Democrats hoping that the Trump campaign’s haphazard first response to former Vice President Joe Biden choosing California Senator Kamala Harris as his running-mate is indicative of how it will unravel his re-election campaign need to take a deep breath and prepare for the worst, according to Trump and Republican insiders.
Team Trump’s pushback against the new would-be Veep began just after Biden let supporters know that the former California attorney general would be joining him on the Democratic ticket.
It started with the release of a scattershot 30-second advertising spot which recounted Harris’ primary debate broadside against Biden and her own primary performance before labeling the pair “Slow Joe” and “Phony Kamala”. Over the next 24 hours a succession of surrogates also laid into Harris for simultaneously being a criminal-coddling leftist supporter of defunding police and a ruthless prosecutor who sent thousands of Black men to prison.
The president himself weighed in at his daily news conference on Tuesday by labeling Harris as “nasty,” an epithet he famously applied to Hillary Clinton during a 2016 debate, and has since reserved for women — often Black women — who have had the temerity to call him out.
In addition to his previous opponent, those he’s so labeled include the senator’s California colleague Nancy Pelosi — the first (and only) female Speaker of the House — as well as veteran American Urban Radio Networks White House reporter April Ryan, and PBS Newshour correspondent Yamiche Alcindor, both of whom are women of colour.
And on an official surrogate call with reporters, Tennessee Senator Marsha Blackburn claimed that Harris would be “the most liberal, leftist nominee for VP that our country has ever seen” (clearly she’s never heard of Angela Davis, the leftist academic and activist who was twice the Communist Party’s VP nominee) and slammed her for “marching in the streets” with Black Lives Matter protesters. Meanwhile, just a few minutes later Black Voices For Trump advisor Katrina Pierson attacked Harris for having an “egregious record as a prosecutor” that she would try to bury to appease “anti-police extremists”.
Michael Starr Hopkins, a Democratic strategist, said he was surprised by how lackadaisical the initial volley of attacks against the first Black, female nominee for vice president had been, but suggested that the Trump campaign knows hitting her too hard could backfire.
“They know if they attack her often it will cause the African-American community to circle the wagons around her and become defensive and sympathetic towards her in a way that many weren't during the [Democratic presidential] primary, but to say that they [the Trump campaign] have thought that far ahead may be giving them too much credit,” he said.
Yet despite Trump’s claim that Harris was his “number one draft pick” for Biden’s VP choice, one former Trump campaign operative suggested that Harris presents a particular challenge for the 45th president because of his own combination of pathologies and prejudices.
“This is like the worst-case scenario for Donald Trump, because it has been established that he is a misogynist and racist,” they said, adding that because he “has reserved the worst and nastiest attacks for women of color,” Biden’s choice of Harris as a running-mate “is actually going to magnify his disdain for black women and African Americans as a whole, but more importantly, the electorate will see ...how deeply rooted his hatred is.”
The former campaign staffer added that early attacks on Harris’ ethnicity from Trump allies such as conservative radio host Mark Levin further underscore the bind the president’s team finds itself in against her.
“His team is struggling, because... the first thing that they start to counter with is that she's 'not Black. They had this whole rundown that she's Jamaican, she's not of African descent, but how do you think the Black people got to Jamaica?” they said. “Whether it's the RNC, whether it's the [super PACs], whether it's surrogates, whether it's the White House, there is no consensus, and that's going to be one of their biggest problems. Because they are not on the same page in terms of how to move forward in defending him or being on the offensive in this case.”
But other veteran Republican operatives and consultants warned that any early appearance of confusion as to how to go after Harris won’t last long.
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When asked whether the Trump campaign’s early hits against Harris indicated difficulty landing a punch, former Republican National Committee (RNC) Chairman Michael Steele rejected the premise of the question entirely.
“I would not fall for that at all. They know what to make of her,” said Steele, a former Maryland lieutenant governor who was elected to head the RNC after the Obama-Biden-led Democrats trounced Republicans at all levels in the 2008 election.
