Politico Podcast: 2020 Democrats take a page from Trump’s playbook on race

by David Siders, Aug. 14, 2018 |

Once an undercurrent of presidential politics, race is already front-and-center in the run-up to 2020.

Kamala Harris is pictured. | Getty Images
Earlier this month, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) pledged not to be “shut up” by critics of “identity politics.” It was one example of some of the party’s top potential 2020 candidates preparing for an uncharacteristically overt, racially-pointed campaign against President Donald Trump. | Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

President Donald Trump made race an overt issue in American politics. Now Democrats are ready to meet him head on.

Some of the party’s top potential 2020 candidates are testing a barrage of early — and unusually explicit — race-related appeals in the run-up to the next presidential campaign. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) pledged not to be “shut up” by critics of “identity politics.” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), has drawn attention to the disproportionate number of nonwhite people incarcerated in a system he said has “criminalized poverty.”

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) invoked Martin Luther King Jr. when he called unemployment a “form of brutality.” And while Booker described inequities in the criminal justice system as “the biggest cancer on the soul of this country,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) called the system “racist … front to back.”

Democrats with 2020 aspirations are preparing for an uncharacteristically overt, racially pointed campaign against Trump, seeking to capitalize on major points of contrast with the Republican president. It’s a marked departure from the last Democratic president, Barack Obama, who often downplayed race, long an undercurrent in presidential politics.

“Donald Trump has changed the conversation because he so regularly sort of mines the great divides of race and thumbs his nose at what are injustices in the system that need to be redressed,” said David Axelrod, who was a top adviser to Obama. “So, I think he is provoking a response.”

When Obama was president, Axelrod said, “his life, his life commitments and so on, his commitment to social justice was manifest and … he didn’t need to say it. I think that people understood it.”

Now, Axelrod said, “I do think we’re in a different environment.”

Advisers to several prospective Democratic candidates say that issue of race is unavoidable in a campaign against Trump. They’re buoyed by polling suggesting widely held concerns about the state of race relations.

“I think we have to, given that Trump has been race-baiting for the last 18 months,” Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), a potential long-shot 2020 contender, said of Democrats’ plans to confront Trump directly on race.

Not all Democrats agree.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton spoke regularly about “systematic racism” and criminal justice reform. But Clinton’s effort to turn out the coalition of young people, nonwhite voters and women who propelled Obama to the White House fell short in key states, including in the Midwest.

Some Democrats fear playing on Trump’s terms could alienate those same voters. In 2016, race worked to Trump’s advantage more than it did to Clinton’s, and if Democrats in 2020 press a match-up with Trump on issues of race, it is unclear they will prevail.

“The best available political science says white identity was a bigger motivator in voting for Trump than nonwhite identity was for voting for a Democrat,” said James Carville, the former Bill Clinton strategist.

Even now, he said, “when we talk about identity politics, the strongest tug is for white identity.”

Democrats seized their latest opportunity to engage with the issue on Sunday, on the one-year anniversary of the deadly violence at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Foreshadowing a campaign in which Democrats will remind voters of Trump’s initial response to Charlottesville — when Trump said there were “very fine people on both sides” — former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe said on CNN, “It wasn’t both sides.”

“You had one side of neo-Nazis wearing Adolf Hitler T-shirts, the white supremacists screaming obscenities at the African-American community, walking down the streets,” he said. “They came armed. This wasn’t both sides.”

Trump, said McAuliffe, a potential 2020 candidate, failed to demonstrate “moral leadership.”

Trump marked the anniversary with a tweet, saying that “we must come together as a nation” and that “I condemn all types of racism and acts of violence.” But Trump’s early reaction to Charlottesville, in addition to his comments about Mexican “rapists” and immigrants from “shithole” countries, have kept race at the forefront, even before the presidential campaign.

“When you have such a blatant bigot … it has put the Democratic contenders in a way that they cannot ignore it, and [race] has become a mainstream issue because Donald Trump has mainstreamed bigotry,” the Rev. Al Sharpton said in an interview. “There’s no way to run for president now and not deal with race.”

