party?

Ira Glass

One of our producers, Ben Calhoun, traveled around, interviewing Democratic strategists and politicians this summer and fall, trying to understand why there did not seem to be a coherent strategy or message. Here's Ben.

Ben Calhoun

It's one thing for Joe Scarborough, who exists in a state of suspended exasperation, to be rolling his eyes at the Democrats. It's a completely different thing for someone like Ken Martin to feel fed up. Ken Martin's one of the country's top Democrats. He runs the Minnesota Democratic Party, and he leads the association of all the state Democratic Parties across the country. And he's the vice chair of the DNC.

Ken Martin

Our brand is [BLEEP]. Our brand is toxic. People don't know what the heck it is. If you got 100 Democrats in this room right now and asked them what the Democratic Party stands for, you'd get 100 different answers. There's no consistency. No one knows what the Democratic Party is. If you got 100 Republicans in here, by and large, you would get at least some consistency on what their party stands for. People need to have some clarity as to who the Democratic Party is, why we do what we do, why we care, and what we're fighting for.

Ben Calhoun

How anxious are you feeling about this moment?

Ken Martin

Well, I feel very anxious. I feel, for the Democratic Party, this is an existential moment.

Ben Calhoun

But what exactly might people have been expecting from Democrats in the first year of the Trump era? To that question, I would offer what the Republicans did when Barack Obama was elected. They were at their lowest point in decades. They'd lost both houses of Congress and the Presidency. There's a story about that moment that's been documented by a bunch of places, best by reporter Robert Draper.

On the night of Obama's inauguration, a bunch of Republicans go out for dinner at a fancy steakhouse, a place called The Caucus Room. It's a powerful bunch. You've got Paul Ryan, Kevin McCarthy, Eric Cantor, Bob Corker, Frank Luntz, Newt Gingrich, more than a dozen people. And as Obama is visiting inaugural balls, this group sets a strategy. They would oppose and attack every idea Obama had. "If he was for it, we had to be against it," is how one senator put it. One key to this whole thing was that they all had to commit to the same plan. Paul Ryan, then a young congressman from Wisconsin, told the group, "the only way we succeed is if we're united."

I think that story is amazing because it's exactly what they did. It's like staring at the source code for eight years of Republican politics. And you can trace the path of that strategy from that steakhouse, through their opposition to the stimulus and Obamacare and everything else, through Republicans retaking Congress and the White House.

If Democrats had a meeting like this, in a steakhouse or anywhere, they did not walk out with a strategy that everyone is now following, right? A year into the Trump presidency, sure, the Democrats were united against the president's tax cuts and his attempts to repeal Obamacare, but beyond that, they do not have a clear message or strategy. And one of the big reasons-- they just don't agree. They don't agree about who they are, or what the party should be, or what they should be saying.

And no one has the power to say, here's where we're going. In fact, when Democratic leadership sends out talking points, congressional staffers have told me they're taken more as suggestions and regularly ignored. Several Democrats told me they felt a little jealous of the discipline of the Republican messaging operation.

And the Democrats aren't even in agreement about what went wrong in 2016. In the early months of the Trump presidency, Democrats were still picking that apart, trying to figure out what went so badly and searching for anything-- anything-- that had gone well. One place it felt like they might find hope was with a small list of congressional districts, which a few staffers had started calling the Trump 12.

The Trump 12 were 12 congressional districts where Democratic congressional reps had won, even though Donald Trump had also won there. Most of them were in the Midwest and Pennsylvania, states that were pivotal for Trump. In hindsight, it seemed like Democrats who had held Trump back in those areas might have answers on how to reach white, working-class voters, rural white, working-class voters who'd abandoned the Democrats, which that's what led me to Cheri Bustos.

Cheri Bustos is one of the Trump 12. She represents a district that covers the northwest corner of Illinois. It's mostly rural, heavily white, home of John Deere. Caterpillar Manufacturing started there. Last fall, Trump won in Bustos' district. But Bustos also won reelection by a 20-point landslide.

In May, Politico wrote a profile with the headline "The Secret Weapon Democrats Don't Know How to Use." The article's question-- Cheri Bustos has lessons about how to win in Trump territory, but are Democrats listening? They were.

