With polls, pri­vate meet­ings, GOP crafts mes­sag­ing to paint Democrats as ex­treme

The Buffalo News - - FRONT PAGE - By Jeremy W. Peters NEW YORK TIMES

WASH­ING­TON – Repub­li­can lead­ers are sharp­en­ing and poll-test­ing lines of at­tack that por­tray Demo­cratic poli­cies on health care, the en­vi­ron­ment and abor­tion as far out­side the norm, in hopes of arm­ing Pres­i­dent Trump with hy­per­bolic sound bites – some of them false – as­sert­ing that Democrats would cause long waits for doc­tors or make killing ba­bies af­ter birth le­gal.

The blunt mes­sag­ing un­der­scores one of the big­gest chal­lenges fac­ing Democrats as they try to de­feat the in­cum­bent pres­i­dent: the need to de­fine them­selves and their ideas be­fore Trump and his con­ser­va­tive al­lies do it for them.

The Repub­li­can National Com­mit­tee has al­ready be­gun polling in 16 states to as­sess ways to dis­credit ideas like “Medi­care for all,” which Sen. Bernie San­ders pro­posed in a bill this week, and build on the party’s broader ar­gu­ment that Demo­cratic can­di­dates like San­ders are pro­mot­ing an ex­treme so­cial­ist agenda. So­cial con­ser­va­tive lead­ers have met with White House of­fi­cials to dis­cuss call­ing at­ten­tion to Demo­cratic-spon­sored leg­is­la­tion to loosen re­stric­tions on abor­tion in the sec­ond and third trimesters, like one that passed re­cently in New York.

The re­cent fo­cus on health care and abor­tion fol­lows well-co­or­di­nated at­tacks on poli­cies like the Green New Deal, which re­duced the far-reach­ing cli­mate change pro­posal to a punch line with jokes about cow flat­u­lence and putting farms out of busi­ness.

Some Demo­cratic strate­gists said they have been taken aback re­cently by how suc­cess­ful Trump and Repub­li­cans have been at set­ting the terms of the de­bate around lib­eral pol­icy ideas. And they are en­cour­ag­ing their party to be more nim­ble and de­liver a more con­cise and ac­ces­si­ble mes­sage.

In a fight with Trump, they say, nu­ance is not usu­ally the Democrats’ best weapon.

“What our side has to un­der­stand is that to fight Trump, it’s a bat­tle for def­i­ni­tion,” said Celinda Lake, a top Demo­cratic poll­ster who has been work­ing with left-of-cen­ter groups on a strat­egy to counter the mes­sag­ing cam­paign from the right.

“The Democrats will is­sue a 61-page white pa­per that no­body in their right mind will pass on to their friends,” she added. “He uses a one-sen­tence slo­gan, and his vot­ers feel em­bold­ened to share it, pass it on.”

It is not clear whether any of the Repub­li­can mes­sag­ing is hav­ing an im­pact on vot­ers out­side of the pres­i­dent’s so far un­mov­able base. But Lake said that as she sur­veyed likely 2020 swing vot­ers, she was sur­prised to hear peo­ple in fo­cus groups re­peat false as­ser­tions made by the pres­i­dent and his al­lies – that Democrats would end air travel in the United States and shut down dairy farms and beef pro­duc­tion be­cause of green­house-gas emis­sions from cows.

“It’s amaz­ing the num­ber of peo­ple who would vol­un­teer that,” she said. The ac­tual lan­guage in the pro­posal calls for cleaner trans­porta­tion and agri­cul­ture “as much as is tech­no­log­i­cally fea­si­ble.” The mis­per­cep­tion about cows and airplanes orig­i­nated with a now-re­tracted fact sheet pub­lished by Rep. Alexan­dria Oca­sioCortez’s of­fice that con­tained an ironic aside about get­ting rid of “fart­ing cows and airplanes.”

Repub­li­cans said they also saw “Medi­care for all”-type pro­pos­als as a way to give their ral­ly­ing cries on so­cial­ism more sub­stance and po­tency. Some plans, like the one put for­ward by San­ders, would largely elim­i­nate pri­vate in­sur­ance plans, which Repub­li­cans have found is over­whelm­ingly un­pop­u­lar with the kinds of vot­ers they need to win back.

“The de­bate that’s go­ing to play out in sub­urbs across the coun­try is a choice be­tween capitalism ver­sus so­cial­ism,” said Ronna Mc­Daniel, the chair­woman of the Repub­li­can National Com­mit­tee. “When Democrats talk about abol­ish­ing pri­vate health in­sur­ance, for ex­am­ple, most of my friends are on pri­vate in­sur­ance plans through their jobs or their hus­bands’ jobs. They don’t want to lose that. They don’t want to wait in line to get to the pe­di­a­tri­cian.”