“Knowing operationally how the RNC looks at these types of races, and politically how Trump is going to come at this thing, I think they [the Trump campaign] can bide their time a little bit and just let it [the roll-out of Harris as Biden’s running-mate] play out”.
Steele cautioned that looking for an “instant analysis” of the Trump campaign’s strategy based on the first 24 hours after Democrats set their ticket is a fool’s errand.
“[Reporters] are gonna misjudge the moment if folks start writing stories about how they don't have a response to Kamala Harris,” he explained.
“I guarantee you Donald Trump has something that he's gonna drop that’s gonna make everybody go: ‘What the fuck?’” he said, adding later that he is looking to see how the Trump campaign repositions itself to run with a “very sophisticated, dominant African-American woman” such as Harris on the ticket.
“Will they fall into traps that she can very easily set in trying to make them go after her versus staying focused on Joe Biden? Because at the end of the day, Joe Biden is the one who gets to call the shots,” he explained. “If that's your strategy, you're going to fall into a rabbit hole of your own making, you'll get lost in it, and all Biden has to do is come along and put dirt over the hole”.
Steele posited that because Harris had been rumored to be at the top of the list of potential Biden running-mates, Trump and his advisers have long had time to game out a strategy that will play to an audience that responds to his brand of racial grievance. He offered as evidence Trump’s recent claims that “suburban housewives” would suffer under a Biden administration that sought to restore regulations aimed at desegregating new housing developments.
“It's like being on a submarine that realizes it's got to go to the bottom to survive, and that’s exactly what's going to happen — just dive, dive dive, and…sit here and rest on the bottom of the ocean…and just shoot at [Biden] from there,” he said.
Former Republican strategist Steve Schmidt, who ran the late Arizona Senator John McCain’s 2008 campaign against Barack Obama and Joe Biden — the first GOP ticket to go up against a mixed-race Democratic one — said Trump’s messaging at “suburban housewives” was an “interesting” target for an election taking place in 2020, but one that comes “straight from his 1950’s fever dreams”.
“He has [1950’s television housewife] June Cleaver, I think, pictured in the kitchen, being surrounded by large menacing black men. He’s explicitly saying that the black people are coming to your suburbs to live and do violence to you,” said Schmidt, who added that the fact that both McCain and his senior campaign staff objected to the use of advertisements and messaging that would have been “racially divisive and poisonous” — a style Trump has wholeheartedly embraced — shows the extent to which the 2020 campaign is taking place in “a fundamentally different era” for the GOP.
Schmidt warned that the success of a slew of Congressional candidates who support the QAnon conspiracy theory indicate the dark turn that his former party will take over the 82 days remaining before the general election.
“It’s gonna be like one part ideological exaggeration, one part racial animus and one part batshit crazy conspiracy theory,” he said.
Another former Republican who knows Trump’s ways better than most — former White House Office of Public Liaison Communications Director, Omarosa Manigault Newman, predicted that the addition of a Howard University graduate such as Harris to the Democratic ticket would have a positive effect on the Biden campaign by activating a powerful network of Black influencers who’ve graduated from Historically Black Colleges and Universities across the country.
However, at the same time, she cautioned that having Harris on the ballot would push the president’s buttons in ways that won’t be helpful for any attempt to impose the sort of discipline he displayed in the final weeks of the 2016 election cycle.
“He’s his worst enemy, so the Biden-Harris ticket is formidable because it's going to trigger him in ways where he'll be all over the place,” said Manigault Newman, who served as director of African-American outreach during Trump’s 2016 campaign. She added that the president, with whom she first became acquainted as a contestant on the first season of The Apprentice, “can't help himself when it comes to self-destructing”.
“He's not well, so even if he came up with the best strategies to defeat a Biden-Harris ticket, there would be no discipline behind it,” she continued, before offering a dire warning for Bidenworld.
“This man can be vulgar and disgusting, has no sense of decency, and can go very, very low, so brace yourself,” she said. “Brace yourself, brace yourself, brace yourself”.