She was chosen to co-chair the policy and communications committee in the House, three members who lead strategy and messaging for congressional Democrats. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee created a new position for her-- Chairwoman of Heartland Engagement, which, as someone from Wisconsin, can I just say nobody in the Midwest walks around talking about the Heartland. Also, like Democrats need to send an ambassador to part of their own country? Whatever.

In late June, I went to see Bustos in Illinois to ask her about the party and what she thinks it should be doing.

Cheri Bustos

Gosh, what a great turnout.

Ben Calhoun

I caught up with Bustos at a union hall, one of these events she's been having called Build the Bench, where she tries to recruit and train people to run as Democrats, to create a farm team, something Democrats acknowledge they have not done a good job with lately.

Cheri Bustos

You're not going to say, will you please give me $20. If somebody's got a decent job, you're going to say, can you make $1,000 contribution?

Ben Calhoun

It's interesting to watch regular people encountering the less glamorous realities of running for office for the first time. It's kind of like they're seeing the back door to a restaurant. At one point, Bustos was talking to a woman who was thinking about running. The woman had shared a bio with Bustos. It explained she'd graduated top 10 in her college class.

Cheri Bustos

So a couple things. You've got a very good personal story. And it's great that you were 10th in your class, but people don't want to know that you're smart. And most people in our region are not college educated.

When I ran for city council, I had what my bio was, and I had where I went to college. And I literally had somebody say, what? Do you think you're better than we are? I'm like, what do you mean? He's like, well, so you went to college. You think that's a big deal? So find a way to connect with people, and that's going to be your dad was a factory worker. You're the granddaughter of a farmer. Talk about how you can meet people where they are.

Ben Calhoun

Meet voters where they are. This is Bustos' core philosophy, her vision for what the party should be doing. In person, Bustos looks like a former college athlete, which she is, talks like a former health care executive, which she is, and compulsively parents like a mother of three, which she is. She's the only person who's asked me as an adult if I need to go to the bathroom before getting in a car.

After a while, Bustos and I sat down away from everybody else.

Cheri Bustos

I don't think we, as Democrats, will fail if, number one, we start talking about jobs and the economy nonstop. That's, in my opinion as a Democrat, is what we need to do. The divisive issues that are out there-- I don't know why we would walk into a room and start with a divisive issue.

I don't go into a room and start my conversation by talking about the fact that I'm pro-choice, talking about guns, one way or another, because those are issues that tend to divide. But I do go into a room and I talk about my fight for good jobs, for better wages, better skills, and better jobs. That is what we are fighting for everyday as Democrats. So now, if somebody asked me my views on issues that are more divisive, I'll answer it honestly, and then I'll get back to talking about jobs and the economy.

Ben Calhoun

I spent a lot of hours with Cheri Bustos at this point. And if I had to write her strategy for the Democrats on a napkin, it'd go like this. Congressional districts are so gerrymandered-- so many are solidly Democrat or solidly Republican-- that there are very few real swing districts like hers. And Bustos says voters in those districts are moderate. If the national party moves too far to the left, you know, Black Lives Matter, or immigrants' rights, or universal health care, well yeah, it will fire up people in big blue cities and on the coasts. But Democrats already have those votes. In the districts they need, districts like hers, the ones they have to win, she says that will do you in. So as a practical matter, keeping it centrist and moderate, that's the path to win back Congress and the presidency.

And plenty of Democrats are with Bustos on that. The strategy isn't new. Targeting moderates and centrist voters, that's been the Democrats' playbook since Bill Clinton. But in 2018, it is remarkable, I think, not for what it is, but for what it leaves out. For starters, consider the most popular working politician in either party right now.

Crowd

Bernie! Bernie! Bernie! Bernie!

Ben Calhoun

Over the summer, following the defeat of the Republican repeal of Obamacare, Senator Bernie Sanders went on the offensive in a very non-Cheri Bustos way. He did a tour that was all about universal health care, progressive style, Sweden-worshipping, single-payer health care.

Bernie Sanders

If Canada can do it, if Europe can do it, if Scandinavia can do it, we can do it in the United States. Health care is a right, not a privilege.

Ben Calhoun

Sanders repeatedly drew crowds in the thousands in Democratic areas, but also deep red ones. Meanwhile, leftist activism surged in the wake of the Women's March from groups like Indivisible and Swing Left, to the whole assortment of Black Lives Matter groups, to protesters at airports all across the country.