“Which­ever Demo­crat wins the nom­i­na­tion will have to own their party’s so­cial­ist agenda,” she added. “That’s a de­bate that Pres­i­dent Trump is ea­ger to have and knows he can win.”

The Repub­li­cans’ data on vot­ers from the 2018 midterms showed that cov­er­age of pre-ex­ist­ing med­i­cal con­di­tions was the top is­sue of con­cern. But here they face a se­ri­ous dis­ad­van­tage: They have no health care plan of their own. But they have been test­ing mes­sag­ing on health care with likely vot­ers in the 16 states they be­lieve will be the most com­pet­i­tive in 2020. These in­clude ones Trump nar­rowly won like Michi­gan, Wis­con­sin and Florida, as well as those he won by larger mar­gins but have tilted more Demo­cratic lately, like Ari­zona and North Carolina. The RNC found that when vot­ers were told that “Medi­care for all” would elim­i­nate pri­vate in­sur­ance and cre­ate a gov­ern­ment-run sys­tem paid for by higher taxes, in­de­pen­dents, mar­ried women and union mem­bers dis­liked the idea by wide mar­gins. Among mar­ried women alone, nearly 60 per­cent dis­ap­proved.

Trump has oc­ca­sion­ally made graphic and false claims that Democrats sup­port leg­is­la­tion that would al­low “ex­e­cut­ing ba­bies AF­TER birth,” as he said in a re­cent tweet. Dur­ing a meet­ing at the White House be­fore his State of the Union ad­dress that in­cluded some con­ser­va­tive ac­tivists, Trump ex­pressed amaze­ment at com­ments by Vir­ginia Gov. Ralph Northam, who had to clar­ify his de­fense of abor­tion in later stages of preg­nancy af­ter ac­tivists ac­cused him of say­ing doc­tors should be able to kill a baby born alive dur­ing the pro­ce­dure.

“Can you be­lieve this gov­er­nor?” the pres­i­dent said, ac­cord­ing to two peo­ple at the meet­ing, who said that he was sur­pris­ingly an­i­mated about the sub­ject and vowed to keep mentioning it. The Cen­ters for Disease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion says such late-term abor­tions are ex­tremely rare. Only about 1.3 per­cent of abor­tions in the United States in 2015 were per­formed in or af­ter the 21st week of preg­nancy, the agency re­ported.

But anti-abor­tion ac­tivists said the ef­forts in some states like New York and Vir­ginia to re­move cer­tain bar­ri­ers to sec­ond and third trimester abor­tions al­lowed them to present the is­sue to vot­ers in a new and graphic light. Democrats have strug­gled to de­fend the new leg­is­la­tion; pri­vately some say they are not be­ing per­sua­sive in ex­plain­ing the health sit­u­a­tions the bills ad­dress while the other side ac­cuses them of con­don­ing in­fan­ti­cide.

While polls show that Amer­i­cans sup­port al­low­ing abor­tion in the first three months by wide mar­gins, that sup­port drops sharply when peo­ple are asked in gen­eral about the sec­ond and third trimesters. (They over­whelm­ingly sup­port ex­cep­tions if the mother’s life is en­dan­gered.)

Democrats say they can­not let Trump and other Repub­li­cans go unan­swered as they try to link the party to so­cial­ism – a term that Amer­i­cans view neg­a­tively over­all – and to ex­trem­ism in a broader sense. That has been the mo­ti­va­tion be­hind Repub­li­cans’ in­tense fo­cus on two young, fresh­man mem­bers of Congress: Oca­sio-Cortez of New York, who calls her­self a demo­cratic so­cial­ist; and Il­han Omar of Min­nesota, whose crit­i­cism of Is­rael led the pres­i­dent and oth­ers to con­demn her as an anti-Semite. Some of Omar’s most vo­cal de­fend­ers have been self-de­scribed demo­cratic so­cial­ists.

Even if Amer­i­cans say they like poli­cies that are de­riv­a­tive of so­cial­ism, like So­cial Se­cu­rity, the term “con­notes very clear im­agery to peo­ple in a very dog whis­tle kind of way,” said Je­frey Pol­lock, pres­i­dent of the Global Strat­egy group, which ad­vises Democrats on mes­sag­ing. “Then they at­tach faces to it,” he added, “and I think it can have res­o­nance, and it has had res­o­nance.”

The ef­fort on the right to el­e­vate Oca­sio-Cortez, 29, as the most prom­i­nent so­cial­ist foil is some­thing Democrats are watch­ing, Pol­lock said. “She is, of course, six years away from be­ing able to run for pres­i­dent. But they are still try­ing to make her the face of the party.”

New York Times

Pres­i­dent Trump in Crosby, Texas, Wed­nes­day. Repub­li­cans are poll-test­ing ways to por­tray Democrats as too ex­treme on is­sues like health care, abor­tion and the en­vi­ron­ment. Democrats worry the mes­sag­ing is work­ing.

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