Democrats less sure about ‘go­ing high’ in midterms

Santa Fe New Mexican - - NATION&WORLD - By Matt Fle­gen­heimer

WASHINGTON — In 2016, Michelle Obama’s words be­came the Democrats’ defin­ing creed to counter Don­ald Trump’s bat­ter­ing ram of a pres­i­den­tial cam­paign: “When they go low, we go high.”

Two years later, the ap­peal of “high” seems low.

As much as any pol­icy ten­sions or mes­sag­ing de­bate within the party, this ques­tion of tone — of how to com­bat Trump ef­fec­tively with­out slip­ping into a pale im­i­ta­tion — is per­haps the cen­tral di­vide of this Demo­cratic mo­ment (and the next one, with the 2020 cam­paign loom­ing).

How will Democrats choose to re­vise Obama’s sen­tence, with Trump heav­ing in­sults from the White House and the rally stage — his pre-midterm bully pul­pit?

“When they go low, we kick them,” Eric Holder, the for­mer Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion at­tor­ney gen­eral and a pos­si­ble 2020 can­di­date, said this week.

“When they go low, I say hit back harder,” Michael Ave­natti, the ca­ble-ubiq­ui­tous lawyer flirt­ing with his own pres­i­den­tial run as a Trump-style brawler, told a crowd in Iowa over the sum­mer.

Few but Michelle Obama seemed in­clined to de­fend the orig­i­nal re­frain. “Fear is not a proper mo­ti­va­tor. Hope wins out,” Obama told NBC on Thurs­day.

But for many Democrats, it

does not seem to be win­ning out, at least for now.

It is one thing for Ave­natti, the tele­genic anti-Trump id, to seize this kind of rhetor­i­cal real es­tate. But in­creas­ingly, much of the Demo­cratic es­tab­lish­ment seems to be march­ing that way, too, chan­nel­ing the right­eous anger of the pro­gres­sive base.

Go­ing high, these Democrats say, got them mi­nor­ity sta­tus across the fed­eral gov­ern­ment. Go­ing high got them a pres­i­dent ac­cused of sex­ual as­sault, in­stalling a Supreme Court jus­tice ac­cused of sex­ual as­sault (both deny it).

“You can­not be civil with

a po­lit­i­cal party that wants to de­stroy what you stand for,” Hil­lary Clin­ton told CNN this week. “If we are for­tu­nate enough to win back the House and/or the Se­nate, that’s when ci­vil­ity can start again. But un­til then, the only thing that the Repub­li­cans seem to rec­og­nize and re­spect is strength.”

Clin­ton seems un­likely to rec­om­mend her 2016 cam­paign slo­gan, “Stronger To­gether,” to the next gen­er­a­tion. Yet if she failed to re­flect the na­tional mood dur­ing her last run, Democrats had spent years be­fore that strain­ing to project in­dig­na­tion in the right pro­por­tions.

For­mer Pres­i­dent Barack Obama could seem re­moved, ever mind­ful of the mine­fields un­der­foot for a black politi­cian emit­ting fury.

Clin­ton, be­fore her 2016 turn as a stateswoman and grand­mother, staked her 2008 bid on evinc­ing a tough­ness that could match any man’s.

For­mer Vice Pres­i­dent Joe Bi­den has held him­self out as a Demo­cratic rar­ity: un­will­ing to give up on the white work­ing­class vot­ers who lifted Trump, but un­afraid to go nose to nose with their pres­i­dent.

The re­sult: down-home paeans to a well-placed whup­ping.

“If we were in high school,” Bi­den said ear­lier this year, “I’d take him be­hind the gym and beat the hell out of him.”