Bernie Sanders

It is my honor to introduce to you the Congressman from Minnesota, Congressman Keith Ellison.

Ben Calhoun

When I started following Cheri Bustos around, I also started following Keith Ellison. Ellison's a congressman from Minnesota. He's black, the first Muslim elected to Congress. He used to chair the Progressive Caucus in the House. He ran and lost for DNC chair, but he took the number two job running the DNC-- deputy chair. This was Ellison talking to the Democratic Party of Vermont last year.

Keith Ellison

The Republican Party is the party that wants to ban the Muslims and wall the Mexicans. It wants to keep transgender people from going to the bathroom. The Republican Party under Trump and Trumpism is the party that says that liberty and justice for all, except Muslims, Mexicans, you know, fill in the blank, right? The Democratic Party has to be the sharp edge, the pointy edge of saying liberty and justice for all. We don't care, man. These are our people, and we embrace them.

Ben Calhoun

That night, Ellison talked about transgender rights, gay rights, undocumented immigrants, Muslims, sexual harassment, pay inequity, single-payer health care. And he specifically talked about the issue of race, how he felt that it was being used to divide the country. He talked about Charlottesville, about the President and Republicans condoning racism. Rather than trying to avoid an issue like race because it was hot, he gave a speech that drove right at it for that very reason.

Keith Ellison

We have got to be that vanguard. We have got to be that righteous group of people who never stop fighting for equality, who believe that the best of our country is yet to come, and that genius is not tied up in any ethnic group, but is in all ethnic groups. This is what we have to stand for.

Ben Calhoun

If I were to try to summarize Keith Ellison's argument for the party on a napkin, it might go like this. We are in an extreme moment. Wealth in America hasn't been so unequally skewed since the 1920s. And people feel stuck and ground down, and they're mad. And so they don't want the usual political talk. They want people who recognize how messed up things are and who are riled up too, and who won't shy away from conflict, who are going to propose things that are aggressive and bold.

Keith Ellison

You're hearing one group of Democrats say, we need bold ideas that are going to solve your problem. And you hear another say, well, uh, we don't need so much bold ideas. We just need to, you know, just keep it real, tame. And we don't want to offend anybody. We don't want to upset the Republicans.

You're going to be confronted with a choice. And you're going to say, I think one of the two groups is right. I think people are going to say that the bold ideas people are right. And most Democrats are going to understand that just incremental, tepid solutions to the deep, serious problems people are facing, it's just not going to be adequate.

Ben Calhoun

Progressives like Ellison question the conventional wisdom Democratic strategy of taking blue states for granted, and writing off red states as lost causes, and fighting only for swing districts and swing voters, he says it's hard to build a national party when you leave most people feeling ignored. Ellison calls all of that a minimalist strategy designed to fail. Like other progressives, he points to Hillary Clinton. That was her strategy.

In an op ed in The New York Times in June, Bernie Sanders reviewed where that strategy has gotten Democrats-- to their lowest point in decades. He wrote, "If these results are not a clear manifestation of a failed political strategy, I don't know what is." Like Ellison, Sanders says Democrats need a strategy that seizes on what's got people worked up and excites them. And that, they say, is how Democrats can rebuild, drive votes, and make a comeback.

So you had these very conflicting views of what the party needed. And eight months after Donald Trump was elected, there was such an absence of an official Democratic message, or strategy, or plan that people started to measure the empty space where one might have been. In July, The Washington Post and ABC News released this poll. It said 52% of Americans felt the only message Democrats had was that they were against Trump. Then finally, Democratic Party leaders stood on the bow of the boat and they pointed in a direction. It felt kind of like, all right, I know you're waiting. OK, OK.

Chuck Schumer

OK. So good afternoon, Berryville.

Ben Calhoun

On July 24, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, along with four more senators and four more congressmen, left Washington DC. They drove for an hour out into the country to this small town called Berryville in rural Virginia. Schumer kicked things off. This is how he explained what they were there to do.

Chuck Schumer

Too many Americans don't know what we stand for. Not after today. Now, we know that now we're in the minority in both houses of Congress. We can't delude anyone that this Congress will begin passing our priorities tomorrow. But we have to start presenting our vision for the country's future. This is the start of a new version for the party.

