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Democratic candidates’ quandary: How to call out Trump on race without offending potential voters

President Trump on Aug. 9 said Democrats are “desperate” and, “call anybody a racist when they run out of cards.” (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Since announcing his presidential campaign, Donald Trump has been accused of promoting racist ideas by critics on the right and the left. And half of Americans agree with that.

But Democratic candidates looking to moderates to win the nomination have a trickier task in speaking out against the president’s racism. They are relying on previous Trump voters looking for a better option than the current president to help them get to the White House. And any suggestion that they could be blamed for the president’s racist policies and worldview could turn them away.

Several high-profile Democratic presidential candidates have taken a new, big step this week: directly connecting a president to white supremacy.

When a New York Times reporter asked Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) if she thought the president was a white supremacist, she immediately responded: “Yes.”

“He has given aid and comfort to white supremacists,” she added. “He has talked about white supremacists as fine people. He’s done everything he can to stir up racial conflict and hatred in this country.”

And when an MSNBC host asked former congressman Beto O’Rourke (D-Tex.) if he believed the president was a white supremacist, he replied: “He is. He’s also made that very clear. He’s dehumanized . . . those who do not look like or pray like the majority here in this country. He said I wish we had more immigrants from Nordic countries because those from Haiti bring AIDS, those from Africa are shithole nations.”

And in a speech Wednesday, former vice president Joe Biden said, “In both clear language and in code, this president has fanned the flames of white supremacy in this nation.”

When asked at the National Association of Black Journalists convention if he believes Trump is a white supremacist, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg said: “I do.”

“At best he is emboldening and empowering people with that ideology. At worst he is propelling it intentionally,” he added. “I can’t see into the guy’s heart.”

Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) told CNN Thursday that Trump is a racist.

“The sad thing about this is it’s no longer really a debatable point. There is just a long list of statements and tweets and behaviors from this president that make it very clear that he possesses hate and that he is divisive and that he is a racist,” she said.

The ease in arguing that Trump embraces white supremacy seems to have increased for some in the past month, given a string of incidents that includes:

  • Trump telling four congresswomen of color to “go back” to the countries from which Trump believes they came.
  • Trump describing predominantly black Baltimore as a “rat and rodent infested mess” where “no human being would want to live.”
  • A gunman traveled to El Paso with the alleged goal of killing Latinos after apparently posting an online rant that included language that mirrors rhetoric used by Trump.

The debate about whether the Democratic Party should nominate an individual with politics closer to the party’s base or an establishment candidate who can appeal to moderate Americans remains the biggest question hovering over this primary season. But the idea that the next president will need to be a Democrat who can win over former Trump supporters — specifically white working-class voters — appears to be motivating many of the candidates currently seeking the Democratic nomination.

After the last Democratic debate, some candidates appeared to go out of their way not to offend Trump supporters.

“There are people that voted for Donald Trump before that weren’t racist. They wanted a better shake with the economy, and so I would appeal to them,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said.

This annoyed, if not offended, some among the base who believe that Trump supporters are as complicit in backing the most dangerous parts of his administration.

But candidates such as Klobuchar, who has flatly called Trump racist, know that their path to the nomination isn’t through the base.

The same can be said for Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D), who spent the week calling Trump “sick” and “narcissistic” and acknowledged that white nationalists “feel like he’ll have their back.” But he quickly pivoted to what he described as Trump’s economic failures.

For these, the path to the nomination is likely to go through many of the suburban white voters who backed Trump in 2016 but who are put off by him now. This puts those candidates in a tough place — especially as they are struggling to break into the top tier of candidates. Not boldly addressing racism, one of the most discussed issues in politics, is bound to upset black voters, arguably the most influential demographic in the Democratic Party.

But boldly attacking Trump could backfire if potential voters feel implicated in the criticism.

How a potential president talks about combating the rise of white supremacy could very much reveal how they will respond — if at all — to the problem if elected. But how they address the issue currently will very much determine how much further they will go in their quest to be the nominee.