While the wis­dom of such con­fronta­tion in a na­tional race re­mains untested, this year’s Demo­cratic pri­mary sea­son demon­strated that many vot­ers are pre­pared to re­ward more in­sur­gent en­ergy in the party. Up­sets from move­ment-minded pro­gres­sives like Ayanna Press­ley in Mass­a­chu­setts and Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez in New York were pow­ered, in large mea­sure, by im­pa­tience with in­cum­bents who lacked what Press­ley called “ac­tivist lead­er­ship,” even if they gen­er­ally voted as lib­er­als wanted.

At the same time, many Democrats have cau­tioned against em­brac­ing anger as an or­ga­niz­ing prin­ci­ple, sug­gest­ing that har­ness­ing dis­dain for Trump is work­able only if vot­ers also broadly un­der­stand what the party stands for.

“Rage is good. Rage fu­els peo­ple to step up and pay at­ten­tion,” said Amanda Lit­man, a for­mer cam­paign aide to Clin­ton who now over­sees Run for Some­thing, a group ded­i­cated to re­cruit­ing first-time can­di­dates. “That be­ing said, it isn’t nec­es­sar­ily sus­tain­able. It’s hard to be an­gry for two years.”

She re­con­sid­ered af­ter a mo­ment. “Or at least it’s hard to be pro­duc­tively an­gry,” Lit­man said. “I’ve been an­gry for two years.”

Democrats also risk play­ing into the hands of Trump and his fel­low Repub­li­cans, who have taken to de­scrib­ing their op­po­nents as a men­ac­ing and un­ruly “mob” — a cor­ner­stone of their clos­ing mes­sage be­fore the Novem­ber elec­tions, par­tic­u­larly af­ter protests over Jus­tice Brett Ka­vanaugh’s con­fir­ma­tion. Repub­li­cans have dwelled less on Trump’s own ag­gres­sive lan­guage through the years, in­clud­ing when he en­cour­aged phys­i­cal re­sponses to pro­test­ers at his ral­lies and sug­gested that “Sec­ond Amend­ment peo­ple” could stop Clin­ton.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the ma­jor­ity leader, quoted both Clin­ton and Holder from the Se­nate floor Thurs­day, adding, “We will not let mob be­hav­ior drown out all the Amer­i­cans who want to le­git­i­mately par­tic­i­pate in the pol­i­cy­mak­ing process.”

Later Thurs­day, Holder tweeted a clar­i­fi­ca­tion that many Democrats did not think was nec­es­sary: He was not lit­er­ally telling sup­port­ers to kick Repub­li­cans, as his full re­marks made clear.

For other prospec­tive 2020 chal­lengers, the last few months have been a field test of sorts for how to nav­i­gate the new world.

Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey has bal­anced a “lead with love” play­book for en­gag­ing po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents with a force­ful, front-fac­ing role on the Se­nate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee dur­ing the Ka­vanaugh con­fir­ma­tion, when Democrats sought to sink his nom­i­na­tion.

Sen. El­iz­a­beth War­ren of Mass­a­chu­setts — among the most as­sertive Democrats in re­spond­ing to Trump on his fa­vored so­cial medium — specks her speeches with the word “fight” so of­ten that it can feel like sub­lim­i­nal mes­sag­ing. The ti­tle of her book last year: This Fight Is Our Fight.

Dur­ing the midterms, can­di­date zeal has of­ten been dic­tated largely by ZIP code.

“It de­pends on where Repub­li­cans are go­ing low,” said Steve Is­rael, a for­mer New York con­gress­man and chair­man of the Demo­cratic Con­gres­sional Cam­paign Com­mit­tee. “If they’re go­ing low in North Dakota, you of­fer to build a bridge to bring them back. If they’re go­ing low in Brook­lyn, New York, you hit them on the head with a two-by-four.”

NEW YORK TIMES FILE PHOTO

First lady Michelle Obama speaks in July 2016 at the White House in Washington. That year, her words be­came the Democrats’ defin­ing creed to counter Don­ald Trump’s bat­ter­ing ram of a pres­i­den­tial cam­paign: ‘When they go low, we go high.’ Two years later, the ap­peal of ‘high’ seems low.

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