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Sanders needs to light a fire now. The question is whether he can control the blaze.



DES MOINES, Iowa — Sen. Bernie Sanders has stepped up an undeclared war on his top rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination — and left himself open to counterattack — because it’s do-or-die time for him.

Sanders, I-Vt., and his supporters are tangling with former Vice President Joe Biden over foreign policy, trade and race and with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., over policy purity, elitism and whether he said a woman can’t win the presidency. The skirmishes rile up his own base at the expense of alienating other Democrats.

While that’s a strategy that makes more sense here and in other early primary states, where a relatively small but committed army of supporters can deliver victory, it risks a severe backlash now or over the long run.

Yet Sanders’ best shot starts with his taking the Feb. 3 caucuses here, following up with wins in New Hampshire and Nevada and riding a wave to a majority of delegates before the party’s convention in Milwaukee in the summer.

That is, he needs to light a fire now. The question is whether he can control the blaze.

“It becomes more and more likely that he is going to be the nominee [if he wins the first three states], and I think that you’ll see that energy carried into other states,” said Nomiki Konst, who was a surrogate for Sanders during his 2016 bid for the nomination and served on the Unity Reform Commission, which rewrote party rules for this election.

“It really does come down to these early states,” said Konst, who supports Sanders but considers herself friendly toward Warren. “If one candidate locks down the first early three states, they will most likely have the number of delegates to take the nomination based on momentum.”

She added that she doesn’t believe Sanders is on offense as much as other Democratic candidates are, “especially behind the scenes.”

President Donald Trump seems to sense the moment for Sanders, who has seen a recent bump in polling: He has increasingly aimed attacks at Sanders, which could make Sanders look more viable to Democrats.

For Sanders, the basic challenge is mathematical. He is reviled by much of a Democratic Party that he has held at arm’s length for most of his career. That means he can’t count on forming a coalition to win the nomination if he comes up short of a majority of convention delegates — especially if he turns off Democrats who have warmed to him since his 2016 primary defeat. He has little choice but to go for a shock-and-awe campaign that overwhelms his opponents, and that starts with a fast launch in Iowa.

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But that means Sanders’ best tactic to energize and mobilize his base now could cost him more down the road.

Josh Putnam, a political scientist who runs the political blog Frontloading HQ, which tracks party nominating rules, said Sanders’ strategy could deliver a knockout blow in February.

“Now, should that knockout not come, then yes, it would not exactly be helpful to him long term if he entered a contested convention with only a plurality of delegates,” Putnam said. “It would make making a deal with another candidate or candidates in the lead-up to the convention and their delegates at the convention much more difficult.”

In the past few weeks, Sanders and his allies have hammered his leading rivals for being too soft in their criticism of Trump’s decision to kill Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, placed an op-ed in a South Carolina newspaper accusing Biden of having “repeatedly betrayed black voters” and portrayed Warren as a closet elitist, a false prophet for the progressive movement and a liar.

But it’s hard to live in a glass house three weeks from the first votes of 2020.

Warren said Monday that Sanders told her 13 months ago that a woman couldn’t win the presidency — a story that could help peel away women who back him and create sympathy for her among 2016 voters for Hillary Clinton who believe Sanders didn’t do enough to persuade his backers to stop Trump.

“Bernie and I met for more than two hours in December 2018 to discuss the 2020 election, our past work together and our shared goals,” Warren said in a statement. “Among the topics that came up was what would happen if Democrats nominated a female candidate. I thought a woman could win; he disagreed.”

Hours earlier, Sanders had accused Warren’s aides of lying when CNN first reported that associates of hers had related the story.

“It is ludicrous to believe that at the same meeting where Elizabeth Warren told me she was going to run for president, I would tell her that a woman couldn’t win,” Sanders said in a statement. “It’s sad that, three weeks before the Iowa caucus and a year after that private conversation, staff who weren’t in the room are lying about what happened. What I did say that night was that Donald Trump is a sexist, a racist and a liar who would weaponize whatever he could. Do I believe a woman can win in 2020? Of course! After all, Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump by 3 million votes in 2016.”

Before that, the two campaigns tussled over a Politico report about a script, which Sanders’ team later disowned, that portrayed Warren as an elitist, as well as the insistence of Sanders’ supporters that Warren had abandoned progressive values on “Medicare for All” and other policy matters.

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That isn’t the only Sanders claim of purity to draw scrutiny.

