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Why Are Democratic Leaders So Afraid to Speak Out Against the NFL?

When it comes to standing up against the NFL's new protest policy, many Democratic leaders have opted for passivity. But what if the importance of the middle ground has been substantially overstated?
Members of the Detroit Lions take a knee during the playing of the national anthem at Ford Field on September 24th, 2017, in Detroit, Michigan.

Members of the Detroit Lions take a knee during the playing of the national anthem at Ford Field on September 24th, 2017, in Detroit, Michigan.

The National Football League protests have once again been in the news, thanks to the league's release of its new policy regarding kneeling during the national anthem. There have a been a range of reactions, none more puzzling than those by the Democratic Party's establishment leaders.

In response to the policy, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi issued a statement affirming her love for both the national anthem and the First Amendment. It seems pretty clear that she wants nothing to do with the issue. She probably sees it as one that can create discord within her party; the protests sharply divide African Americans (a large and reliably Democratic bloc of voters) from working-class whites (a politically unstable voting bloc many Democrats see as being vital to the party's future victories).

Regarding this issue, Pelosi is not alone in her proclivity for passivity. The week before the NFL decision was released, Paul Begala made some statements on this very topic in an interview with Bill Kristol. Begala, a longstanding Democratic campaign consultant, was one of the architects of Bill Clinton's successful 1992 campaign and continues to articulate Democratic strategies and philosophies. Even if his viewpoints are not indicative of the party line, they are at least shared among the party's establishment.

Begala offered some prescient advice for Democrats trying to navigate the Trump era: Don't get baited into arguments around issues that are dissonant to Democrats but unifying for Republicans. He offered the NFL protests as an example of an issue Democrats should avoid. "Donald Trump attacks the football players," Begala said. "Democrats grab the bait, and now, all of a sudden, we're the party of people disrespecting the flag. Well, no, wait a minute, can't we get back to middle-class jobs?" Begala also cited Trump's attack on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and his ban on transgender soldiers as issues Democrats would be wise to avoid engaging. On DACA, Begala said, "We shut down the government over DACA. It was a mistake. ... We care about these Dreamers ... but shut down the whole government? Really? For 800,000 young people in a country of 320 million? That was Trump baiting the Democrats into doing something seen as extreme and ill-advised."

This argument of selective disengagement is an important one, if for no other reason than the fact that people like Pelosi and Begala are making it. It's not clear just what that's based on.

There may very well be polling evidence showing tepid support for NFL protesters and transgender soldiers among moderate white Democratic identifiers. And even if moderate whites are generally supportive of Dreamers, there's a good chance they consider middle-class jobs a more pressing issue.

But is there any evidence that the prominence of such issues in the media actually hurts Democrats?

Trump has had the most stable public approval ratings of any president in the era of polling, despite the constant shifting of topics in the national dialogue. Throughout the past year, Democrats have performed well in special elections, regardless of whether the nation was focused on jobs, health careColin Kaepernick, or anything else. The Democratic advantage in congressional match-up polling has dropped somewhat in recent months, but that dip took place before discussion around the NFL or DACA had reached any sort of fever pitch.

The truth is, there's likely no single incantation that Pelosi—or anyone, for that matter—can utter to swing Democrats' fortunes. It's not really clear why the Democratic advantage in congressional match-ups has eroded, even while Democrats continue to do well in off-cycle elections. Because there's no answer, pundits are free to attribute that phenomenon to whatever preconceptions they already had.

Non-white Democrats are probably far less likely to see the NFL protests as a distraction, just as Dreamers and transgender troops probably don't see a focus on middle-class jobs as paramount to their own rights, especially during an era of historically low unemployment. Indeed, for many Democrats, a focus on social justice for marginalized communities is precisely why they became Democrats in the first place.