Ben Calhoun

So what they proceeded to lay out, the bold, new version of the Democratic Party was a bunch of things you've heard Democrats talk about before. Here were the parts of the plan-- lowering prescription drug costs, infrastructure, job training, anti-trust legislation, raising wages. It was a long list.

Just the materials explaining it, 10 pages, single-spaced-- it was a lot of ideas, but definitely nothing too edgy or provocative. In that way, it weirdly felt like a message determined by subtraction. It was like a dish cooked up by taking politically-charged ingredients off the table, one by one, until no one would find it too salty or too spicy or too anything.

What was surprising was how underwhelming the presentation was-- inoffensive, and yet sometimes tone-deaf. You had all the men, folksy in their rolled-up shirtsleeves, and then Schumer telling a story in the middle of rural Virginia about the Yankees.

Chuck Schumer

Now, last month, I went to a Yankees game.

Crowd

[LAUGHING AND GROANING]

Ben Calhoun

Just respectful note to the senator. America hates the Yankees. Nancy Pelosi kept the salt of the Earth term going when she came up next and she namechecked the San Francisco Giants.

The speeches had bright spots, but they were largely standard issue, pastel platitudes, a lot of talk about hardworking families left behind and training workers for 21st century economy. There were only about 100 people. This was in a park that could hold thousands. They dutifully clapped when they were supposed to. The Dems called their policy package "A Better Deal." It was a reference to FDR's New Deal, and it came with a slogan that people rattled off in their speeches.

Hakeem Jeffries

Better jobs, better wages, and a better future.

Nancy Pelosi

Better jobs, better wages, a better future.

Mark Warner

Better jobs, better wages, and a better future.

Ben Calhoun

The slogan, very similar to Papa John's "Better ingredients, better pizza," was mocked almost instantly. Trolling Republican protesters held up pizza boxes that said "Better jobs, better wages, still Pelosi."

Cheri Bustos was there that day. Bustos was actually one of the architects of the Better Deal. When I asked her more about how the whole plan came together, she said it was a six-month process. It involved 180 members of Congress and all of the caucuses, like progressives, new Dems, Blue Dogs, Black Caucus, Hispanic Caucus. But despite all of that inclusion, the thing that she described, it did in fact sound like subtraction. She said health care, reproductive rights, civil rights, all of those things came up, but moderate Democrats resisted those things. This is the agenda, Bustos said. This is what we're going to be talking about from now until the midterm elections.

The next day, I tracked down Keith Ellison in Washington DC. I found him in the tunnels underneath the Capitol on his way to go vote.

Keith Ellison

Benjamin. What's up, my brother?

Ben Calhoun

Can I ask you some things on the run here?

Keith Ellison

Please, please.

Ben Calhoun

The first thing I wanted to ask-- as the highest-ranking progressive in the party's power structure, honestly, I was just curious why he hadn't been at the Better Deal rollout. The stage had so many party leaders-- moderates, progressives from the Senate, the House, people in party leadership.

Ben Calhoun

So I went, and there was part of me that was expecting you to be there.

Keith Ellison

Where?

Ben Calhoun

The Better Deal rollout.

Keith Ellison

Yeah. Well, not everybody can do everything all the time. So no, I wasn't there, but it's all right. So yeah. So--

Ben Calhoun

At this point, Ellison shot me a look. He looked over his glasses, and he raised his eyebrows, pursed his mouth, like, I know you're asking me a reasonable question, and on a stage filled with party leaders, especially one with only one black member of Congress, I'm the number two guy at the DNC. It would be totally reasonable for you to think that I might be there. But do you see me not talking to you? It made me laugh.

Ben Calhoun

Um--

Keith Ellison

I don't know what else to say.

Ben Calhoun

[LAUGHING] What's that look?

Keith Ellison

Next question.

Ben Calhoun

All right.

I asked Ellison what he thought of the Better Deal stuff. He was polite, said he thought it was a good step. Maybe it didn't satisfy everyone, but it was a start. That day, I saw a labor activist tweet that there wasn't anything to help organized labor in the Better Deal. Keith tweeted back, "Don't stress out about what's not in there. Help us promote what is."

I later found out Ellison hadn't been invited to the stage in Virginia. And he wasn't the only one. A staffer of a progressive Democrat pointed to another person who was missing-- Bernie Sanders. He laid out this imaginary alternative version of that day, if they'd had Sanders speak.