In April, Sanders, Harris, Warren, Booker and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) all appeared in New York for a conference of Sharpton’s National Action Network. Though Sharpton has not ruled out running for president again himself, the civil rights activist said, “I’m not likely to be a candidate, but I’m likely to be prodding the candidates and can’t be ignored.”

Race relations remain fraught one year after Charlottesville and about 18 months before the first Democratic nominating contests of 2020. A CBS News poll released Sunday found 61 percent of Americans say racial tensions have increased over the past year, with 58 percent disapproving of Trump’s handling of racial issues. The finding echoed a Quinnipiac University Poll last month, in which 49 percent of voters said they believe Trump is racist, including 86 percent of Democrats.

The polling points to a wide opening for Democrats weighing a 2020 campaign. Democrats have credited a surge in nonwhite voters for victories last year in Alabama and Virginia, and politicians preparing for a presidential campaign are eager to court those same voters.

Earlier this year, after the Trump administration’s separation of families at the U.S.-Mexico border, Sanders, Warren and Harris, among other progressives, urged an overhaul or re-examination of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, while Gillibrand said the agency should be abolished.

“I think a lot of political observers have noted the difference that African-Americans, or the African-American vote, has made in a lot of consequential elections,” said Akunna Cook, who advised former Attorney General Eric Holder on his National Democratic Redistricting Committee efforts.

Cook, now executive director of the Black Economic Alliance political group, said, “I think that the moment is causing politicians to really focus on how they can message and speak to and turn out black voters.”

The political opportunity presented by a confrontation with Trump on race is especially apparent in the Democratic presidential primary. Following nominating contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, the election will run through states with significant nonwhite populations, including South Carolina, Nevada and California.

“Obama was in a unique situation as a sort of pathfinder, trailblazer, and he acknowledges it, that for many years he felt that he needed to de-emphasize the whole question of race,” said Paul Maslin, a top Democratic pollster. “Now, I think that given that the first competition ultimately is going to be in a primary, I think that a variety of candidates … are going to talk about it much more openly.”

Earlier this month, after Trump lashed out at basketball star LeBron James for a CNN interview in which James criticized Trump’s governing style, Harris contrasted James’ work with schoolchildren with a Trump administration she said “continues to keep migrant children separated from their families.”

Former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick told CNN it is “hard to argue” that Trump’s criticism of James wasn’t racist. And at a gathering of progressive Democrats in New Orleans recently, Ryan said to cheers, “I’m with LeBron James.”

“We’re not going to let you come to Ohio, President Trump, and do your race-baiting and make your racial statements against people in Ohio or anywhere across the country, whether it’s LeBron James or Maxine Waters or anybody else,” Ryan said. “That ain’t playing anymore, President Trump.”

Tony Fabrizio, the Republican pollster who worked for Trump’s 2016 campaign, said Democrats are talking about race not to defeat Trump, but to “corner the market on large blocs of Democratic primary voter constituencies.”

For a Democratic contender, he said, “If I can stand out and … be the hero of the nonwhite Democratic primary voter, that gives me a leg up in a lot of states like California, like New York, like the South.” But he said that if every major candidate is talking about race, the benefit to anyone is likely only to be marginal.

And Fabrizio said Democrats’ efforts so far to confront Trump on race have failed to gain traction, including in the immediate wake of Charlottesville. “They thought that was going to be his death knell, kill his numbers,” Fabrizio said.

Yet any effort by centrist Democrats to moderate racial messages in an effort to appeal to white, working-class voters will be met by stiff resistance from the party’s base.

“Donald Trump talks about race all the time,” said Rashad Robinson of Color of Change PAC. “To have the other side, which is getting the votes and support of people of color, and particularly black folks, not talking about it and hoping that it doesn’t come up, that hasn’t worked. And it won’t work.”

Sharpton, similarly, said prospective 2020 Democrats cannot “have their cake and eat it, too.”

“I think that they’ve got to stand up and go after people of color’s vote unapologetically,” Sharpton said, “because you’ve got to turn people on to turn them out.”

In a 2020 matchup with Trump, Sharpton said, Democrats “only can fight him with a street fight, and anybody who does not want to deal with the race part of that street fight should stay out of this fight.”

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