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Juan Williams: Tide shifts away from Trump on NFL
The winning attack for the GOP in the midterm elections is supposed to feature tax cuts, MS-13, ObamaCare, Nancy Pelosi and "Crooked Hillary."
But so far none of it is moving votes for Republicans.
The biggest loser for the GOP messaging plan is turning out to be President Trump's rants about those NFL players who kneeled during the national anthem to protest police brutality and racial injustice, including the fatal shootings of unarmed black people.
For two years, Trump has stoked racial divisions by stirring his overwhelmingly white rallies - calling out team owners for not punishing the mostly black players for continuing Colin Kaepernick's protest.
"Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He's fired. He's fired!" Trump said at a rally in Alabama more than a year ago.
He continued in that vein for a long time. But last week it was Trump who started backpedaling.
At a rally in Montana on the night of the NFL's first game, he barely mentioned the protests. "We're standing up for your values," he said briefly, "We are standing for our national anthem and our flag."
And when Pete Hegseth of Fox News asked him who is winning the "culture war" over the NFL protests, the president pivoted away by limiting himself to saying "We are... I don't know what the NFL is doing."
What drained the political power from Trump's racially divisive fire and brimstone attacks on the NFL protests?
Trump gave a clue last week in an interview with The Daily Caller. He said that while he disagrees with Nike's decision to celebrate Kaepernick as a hero in a new ad campaign - "It's a terrible message" - he quickly added that freedom to speak out "is what this country is all about, that you have certain freedoms to do things that other people think you shouldn't do."
The new tone from Trump came after the Ford Motor Co., owner of the NFL's Detroit Lions, took a shot at Trump by saying the players' right to express views is part of "what makes America great."
"Our game has long provided a powerful platform for dialogue and positive change," said Martha Ford, pushing back at Trump. "Negative and disrespectful comments suggesting otherwise are contrary to the founding principles of our country."
For the first time the NFL, whose owners once seemed to fear Trump, is also pushing back.
"The social justice issues that Colin and other professional athletes have raised deserve our attention and action," the league said in a statement.
The NFL's use of the words "social justice" in their statement indicates that even the league is now having the debate on Kaepernick's terms - acknowledging the validity of his right to stand up for his beliefs.
Another score for Kaepernick.
But the game goes on.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) is still following the Trump culture war playbook for the November election.
On the NFL's opening night, he tweeted a challenge to Tony Evers, his Democratic opponent, asking if Evers supports "NFL players blatantly disrespecting our flag and the Wisconsin men and women in uniform?"
Evers responded that he is "proud to stand" for the anthem and "proud to respect our first amendment rights to peacefully protest. Scott Walker wants to distract and divide us - anything to avoid talking about his record."
Evers' running mate, Mandela Barnes, who is black, hit even harder. He told reporters Walker is "trying to stoke the same tensions that President Trump is trying to stoke."
And Barnes tweeted at Walker "you could have served in THREE wars, why didn't you stand up then?"
But the same Trump-style play is being run in Texas by Republican Sen. Ted Cruz against his Democratic opponent, Beto O'Rourke.
Cruz ran an attack ad after O'Rourke, speaking at a veterans' event, supported the players' right to protest.
"Liberal Hollywood was thrilled. But do Texans agree?" asked a Cruz political ad that showed a retired Marine who lost his legs in combat saying: "I sure expect you to stand for me when the national anthem is being played."
The ad closed by asking voters, "Where will you stand?"
But since O'Rourke took the players' side while conceding that "reasonable people can disagree on this issue," his poll numbers have gone up. He is now within single digits of the incumbent, Cruz.
The video showing O'Rourke speaking in defense of the players' "non-violent protests" attracted national attention. He appeared on Ellen DeGeneres' morning talk show. He also won approving tweets from celebrities like LeBron James who tweeted "A Must Watch!!! Salute @BetoORourke for the candid thoughtful words!"
"We don't know if Beto can pull this off," former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau said on his podcast, "but the campaign that he is running and how he answers questions, and how he talks about issues, that is the model for candidates in 2018 and 2020, whether or not he pulls this off."
"I can't imagine there is a single voter who will cast a ballot exclusively on the issue of NFL kneeling," Josh Holmes, a Republican strategist and former Chief of Staff to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), told BuzzFeed last week.
At best, Holmes thinks attacking the players might work "against liberals who are trying to make cultural inroads into a conservative electorate."
Last week, Kaepernick got a standing ovation while watching the U.S. Open tennis tournament with a largely white crowd.
In the immortal words of Bob Dylan, "the times they are a-changin'."
Juan Williams is an author, and a political analyst for Fox News Channel.