He said, how many people were in Virginia? 100? He said, imagine a real crowd, a Sanders-sized crowd. If they put even more Democrats on the stage, lots of them, and they said, we are here to F'ing fight for you, it would have felt different. I asked him why he thought Sanders hadn't been there. Well, they don't like him, he said. They don't get along with him. They don't like that he won't call himself a Democrat.

Eventually, I put that question to Sanders' director of communications, who said, no, Sanders had not been invited. When I asked him why, he said, quote, "I would love to know the answer to that question."

Crowd

Bernie! Bernie! Bernie!

Ben Calhoun

In August, I traveled with Senator Bernie Sanders on this tour he did. There were three events, all to build support for universal health care, which he was pushing under the label, "Medicare for All."

This sound is from the first rally in Indianapolis, maybe 1,500 people in downtown Indy, on the steps of this huge Civil War monument. The big crowd gathered as rain clouds got darker overhead. And then moments after it started to rain, Sanders came into view, and it sounded like this.

[BANJO PLAYING]

Crowd

[LOUD CHEERING]

Ben Calhoun

There were four straight minutes of screaming. On every stop, Sanders pitches universal health care, but he also talks a lot about all kinds of issues-- race, poverty, immigration, voter suppression. And when he talks about the economy, it's not bland. In fact, he seems like he's having a really hard time not getting mad. His tone is all, these things are epically messed up, and most Americans are getting screwed. And I'm so upset about it, in fact, that my default way of speaking is what most people consider shouting.

Bernie Sanders

The American people know that the economy is rigged. They are working longer hours. And the rich get richer while the poor get poorer. They know that. And when we stand together, black and white and Latino, when we sat together with the Native American people and the Asian-Americans, and gay, and straight, and men, and women, when we stand together, when we have the guts to take on the billionaire class, when we have a vision for a new America, nothing, nothing will stop us. Thank you all, very much.

Ben Calhoun

After Indianapolis, it was onto Portsmouth, Ohio, a town of 20,000 where Sanders drew a crowd of over 1,000, in the middle of the workday, in a county that Donald Trump won by 37%. Last stop, Detroit, a crowd of around 2,000 in a megachurch, with a spillover crowd in an annex. One moment stuck out. It was near the end.

Bernie Sanders

Do not let anybody try to convince you that the views that you've heard here tonight and your views, that we are somehow a small minority. We are not. What the media does not talk about-- yes, there are divisions in this country on a number of issues. I won't deny that. But on major issue after major issue, on every issue that we have talked about, the American people are on our side.

Ben Calhoun

The polls back this up. Like, there are polls showing that most Americans do favor universal health care. Most Americans-- get ready for this one, this number comes from a Fox News poll of all places. 83% of Americans support a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. And 76% of Americans say rich people should pay more in taxes.

Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi, and the DNC are supposedly in charge of the party, but it's Sanders who has the profile and the power base to determine what Democrats in the country are talking about. This trip was evidence of just how true that is.

Over the summer, I talked to moderate Democrats in Congress who thought Sanders was going to push single-payer health. They were dreading it. They worried they'd be pressured to support it, that it would become part of the Democrats' brand, part of what the party's about. And if it did, they'd get hammered back in their districts, which are more conservative. Cheri Bustos called it self-sabotage. We don't need any self-sabotage, she told me.

But leaning on Democrats to embrace single-payer was precisely Sanders' goal. According to Sanders' director of communications, Sanders wanted to get Democratic senators to publicly support single-payer, including potential presidential candidates for 2020, because that way, he said, single-payer would become something that other candidates would feel pressured to support.

And over the summer, one by one, Democratic senators signed on, way more than they expected. They were hoping for five or six, but they got 10, then 15, eventually, a third of all Democratic senators. The list included potential presidential candidates like Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, and Kirsten Gillibrand.

At Sanders' final stop in Detroit, the Congressman hosting the event had put out the Democratic Party's Better Deal materials. They were laid out right next to the front door, as people streamed in. There were these huge, conspicuous piles. But over several hours, I didn't see anyone pick them up. As the crowd filtered out, I circled back. From what I could see, they hadn't been touched.

