IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Democrats refuse to take Trump's home stretch bait

Analysis: As the president launches a wide array of policy proposals and political attacks, his opponents have stuck to their script.
Image: Nancy Pelosi
The unofficial Democratic motto for the 2018 home stretch is essentially the same as the Trump 2016 strategy: Let Trump be Trump.J. Scott Applewhite / AP file

ST. LOUIS, Mo. — Democrats are refusing to take President Donald Trump's bait.

In the run-up to next Tuesday's crucial midterm elections, Trump's push to turn out his base has included a raft of divisive policy proposals, controversial political statements and even a racially charged ad from his re-election campaign.

He's announced that he's contemplating a plan to roll back protections for transgender students, sending a war-sized force of U.S. troops to the southern border with instructions to shoot migrants if they throw rocks, and writing an executive order ending the 14th Amendment's guarantee of citizenship for those born inside American borders. And he's called his opposition the “party of crime” and “really evil people.”

Democrats, he told a rally crowd in Missouri this week, “have gone crazy, folks. They have gone totally loco. The Democrats are the party of rigid ideology and total conformity.”

While Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., responded to his taunts of “Pocahontas” by releasing genetic information, that episode was an outlier among Democrats the president has attacked by name — and one that many of them say provided proof for the theory that he shouldn’t be fought on the ground he chooses.

Instead, most of the party has pushed back — gently — without rushing to cameras to fight on cultural issues at a time when they believe they have the upper hand in the battle for control of the House and are still in the hunt for several Senate races within the margin of error in recent polling.

"It’s clear that President Trump is engaged in a cynical political effort to distract voters in the final days of this election, but our candidates have remained focused on what voters care about most — pocketbook issues like the cost of health care and protections for people with pre-existing health conditions," Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen, the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said over email. "While the President is reduced to scare tactics, Democrats are fighting to help the families they represent."

It's not a coordinated strategy so much as a collective assessment that it's smart to avoid obvious traps Trump is laying in what they believe to be an increasingly desperate attempt to knock Democrats off their message.

In other words, Democrats are in array.

"I'm elated that my side isn't taking the bait," said Rep. Brendan Boyle, D-Pa. "For me, it's not coming from any sort of top-down dictate. That's my own judgment and has been for a long time. But I will say Nancy and others are of exactly the same mind."

"Nancy," of course, is House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., a frequent target of Trump's criticism who earlier this year gave him a campaign-trail talking point when she lamented his use of the word "animals" to describe certain undocumented immigrants. While Trump said he was referring to MS-13 gang members, and others interpreted him to mean immigrants more broadly, Pelosi said the term shouldn't be applied to any human beings.

Trump said Pelosi "went crazy" because she "loves MS-13."

Since then, Pelosi — who hopes to become House speaker again — has given Trump precious little to work with. A longtime advocate for the LGBTQ community, she chose not to engage with Trump on the rights of transgender students when he raised them late last month. An aide told NBC at the time that Pelosi supports a bill that would expand the Civil Rights Act to cover sexual orientation and gender identity.

After the delivery of pipe bombs to prominent Democrats and the murders of 11 worshippers at a Pittsburgh synagogue, Pelosi sent her colleagues a letter reminding them to keep their eyes on the path to winning a House majority next week.

"While the GOP attempts to divide and distract the public from their tax scam for the rich and their assault on Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and people with pre-existing conditions, Democrats across the country are focused on bringing people together," she wrote. "In this all important final week, only by relentlessly driving home our For The People message of health, jobs and integrity in government will we win a better future for all Americans."

Democrats say that their low-key reactions are a data point demonstrating their ability to be a responsible governing party if voters give them control of the House. They see a president making the contrast obvious for them with his behavior over the final weeks of the campaign.

When Trump abruptly changed the number of troops he planned to send to the border from 5,200 — the number announced by the Pentagon — to as many as 15,000, Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., admonished fellow Democrats to take a deep breath.

"Dear Democratic candidates: this is a trap. Don’t fall for it. We’ll fight this after the election if it’s actually a real thing," Murphy wrote on Twitter. "For the next 6 days, focus on health care and tax cuts for billionaires and corporations."

In the closing days of the campaign, Trump's strategy has been to try to keep the spotlight on his blitz against his top targets. Democrats are happy to let him have that stage to himself.