Dems ready to move past Michelle Obama’s ‘go high’ message

Democrats are embracing Michael Avenatti’s call for the party to get more aggressive in the Trump era and hit back harder than the GOP when responding to attacks.

Avenatti, the attorney for adult-film star Stormy Daniels who is now considering a White House run, said at an event in Iowa on Friday that “when they go low, I say hit back harder.”

It was a nod to former first lady Michelle ObamaMichelle LeVaughn Robinson ObamaGOP senator dedicates heart photo to wife from Senate floor for Valentine's Day Barack Obama sends Valentine's message to Michelle: 'She does get down to Motown' The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Kidney Care Partners — House moving to vote on deal after signals Trump will sign MORE’s “When they go low, we go high” mantra — a more hopeful, optimistic slogan that an increasing number of Democrats say belongs in the trash can for the time being.

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Avenatti, said former Rep. Steve IsraelSteven (Steve) J. IsraelThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the American Academy of HIV Medicine - Will there be any last-minute shutdown drama? The unlikely legislative duo that joined together on immigration A tale of two Trumps MORE (D-N.Y.), is “tapping into a Democratic rage that Trump must be defeated and it doesn’t matter how.” 

“They think the low blow beat the high ground in 2016,” Israel said, adding that Trump has created “an electorate that is angrier, nastier and more desperate.” 

That likely means more attacks and a pugnacious 2020 primary season, say Democrats.

“We have no other choice,” said one political strategist who has been having preliminary conversations with candidates about running for the presidency. “You can’t kill him with kindness. That doesn’t work. So you have to go the other way.” 

The idea of getting tougher than Trump didn’t originate with Avenatti, though his rhetoric might be the most Trump-like among the dozens of Democrats who seem to be flirting with presidential runs.

The Hill reported in July that Democrats were looking for a candidate who would fight Trump, suggesting the person who best taps into that desire would have a shot at winning the 2020 nomination.

“This notion that you go high or go low is a false choice, it’s become a misnomer,” Philippe Reines, a longtime adviser to Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonOvernight Defense: Trump declares border emergency | .6B in military construction funds to be used for wall | Trump believes Obama would have started war with North Korea | Pentagon delivers aid for Venezuelan migrants Sarah Sanders says she was interviewed by Mueller's office Trump: I believe Obama would have gone to war with North Korea MORE, told The Hill last month.

“Democrats are going to want to see someone with moxie, they’re going to want to see absolute contempt for Trump,” said Reines, who played Trump in mock debates in 2016 to prepare Clinton, the Democratic nominee. 

Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, penned a piece for CNN on Sunday titled “Avenatti is right: Democrats need to fight fire with fire.” 

In an email to The Hill, Zelizer added that Democrats could go with a traditional or nontraditional candidate, "but what they need is an incredibly tough partisan fighter.”

“Given the state of the GOP and the nature of Trumpian politics, the candidate will need to really pack a big political punch,” he said. “It doesn’t mean getting into the gutter but it does mean hitting back hard and being able to do so on Twitter and the cable news universe that now sets the rules of engagement.” 

Some Democrats, however, think it’s a dangerous approach.

Patti Solis Doyle, a Democratic strategist who served as Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign manager, said the party needs to stand up to Trump.

“Does he need to be called out? Do we need to see his tax returns? Absolutely,” Solis Doyle said. “We need to be strong to deliver attacks on him.”

“But I’m not sure that someone who is remarkably similar to Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump nominates ambassador to Turkey Trump heads to Mar-a-Lago after signing bill to avert shutdown CNN, MSNBC to air ad turned down by Fox over Nazi imagery MORE is the answer,” she added, referring to Avenatti.

Israel said Trump’s behavior is bringing some people back to the Democratic Party. Adopting Trump’s style, as Avenatti suggests, could backfire, he said.

“Going lower than Trump won’t help with those voters. Messaging to them based on their daily lives and concerns will win them,” said Israel, a former chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC). 

Licy DoCanto, a former aide to the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) who now heads the DoCanto Group, a public policy consulting firm, said candidates should “resist the temptation to go low.” 

“And that means being incredibly disciplined in your own arguments and your own decorum,” he said. “You can still be civil and have some respect for yourself and the institutions around you and be successful. It may feel emotionally dissatisfying but it is still, in the long term, effective.” 

Democratic strategist David Wade — who served as an adviser to John KerryJohn Forbes KerryWarren taps longtime aide as 2020 campaign manager In Virginia, due process should count more than blind team support Trump will give State of Union to sea of opponents MORE’s 2004 presidential campaign — cautioned that it’s difficult to predict where the primary electorate will be in six months, particularly if Democrats win big in the midterm elections in November. 

Wade noted that the 2006 midterms, for example, “changed everyone’s calculus.” 

“Democrats went from the desperation of just hoping for a presidential candidate who could win to believing that we had latitude to find the candidate who most inspired,” he said. “The midterms will be the first barometer. If Democrats win and depending on which kinds of candidates win, that’s going to set the narrative for a while.”

Tyler Law, a spokesman for the DCCC, said sticking to the bread-and-butter issues “is actually what resonates the most with voters.”

“Republicans are trying to distract and use fear and misleading [tactics]. But here’s the reality: They aren’t working. What we have seen is that when we focus on the issues — and we’re relentless in that focus — Democrats win,” Law said.

But the Democratic strategist predicted that when it comes to the presidential contest and Trump, Avenatti’s strategy and rhetoric is likely to win out over Obama’s.

“You can’t play nice with a bully,” the strategist said. “And that’s putting it nicely.”