A few days later, I got to see Cheri Bustos pitching the Better Deal to a newspaper editorial board in her home state. Bustos laid out the whole thing, the Better Deal, how it was created, all the involvement from congressional Democrats, all the different parts of it.

Cheri Bustos

We want to be in a position to help create 10 million good-paying, full-time jobs. There are still people hurting, and I think we need to acknowledge that and say that we want to do something about that.

Chuck Sweeney

Right. Well, Donald Trump says that, too.

Ben Calhoun

It's hard to hear. The newspaper's political reporter, this guy named Chuck Sweeney, is saying, "Right. Well, Donald Trump says that too."

Chuck Sweeney

Donald Trump says that too. He says exactly the same thing. Too many people are still out of work. You know, we need to do something about bringing back jobs.

Cheri Bustos

And that's why we talk about full-time, good-paying jobs.

Chuck Sweeney

Right. But--

Cheri Bustos

Well, I think there are people hurting.

Chuck Sweeney

I don't know anybody that doesn't talk about that, so--

Cheri Bustos

Yeah. Yeah.

Ben Calhoun

Remember, the whole point of the Better Deal was to explain what Democrats stand for, to define Democrats in terms that would resonate in places exactly like this one. Bustos forged ahead. Eventually, she started talking about how she's pro-business, one of the things that makes her moderate. She told the editorial board she thought it would be a good idea to lower the corporate tax rate. This was months before Donald Trump's corporate tax cut.

Chuck Sweeney

So Democrats do support reducing corporate tax rates?

Cheri Bustos

Yeah, it's got bipartisan support, this--

Chuck Sweeney

What should the rate be?

Cheri Bustos

You know, I don't know. I don't know what it should be, but ours is one of the highest in the world.

Chuck Sweeney

Right.

Cheri Bustos

And so as long as it's highest in the world, we're not going to have corporations who are going to bring that money home. So there's got to be some incentive.

Chuck Sweeney

OK. I didn't-- see, I think, once again, I have no idea what the Democratic Party actually stands for anymore. I didn't during the 2016 campaign, either, which is probably why it wasn't the winning campaign.

Ben Calhoun

A couple top Democrats told me things usually get messy after a party loses the presidency. The thing is, our national parties are chaotic. When a party loses the presidency, it's like you take the sun out of the solar system. Everyone wants to go in their own direction until a new, definitive leader for the party emerges. Even with their steakhouse meeting, the Republicans had their own kind of chaos during the Obama years, with the Tea Party and moderates getting primaried out of office.

For the Democrats, in the meantime, the party is torn. It's putting money into both of these strategies at the same time. Cheri Bustos just released a report called "Hope From the Heartland." It's kind of a blueprint for Democrats to turn things around in the Midwest. Keith Ellison got the party to invest a chunk of its limited funds in grassroots organizing-- not in targeted swing districts, but across all 50 states, states as red as Wyoming and as blue as Vermont.

I called them both last week to ask if the Democrats' victories this fall in Alabama, in Virginia, in New Jersey, if that shed any light on which path the party should take going into the midterms. Cheri told me they clearly demonstrated that she was right about the party's direction. Keith, no surprise, said they proved his vision of the future is correct. I'm more convinced than ever, he said. More convinced than ever.

Ira Glass

Ben Calhoun is one of the producers of our program.

MUSIC - "HARDER THAN IT LOOKS" BY SULO]

Credits

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Robyn Semien. The people who put our show together include Elna Baker, Elise Bergerson, Ben Calhoun, Whitney Dangerfield, Stephanie Foo, Michelle Harris, Seth Lind, Miki Meek, Alvin Melathe, Jonathan Menjivar, Alissa Shipp, Christopher Swetala, Matt Tierney, and Julie Whitaker. Our senior producer is Brian Reed. Our managing editor is Susan Burton.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

This is the last week at our show for Jonathan Menjivar, who you heard in Act One. He's been here for seven years. He's added funny, smart, elegant writing to all of our stories, including mine. He was in charge of music for the show. We'll miss him. We wish him the best at his new job, at a podcast company called Pineapple Street Media.

Our website, thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks, as always, to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia. You know, I think we're going to have to stop going to eat in Little Italy. He is just so embarrassing whenever the server comes around.

Julia Preston

Me hablo mucho Italiano. Entiendo un poquito Español.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.