For years, establishment Democrats have raised their eyebrows at Sanders’ self-description as an unstinting opponent of “endless wars.”

It’s true that Sanders was a leader among Democrats opposed to the 2002 resolution that authorized President George W. Bush to invade Iraq, and his record on foreign policy — which includes engagement on Latin American politics as mayor of Burlington, Vermont, in the 1980s — is on the left edge of the political spectrum.

But in 2016 and again in this campaign, his criticism of the wars has been so vociferous that he at times has seemed to suggest that he didn’t favor the Afghanistan mission in the first place. In a debate in September, he said the United States should “do everything that we can to rid the world of terrorism, but dropping bombs on Afghanistan and Iraq was not the way to do it.”

Sanders voted for the resolution that authorized the war in Afghanistan, which remains far more open-ended than the Iraq resolution. In a subsequent debate, he said he was “wrong” to have voted for the resolution that authorized the Afghanistan war but has given no quarter to Biden on the Iraq War vote, which Biden has called a mistake.

He also voted repeatedly for a U.S. policy of regime change in Iraq, including when he backed the Iraq Liberation Act in October 1998 and again when President Bill Clinton launched airstrikes a few months later, as pointed to by a Democrat familiar with Sanders’ record.

“Saddam Hussein is a brutal dictator who should be overthrown, and his ability to make weapons of destruction must be eliminated,” Sanders said on the House floor, even as he expressed reservations about civilian casualties and the efficacy of the brief military campaign.

While Sanders’ more mixed record on war and peace hasn’t yet become an issue, it is something that his critics have long talked about that could bubble up at any time — especially now that he’s raised the temperature on the trail.

Matt Paul, who ran Clinton’s Iowa caucuses operation in 2016, said candidates’ mixing it up more — which would include a more visibly combative Sanders — is predictable.

“Twenty days out. It’s close,” he said. “No surprise here.”


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Citizens United critics fail to understand a political reality




Ten years ago this week, a bogeyman was born. Its name is Citizens United, the Supreme Court ruling that struck down limits on independent corporate political spending and, liberal Cassandras say, ushered in a dystopian era in which big-money interests got official permission to buy democracy.

Quick history lesson: Citizens United was a nonprofit that, during the 2008 Democratic primaries, sought to air a 90-minute ideological documentary deeply critical of Hillary Clinton to Americans’ homes via pay-per-view. The Federal Election Commission barred its broadcast under rules enforcing the McCain-Feingold Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act.

The Supreme Court faced a question: How could such a ban stand in a nation whose Constitution has a First Amendment forbidding government limitations on speech, and in which political speech is deemed the most privileged and protected form of expression?

How could it be that, in an act of expression no one would ever contemplate abridging, a for-profit corporation could in the thick of the 2004 presidential election release into theaters and advertise on television “Fahrenheit 9/11,” a strident anti-George W. Bush documentary, but the release of “Hillary: The Movie,” a photo-negative film, could four years later be criminalized?

And how could it be, as Theodore Olson argued before the court, that “it is a felony for a small, nonprofit corporation to offer interested viewers a 90-minute political documentary about a candidate for the nation’s highest office, that General Electric,” then owner of NBC, “National Public Radio, or George Soros may freely broadcast”? He could’ve added Fox News to the litany.

And how could it possibly be that government could never stop a publication owned by a billionaire or a corporation, like the one you’re currently reading, from putting online and printing a 7,500-word, 14-chapter editorial urging readers to “Bury Trump in a landslide,” but it could prohibit other corporate entities from similarly speaking?

Those who worry about dark money corrupting elections are more than justified in arguing for stronger disclosure rules, changes that must happen at the FEC and IRS and which require congressional action, but arbitrary distinctions barring some political speech could never, can never, hold in a free society.

Democrats can rail all they like about the evils of independent political speech by individuals, groups of individuals or corporations. What they cannot do is use the power of government to silence it.


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Jim Lehrer, longtime PBS anchor and journalist, dead at 85




Jim Lehrer, co-host and later host of the nightly PBS NewsHour that for decades offered a thoughtful take on current events, has died, PBS said Thursday. He was 85.

Lehrer died “peacefully in his sleep,” according to PBS. He had suffered a heart attack in 1983, and more recently had undergone heart valve surgery in April 2008.

For Lehrer, and for his friend and longtime partner Robert MacNeil, broadcast journalism was a service, with public understanding of events and issues its primary goal. Lehrer was also a frequent moderator of presidential debates.

