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After Charlottesville, Democrats Debate How Broadly To Respond

Tourists walk past the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee inside the U.S. Capitol on Aug. 17. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has called for the removal of all Confederate statues from the Capitol building.
Mark Wilson
Getty Images
Tourists walk past the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee inside the U.S. Capitol on Aug. 17. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has called for the removal of all Confederate statues from the Capitol building.

Democrats have spent the past two weeks condemning President Trump over his initial equivocating response to racist violence in Charlottesville, Va.

The question is, what to do next: keep up broad critiques of Trump's leadership, or focus on narrower goals, like the removal of public monuments honoring Confederate leaders?

More than 100 House Democrats are co-sponsoring a resolution censuring Trump, condemning his response to the events. New York Rep. Jerry Nadler, who is leading the effort, said a broad on-the-record rebuke is needed to maintain the country's credibility. "The only other body that can speak for the country and say, 'This is not speaking for the United States,' " he said, "is Congress."

But House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., dismissed the resolution as a "partisan hackfest," and without any GOP support, it will likely die as a press release.

So what else can Democrats do?

Many lawmakers and progressive activists are eager to keep the focus on statues. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has backed a push to remove Confederate statues from the U.S. Capitol.

Former Trump adviser Steve Bannon seem eager to litigate that issue, feeling like identity politics won Trump more votes than it lost him in 2016.

"The longer they talk about identity politics, I got 'em," Bannon told the American Prospect, shortly before he left his White House position. "I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats."

Some Democratic strategists seem to agree — at least when it comes to the statue fight. David Axelrod, a longtime adviser to President Barack Obama who now runs the University of Chicago's Institute of Politics, thinks Democrats can and should keep raising questions about Trump's leadership. "The unwillingness to take on what was abhorrent — broadly abhorrent to Americans — is a real issue, and one that should not be forgotten."

But a Confederate statue fight? "This notion that we should go rampaging through the country toppling statues everywhere in a precipitous way without process, I think is a loser," said Axelrod. "And you've seen it in polling."

An NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll conducted in the wake of Charlottesville found that while a majority of respondents thought Trump's response to the violence was "not strong enough," more than 6 in 10 said Confederate statues should remain standing.


Ruy Teixeira, who studies demographics at the liberal Center For American Progress, said many voters just don't want to hear that racism is still a problem. "They do believe we've made progress," he said. "And for people to tell them no progress has been made, and you're still the same racist you used to be, or your father was, is uncomfortable and alienating."

There's a strong — and vocal — counterargument to that wariness, though.

"Standing up against hate is not an identity politics issue. That is an American issue that we should all be comfortable fighting for and standing up for," said Karen Finney, who worked on Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign.

Finney believes removing statues is a fight worth having, and for her, it's deeply personal.

She says it's a topic she has thought seriously about for at least 10 years.

That is because, on her mother's side, Finney is a direct descendant of Robert E. Lee — she is the Confederate general's great-great-great-great-niece.

But on her father's side of the family, Finney is a direct descendant of slaves. Her father worked as a civil rights attorney.

Finney thinks Democrats can reframe the statues conversation to win broader support. The first place to start, she says, is by pointing out that many of the statues weren't built until the 20th century.

"Remember — this was happening in tandem with the brutalism of Jim Crow South, and hangings, and all kinds of racial terrorism and violence, to remind black people who was really in charge. I think if people knew that piece, they might feel a little different."

More broadly, Finney says Democrats should keep talking about Charlottesville, arguing their party cares about the whole country, while Trump is just focused on his base. "And what that means is, again, we want health care for everybody. We want good jobs for everybody," she said.

But it's hard to keep the focus on policies, and what Democrats would do rather than what Trump is doing, when the president keeps doing things that party leaders feel they need to condemn.

The Clinton campaign that Finney worked on never quite figured out that balance. And many Democrats are worried they're going to keep falling into the trap.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.