LAS VEGAS — It became a hymn of the 2016 campaign: “When they go low, we go high.” Michelle Obama’s aspirational rhetoric struck a chord with Democrats at a time when few believed Donald Trump could win.
But two years later — and with the coarse reality of Trump’s presidency wearing on— “We go high” has lost its resonance for many Democrats out of power in Washington and filled with rage. In the run-up to 2020, the party is sharpening its edges for a brawl.
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Joe Biden, the former vice president, said of Trump’s treatment of women this year, “If we were in high school, I’d take him behind the gym and beat the hell out of him.” Michael Avenatti, the lawyer who is also considering a run, told a crowd in Iowa, “When they go low, I say we hit harder.”
Or as Sean Clegg, a longtime Democratic strategist in California, put it: “When they go low, we kick ‘em in the nuts.”
Few public figures are as beloved by Democrats as the former first lady, who stepped into the midterm elections with a rally here Sunday. Several thousand rally-goers erupted in cheers when someone shouted to her, “Run for president!”
But her address — a non-combative call to register to vote — appeared to pale against the vitriolic tone of the current political climate. Three days earlier, Trump had catapulted into Las Vegas, calling Nevada Rep. Jacky Rosen ‘Wacky Jacky” and accusing Democrats of being “held hostage by left-wing haters” and “angry mobs.” In contrast, Obama said Sunday she was “not here to campaign for any candidate” or “tell anyone how to vote.”
Inside a packed gymnasium at a high school across town from the site of Trump’s rally, Obama said, “I’m here today to talk about why voting matters.”
Clegg called Michelle Obama “almost a perfect public figure,” and recalled in “We go high” a “gorgeous speech that really spoke to me in the moment.” But he added that “I think [Michelle] Obama would be the very first person to acknowledge … that what we faced in 2007 and 2008 was a wildly different world, and a wildly different media environment.”
Now, he said, “When they go low, we go high: To me, that’s not the formula to beat Trump … Ultimately, what I think Democrats are going to want in a nominee is, ‘Is this person tough enough to stand up to him?’”
In a bid to appeal to primary voters, nearly every top-tier Democrat considering running in 2020 has swiped aggressively at Trump. In June, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), accused the president of standing for “hatefulness, ugliness and cruelty.” When Ellen DeGeneres asked Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif) on her television show in April, “If you had to be stuck in an elevator with either President Trump, Mike Pence or Jeff Sessions, who would it be?”” Harris responded, “Does one of us have to come out alive?”
But even Democrats who have confronted the president continue to struggle with how aggressively to tangle with him, fearful of diminishing an agenda of their own. Asked repeatedly to comment on Trump at a march in Pittsburgh this month, Biden said only, “Everybody knows who the president is.”
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a potential 2020 candidate and chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, said in an interview that Democratic primary voters are likely to give extra consideration to a candidate’s experience, with Trump’s unpopularity demonstrating “the importance of having that ability to forge consensus and to be a listener to multiple interest groups.”
However, Inslee then alluded to his confrontation with Trump at the White House over gun control this year, saying 2020 Democrats must also have “demonstrated a spine for resistance, like a guy who’s gone to the White House and told Trump to his face that he’s wrong.”
Obama did not confront Trump on Sunday. Nor did she mention the controversy surrounding Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, despite appearing shortly after The New Yorker reported a second accusation of sexual assault against him.
Instead, Obama focused on the impact of voting to shape issues ranging from road maintenance and public safety to mental health and clean water.
“Not voting is like letting your grandma pick your clothes out ,” Obama said. “You are essentially putting your future in the hands of others.”
Obama drew raucous applause. And before her arrival, a small crowd-within-a-crowd repeated her refrain, “When they go low, we go high.” But in their 2020 candidates, Democrats are increasingly searching for a more combative tone.
“Different times call for different measures. You can’t have a single approach or a single speed,” Avenatti said in an interview. “These are desperate times for the future of the republic.”
Avenatti contends Democrats widely misinterpreted Michelle Obama’s remarks, calling her speech “admirable” but saying he saw them as aimed at a specific kind of verbal assault: one involving her family.
“You have to look at the context of when that statement was made by the former first lady, who I respect immensely,” Avenatti said. “There were personal attacks on her familiar and her kids, that’s what was happening when she said that. I do not believe that she was speaking to a general political approach.”
Avenatti is not alone in that assessment, with candidates up and down the ticket adopting a more aggressive posture in the midterm elections and in their preparations for 2020.
“One of the things that the Republicans do really well is that they stake their claim and are very clear about what they believe, and if you don’t like it, tough, don’t vote for me,” said Kelly Dietrich, founder of the National Democratic Training Committee, which trains candidates across the country. “Democrats need to be better at using emotion to motivate people … We’ve got to get tougher. That doesn’t mean we get dirty. It just means we get tougher.”
Bill Burton, a Democratic strategist and veteran of the Obama White House, said Michelle Obama’s “We go high” advice is “essentially still true” for Democrats, who he said should frame the 2020 campaign “on facts and issues that people are really caring about in their lives.”
But Burton said Democrats in 2016 failed to focus the electorate on a cohesive message and that with Trump in office in 2020, Democrats will “need someone who can effectively prosecute the case against Trump.”
“Whether that’s someone who’s talented at prosecutions, like [former Attorney General] Eric Holder or Kamala Harris, or someone who’s just good at getting press to pay attention to what he says, you know, remains to be seen,” Burton said. “My guess is we’re going to need someone who’s effective at litigating the case against President Trump so we have a better outcome than we had in 2016.”
Michelle Obama’s voter registration initiative is officially nonpartisan, though increasing registration in urban areas such as Las Vegas is likely to disproportionately benefit Democrats. Promoting voter registration has allowed Obama to float largely above the partisan fray. She is also promoting a new book, with sold-out dates in New York and Washington.
And even if Obama does not unload on Trump, Democrats view her appearances as significant, especially in such competitive states as Nevada, home to a critical Senate contest between Rosen and Republican Sen. Dean Heller.
“Look, we’re a minority party and it’s really hard for us to get a message out in general when you’re in the minority,” said Ben Tulchin, a Democratic pollster who worked on Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign. “It’s even harder when you have Trump in the White House, who dominates the media coverage every day.”
When former President Barack Obama visited Orange County recently, Tulchin said, “it was four days of positive news stories for Democrats.”
“Just having a positive counter-narrative for voters is helpful with our base: it motivates our base even more, it fires up our base,” Tulchin said. “Having that contrast is helpful whether it’s Barack or Michelle, in this case.”
As for Michelle Obama’s “We go high” admonition at the Democratic National Convention in 2016, he said, “That’s her brand, and it’s inspirational. Is it realistic in today’s Trump world we live in? You know, probably not. But she can’t just … crumple that up and throw it away.”