“We both believed the American people were not as stupid as some of the folks publishing and programming for them believed,” Lehrer wrote in his 1992 memoir, A Bus of My Own.

“We were convinced they cared about the significant matters of human events. … And we were certain they could and would hang in there for more than 35 seconds for information about those subjects if given a chance.”

Tributes poured in from colleagues and watchers alike, including from Fox News’ Bret Baier, who called Lehrer “an inspiration to a whole generation of political journalists — including this one.” Dan Rather said “few approached their work with more equanimity and integrity than Jim Lehrer.” And Jake Tapper of CNN called Lehrer “a wonderful man and a superb journalist.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called him a “champion for truth and transparency.”

The half-hour Robert MacNeil Report began on PBS in 1975 with Lehrer as Washington correspondent. The two had already made names for themselves at the then-fledgling network through their work with the National Public Affairs Center for Television and its coverage of the Watergate hearings in 1973.

The nightly news broadcast, later retitled MacNeil-Lehrer Report, became the nation’s first one-hour TV news broadcast in 1983 and was then known as MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour. After MacNeil bowed out in 1995, it became The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.

This 1973 image released by PBS shows co-anchors Jim Lehrer, left, and Robert MacNeil reporting on the Watergate hearings. PBS announced Thursday that Lehrer died at home. He was 85. (PBS via AP) (PBS/Associated Press)

“I’m heartbroken at the loss of someone who was central to my professional life, a mentor to me and someone whose friendship I’ve cherished for decades,” Judy Woodruff, anchor and managing editor of PBS NewsHour, said in a statement.

Moderator of presidential debates

Politics, international relations, economics, science, even developments in the arts were all given lengthy, detailed coverage in their show.

“When we expanded to the hour, it changed from being a supplement to an alternative,” Lehrer said in 1990.

“Now we take the position that if you’re looking for a place to go every 24 hours and find out what’s happened and get some in-depth treatment, we’re the place.”

Lehrer moderated his first presidential debate in 1988 and was a frequent consensus choice for the task in subsequent presidential contests.

Lehrer was a frequent moderator of presidential debates, with about a dozen under his belt. (Chip Somodevilla/The Associated Press)

“Anybody who would say it’s just another TV show is a liar or a fool,” he once said. “I know how important it is, but it’s not about me. It’s what the candidates say that matters.”

He also anchored PBS coverage of inaugurations and conventions, dismissing criticism from other TV news organizations that the latter had become too scripted to yield much in the way of real news.

“I think when the major political parties of this country gather together their people and resources in one place to nominate their candidates, that’s important,” he told The Associated Press in 2000.

“To me, it’s a non-argument. I don’t see why someone would argue that it wasn’t important.”

Naturally, Lehrer came in for some knocks for being so low-key in the big televised events. After a matchup between George W. Bush and Al Gore in 2000, David Letterman cracked, “Last night was probably the first and only that time Jim Lehrer [was] the most exciting person in the room.”

‘I’ve got all these stories stored up’

But the real-life Lehrer — who had a tradition of buying a new tie for good luck before each debate — was more colourful than he might have seemed on PBS.

On the side, he was also a novelist and sometime playwright. His debut novel Viva Max! was made into a movie starring Peter Ustinov. He did a whole series of novels about the adventures of an Oklahoma politician known as The One-Eyed Mack.

“Hemingway said this, too: If you paid attention as a reporter, then when the time came to write fiction you’d have something to write about,” Lehrer told The Associated Press in 1991.

“And it turned out I did. And I’ve got all these stories stored up after 30 years in the news business. And they’re just flowing out of me.”

As Lehrer turned 75 in spring 2009, PBS announced that the show would be retitled as PBS NewsHour later in the year, with Lehrer pairing up on anchor duties with other show regulars.

He said he approved of the changes, telling The New York Times that having a pair of anchors would “shake things up a bit,” even as all sectors of the news business struggled to meet changing reader and viewer demands.

Lehrer was born in Wichita, Kansas, in 1934, the son of parents who ran a bus line. In addition to titling his memoir A Bus of My Own, he collected bus memorabilia — from station signs to a real 1946 Flxible Clipper bus.

After graduation from college in 1956, he served three years in the Marines, later calling the experience so valuable that he thought all young people should take part in national service.

“I had no close calls, no rendezvous with danger, no skirted destinies with death,” he wrote.

“What I had was a chance to discover and test myself, physically and emotionally and spiritually, in important, lasting ways.”

