A warning sign for 2020 Democrats: Candidates are sticking to politics as usual. That won't beat Trump

A warning sign for 2020 Democrats: Candidates are sticking to politics as usual. That won't beat Trump
NBC News screenshot

Are the Democratic presidential candidates up to the challenge of our era, when they aren't running against a bog-standard Republican, but a man who quite clearly is trying to drag the United States towards fascism? It's been a question nagging many since the second set of debates last month in Detroit which, especially on the second night, turned into a dispiriting mess, as the candidates got into really meager fights over minor policy differences and lost sight of the bigger picture, which is that our country is in a national crisis with Donald Trump as president.

After a weekend in which two mass shootings, one a white nationalist attack clearly inspired in large part by Trump's racist rhetoric, took over 30 lives, I had high hopes that more Democratic candidates could pull themselves out of the familiar rhythms of campaigning and address the current situation with the gravity it deserves. Certainly former congressman Beto O'Rourke, a Democrat from El Paso, TX, has been doing so, if only because of the trauma of having his own home subject to a terrorist attack.

When I attended a Philadelphia campaign event Wednesday night for Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), I had high hopes of something beyond Democratic politics as usual, in wake of the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio. Booker had been the stand-out in the otherwise sour debate last month. He's been a leader in the campaign on the gun violence issue, proposing the most stringent gun control platform of the Democratic field. And he was in Philadelphia, which has a serious gun violenceproblem, including six mass shootings that have largely gone uncovered in the national media in 2019.

In fact, the event was billed as one specifically focused on combatting gun violence, and unsurprisingly, the crowd was well-peppered with activists from Moms Demand Action. Disappointingly, however, the event was largely a paint-by-numbers campaign event, in which Booker largely stuck to a stump speech built around a well-worn story about his friendship with Virginia Jones, a leader in the Brick Towers affordable housing development Booker lived in for nearly a decade in Newark, New Jersey.

It's a good story, an inspiring story, and it did touch on the organizing issue of the night, gun violence, because Jones lost her own son to murder in the '80s. But in going through the paces — and barely acknowledging the immediate crisis in the country that is the president, with his racist rhetoric, inciting terroristic violence — it left me with a desultory feeling. Booker is running  a campaign based on hope and faith and better tomorrows, but in the face of the ugliness of the moment, I couldn't help but feel that what we actually need, along with hope and faith and optimism, was anger.

Anger because there are thousands of people that are murdered by guns every year, and instead of dealing honestly with the crisis, we allow Republicans to throw up shiny and pointless distractions, such as faking offense at campaign disclosure laws that are older than I am. Anger because people are being gunned down in houses of worship and at the shopping mall because their killers buy racist rhetoric being peddled on Fox News and by the president himself. Anger because everyone treats this like a reality TV show, when the actual loss of life is all too real.

A small flash of it came out of Booker towards the end of his speech, when he told the story of a young man he saw die from a gunshot in his own youth.

"I felt so angry at us," he said. "Another black boy dead in America and nobody seems to care! The majority of homicide victims in this nation — young, black men — and I'm so angry, that it seemed to go on and on and on, thousands and thousands and we weren't doing the things to stop it."

That flash of anger was welcome, but he didn't really attach it to recent events or to the current situation in Philadelphia. So even this well-written, moving scene failed, ultimately,  to feel like an adequate response to the current moment. It was the speech Booker would have given if there was some other Republican in office, some Republican who isn't spewing white nationalist talking points that are inspiring violence.

I don't wish to single out Booker, who continues to languish at 3% in the Democratic primary polls. This problem, of acting like it's a normal campaign season to be run by completely normal methods, is infecting the majority of the Democratic field, which is poisoned by consultants warning them constantly that voters only want "kitchen table" issues and not hair-raising politics appropriate for our hair-raising time. He just happens to be the guy who disappointed me most recently, when I had genuine hopes that the seriousness of the current situation would affect him enough to pull him out of stump speech mode.

But this larger failure to accept that Trump has changed things dramatically, whether we like it or not, is deeply concerning. It's creating a disconnect between the business-as-usual politics of the campaign and the very real anxiety motivating voters on the ground. And if Democrats keep it up, there's very good reason to worry the nominee won't have the gumption necessary for the inevitably dirty and chaotic election fight against Trump.


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