Dem presidential hopefuls tread carefully on Trump, NFL and anthem

Dem presidential hopefuls tread carefully on Trump, NFL and anthem
© Victoria Sarno Jordan

Democratic 2020 presidential hopefuls are treading carefully around President TrumpDonald John TrumpDems flip Wisconsin state Senate seat Sessions: 'We should be like Canada' in how we take in immigrants GOP rep: 'Sheet metal and garbage' everywhere in Haiti MORE’s latest racially charged controversy.

While Democrats broadly say Trump’s fight with the NFL and NBA will help them politically in both the 2018 and 2020 elections, they also appear wary of completely entering the fray on the controversial issue.

Potential candidates such as Sens. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisDHS chief takes heat over Trump furor NSA spying program overcomes key Senate hurdle Democrats will need to explain if they shut government down over illegal immigration MORE (D-Calif.), Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenWarren: Trump is a 'racist bully' Poll: Oprah would outperform Warren, Harris against Trump in California Democrats continue to dismiss positive impacts of tax reform MORE (D-Mass.) and Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersMellman: On Political Authenticity (Part 2) Former Sanders campaign manager: Don't expect email list to be shared with DNC Adult film star: Trump and Stormy Daniels invited me to 'hang out' MORE (I-Vt.) didn’t put out press releases on the issue or weigh in on Twitter, at least as of Tuesday night.

Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerDHS chief takes heat over Trump furor Booker to Nielsen: 'Your silence and your amnesia is complicity' Homeland Security secretary grilled over Trump comments MORE (D-N.J.), who generally hasn’t shied away from such issues — or publicity — spoke briefly about it on MSNBC's "All in with Chris Hayes" on Tuesday evening. "...You have to understand these folks are not just taking a knee because they want to disrespect the flag. They're doing this because of real issues in this country," he said. 

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Booker added, "As soon as someone tries to tell an American in this country than I'm more patriotic than you or to look down on your loyalty to this country, please understand that says much more about that person's patriotism than theirs because their patriotism is a shallow patriotism that seeks more to divide, demean, degrade others." 

But the lack of chatter from Democrats is in contrast with even some Republicans.

Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainMcCain rips Trump for attacks on press NSA spying program overcomes key Senate hurdle Meghan McCain says her father regrets opposition to MLK Day MORE (R-Ariz.) told TMZ on Tuesday that Trump was wrong to call any NFL player who engages in the protests a “son of a bitch” who should be fired.

“That's their right to do what they want as citizens,” McCain said.

Booker offered measured support for then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick last year after he began sitting down or taking a knee during the national anthem in what he said was a protest against racism, police brutality and social injustice.

“People seem to be more outraged by an NFL player taking a knee than the murder or killing of an unarmed black man,” Booker said in September last year.

But Booker had not spoken out in response to Trump's comments until Tuesday night.

Democratic insiders, strategists and sources close to potential candidates say it’s tricky to work out the right message that knocks Trump for what many privately see as race baiting but that is not perceived as criticism of the flag or anthem.

Being cast as insufficiently patriotic is a charge countless Democrats have had to deal with for generations.

“I think everyone is aware of the tight rope we have to walk on this issue,” said one Democrat who has spoken to Democratic National Committee officials about the latest controversy. “I think that’s something we’re all trying to figure out now.”

Harris could speak about the issue when she appears at a black church in Atlanta on Sunday

Warren’s office declined to comment for this story. Sanders’s and Booker’s offices did not respond to requests for comment.

Trump allies, for their part, have expressed confidence that the president’s broadsides against NFL players, along with his decision to disinvite NBA star Stephen Curry from a White House visit, will play well to his base.

Trump has doubled down in recent days, suggesting he sees little risk in wrapping himself in the flag and criticizing millionaire athletes who chose the anthem as the setting for their protests.

Yet some Republicans are worried the issue could hurt Trump and help Democrats seeking to displace him.

“These most recent comments have most certainly positioned the Republican Party in a far more negative light than it has ever been,” said Shermichael Singleton, a Republican political consultant who served as a top aide on Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben CarsonBenjamin (Ben) Solomon CarsonTrump must pair more respectful rhetoric with positive policies Trump honors MLK amid firestorm over racially charged remarks Reporter asks Trump 'Are you a racist?' after MLK event MORE’s presidential campaign.

“If the Democratic Party can figure out a message that not only resonates with the minority base but also resonates with blue-collar workers, I think they have a winner.”

When Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaMcCarthy: ‘No deadline on DACA’ Democrats will need to explain if they shut government down over illegal immigration Trump’s first year in office was the year of the woman MORE ran for president in 2008, even he was careful in talking about race.

It wasn’t until the middle of the primary that year when Obama felt compelled to deliver a lengthy speech devoted to race. And that was when his campaign was dealing with the controversy surrounding the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, whose church Obama attended and who married the Obamas.

Sermons in which Wright had offered stark criticisms of the United States and the phrase “God damn America” was a political nightmare for the future president.

Michael Tyler, a spokesman at the DNC, would not comment on the race issue itself. But Tyler said that while Trump “will try his best to divide Americans one dog whistle at a time, Democrats will organize and win around the values that unite us and the issues that keep millions of Americans up at night.”

Democratic consultant David Wade said it’s smart for would-be candidates to bide their time on this issue.

“Strategic patience is an underrated quality in politics,” Wade said. “I think many of the 2020 potential candidates see an unpopular Donald Trump in a head-on collision with some of the world’s most popular athletes and they know that it only benefits Trump if it becomes a mere food fight between politicians. Why jump in prematurely when your opponent is hitting himself?”

At the same time, Wade made the point that the potential aspirant “who will most benefit is the first one to effectively marshal the argument that while Donald Trump is busy fighting the NFL, wages aren’t keeping up with work, jobs are going overseas and the people in the stands, not the luxury boxes, are hurting.”

“There’s a reward for the leader who captures the angst of purple state voters that this isn’t what anyone signed up for,” he added. 

But other strategists say Democrats should pounce.

“They might be overthinking it,” said Democratic strategist Christy Setzer. “President Trump wants to stand on the side of the American flag and also wants to stand against freedom of speech, which isn’t how this works.

“To me, there’s a wide open opportunity for someone to teach Donald Trump about patriotism, even without wading into the racial implications. Can’t you see a Jason Kander type reminding the president that our freedom is exactly what he fought for in Afghanistan? If NFL owners who have Trump $1 million each can find the courage to show moral high ground here, I think the rising stars in the Democratic Party can, too.”

“Trump is a bully,” Setzer added. “Bullies respond to strength.”