WASHINGTON — With tweets and a vote, President Donald Trump and House Democrats established the sharp and emotionally raw contours of the 2020 election campaigns.
In the process, they have created a fraught political frame: “racists” vs. “socialists.”
Trump’s aggressive condemnation of women of color in Congress has allowed House Democrats to mend, for now, their own political divisions as they put the president on record with a resolution condemning his words as racist.
But by pushing the House majority into the arms of the squad of liberal freshman women, Trump also adds to his narrative that Democrats have a “socialist” agenda, a story line he started to bring into focus during his State of the Union address.
Political triumphs are being claimed on all sides. Yet it’s unclear whether either approach is what’s needed to sway independent-minded voters who typically determine congressional and presidential elections. And at a time when polling shows Americans sense a worsening of racial attitudes, the searing attacks along Pennsylvania Avenue are tapping potentially explosive emotions.
The Four Lawmakers Portray President as a Bully
The state of affairs offers “a very clear choice,” said Ronna McDaniel, the chairwoman of the Republican National Committee on Wednesday.
“The Democrat party is now a socialist party, and these four women have become the de facto speakers of the Democrat House,” she said on Fox. “So he’s saying, do you want socialism or do you want what we’re delivering with higher jobs, higher wages, more jobs, a strong economy.”
But the four freshmen, in their own appearance together, portrayed the president as a bully who wants to “vilify” not only immigrants, but all people of color. They’re fighting for their priorities to lower health care costs, pass a Green New Deal addressing climate change, they say, while his thundering attacks are a distraction and tear at the core of America vales.
“America has always been about the triumph of people who fight for everyone versus those who want to preserve rights for just a select few,” said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, perhaps the most recognizable of the newcomers.
“And there is no bottom to the barrel of vitriol that will be used and weaponized to stifle those who want to advance rights for all people in the United States,” she said on “CBS This Morning.”
Trump on Wednesday tweeted a video featuring clips of himself meeting with law enforcement and military personnel juxtaposed with patriotic scenes and Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to be an American,” closing with the slogan, “One ‘squad’ under God” — a dig at the progressive lawmakers’ adopted moniker.
In a political repudiation, the Democratic-led U.S. House voted Tuesday to condemn Trump’s “racist comments” against the congresswomen of color after he told them to “go back” to their own countries.
The women, Ocasio-Cortez and Reps. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, all were born in the U.S. except for Omar, who became a U.S. citizen after fleeing Somalia as a refugee with her family.
Democrats eased the resolution through the chamber by 240-187, joined by four Republicans and one Republican-turned-independent congressman.
Trump accused the women of “spewing some of the most vile, hateful and disgusting things ever said by a politician” and added, “If you hate our Country, or if you are not happy here, you can leave!”
Democrats Know They Need to Return to Their Campaign Messages
Republican operatives swiftly dispatched their own attacks on nearly 30 of the House Democratic freshmen who helped take the majority in 2018 by winning seats from areas that Trump also won in 2016. They are seen as the front liners needed to retain control of the House, and many face tough re-election races in 2020.
“Deranged,” read the missives from the National Republican Congressional Committee. The committee is raising money off Ocasio-Cortez as the face of the “socialist” agenda and drawing links to the party’s presidential contenders, including Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and other liberal front-runners.
“This wasn’t what people in the Trump districts elected them to do,” said Bob Salera, a spokesman for the GOP’s campaign committee.
Democrats believe Trump’s attacks will have the opposite effect, turning off the suburban voters, particularly women, who helped elect Trump but also turned out for Democrats last fall and are tiring of it all. Trump tried a similar approach last fall, invoking fearful warnings of “caravans” of immigrants pouring into the U.S., but voters tuned him out to give Democrats control of the House. The party will try again to persuade voters away from Trump’s vision of America.
But Democrats also know they now need to return to their core campaign messages — lowering health care costs, conducting oversight of the administration — or risk having Trump define them and the 2020 candidates.
“I’m trying to represent my district, a very diverse district,” Tlaib said. “This is a distraction.”
When asked if they, as the four newcomers, were also a distraction, Omar, a Muslim-American, objected to the question: “He wants you to focus on that, and you should be asking, Why is it that we are being criticized?”