He went to work from 1959 to 1970 at The Dallas Morning News and the now-defunct Dallas Times-Herald. Lehrer jumped to television for a Dallas nightly newscast.

Lehrer wrote that it was ironic that the Watergate hearings helped establish the importance of public TV, since former U.S. president Richard Nixon hated public broadcasting. He also recalled that the lengthy hearings gave him the chance to practice his new craft, and MacNeil, already a veteran, gave him valuable pointers on how to speak on camera clearly and conversationally.

He is survived by his wife, Kate; three daughters: Jamie, Lucy, and Amanda; and six grandchildren.

Lehrer stands on stage ahead of a 2012 presidential debate in Denver for which he served as moderator. (AFP via Getty Images)


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23andMe lays off 100 people, CEO Anne Wojcicki explains why




23andMe Co-Founder and CEO Anne Wojcicki speaks onstage during TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2017 at Pier 48 on September 19, 2017 in San Francisco, California.

Steve Jennings

Home DNA-testing company 23andMe is laying off about 100 people, or 14% of its staff, on Thursday, in the wake of declining sales.

The layoffs primarily cover the operations teams, which were focused on the company’s growth and scaling efforts. In the coming months, the company plans to tighten its focus on the direct-to-consumer business and its therapeutics arm while scaling back its clinical studies arm.

CEO Anne Wojcicki told CNBC she’s been “surprised” to see the market starting to turn.

Wojcicki has theories, but she doesn’t have clear proof for why consumers are shying away from getting tests that reveal their percentage of Irish heritage, propensity for a favorite ice cream flavor, or whether they have a limited set of variants that are associated with breast cancer. Either way, she notes, she’s downsizing because it’s “what the market is ready for.”

“This has been slow and painful for us,” she said.

Wojcicki notes that privacy could be a factor. Fears about people’s DNA ending up in the wrong hands might have been heightened in the aftermath of the Golden State Killer case. Criminal investigations honed in on a suspect involved in a decades-old rapes and murders by running DNA found at the scene through a free online database where anyone who got their DNA tested through a company like 23andMe could upload it. A suspect was found because a distant relative had shared their genetic information — showing how DNA data, unlike other kinds of data, is unique because it’s linked to and potentially exposes information about family members.

She acknowledges that “privacy is top of mind” both for consumers and her executive team. She said the company hired a new chief security officer, who previously ran security at Okta, earlier this week.

“I think the tech world needs to own this better communicate privacy standards to build trust,” she said. “I want to jump in and really own it.”

Wojcicki said another factor could be that people fear an economic downturn, and they don’t want to spend a few hundred dollars on a genetic test. That might make it expensive for 23andMe to acquire customers via social media platforms like Facebook, if the early adopters have already bought tests and the next potential batch of users are reluctant to spend.

A slowdown in genetic testing

23andMe has seen its ups and downs over the years.

The company raised ample venture capital — $786 million, according to Crunchbase — and Wojcicki used that to fuel growth, including by hiring a team to acquire new customers for its tests, and to strike deals with both pharmaceutical companies like GlaxoSmithKline and academic research groups. But the FDA conducted a regulatory probe in 2013 after 23andMe marketed a health test directly to consumers. The company repaired its relationship with the FDA and resumed sales of both its ancestry and health tests in 2015.

What followed was a period of hyper-growth, which involved the company ballooning to 700 people. And it seemed to be working. Sales of DNA tests were growing — until they weren’t, which started sometime in 2019.

The first clear signs of a slowdown in the space came last summer when Francis deSouza, chief executive of Illumina, maker of DNA sequencing machines, noted in its earnings call that the entire segment was down. DeSouza didn’t share an explanation, but said his company is taking a “cautious view” of the market for ancestry and health tests. Illumina’s customers include Ancestry and 23andMe.

Other companies in the sector have also pivoted or struggled, including Veritas Genetics, which shuttered its U.S. operations late last year.

Meanwhile, Color Genomics raised capital in recent months after focusing on the enterprise market, which involves selling to companies, and not just consumers. Its has relationships with Jefferson Health, a major hospital chain, and Apple, among others.

Investors in 23andMe include Google parent-company Alphabet, where Wojcicki’s sister, Susan, is the CEO of YouTube, plus GlaxoSmithKline and Sequoia Capital, among others.

Correction: The layoffs affect 23andMe’s operations team, as well as other groups.


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