John Ossoff Strikes A Cautious Tone On Trump

by Chris Tognotti
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It's a big day for the Democratic Party, and a big day for the voters of Georgia's sixth congressional district, too. Thanks to former representative Tom Price's confirmation as secretary of Health and Human Services back in February, there's a special election taking place to choose his successor. And in a crowded field, a Democrat is vying to win the seat, competitive at a level that few saw coming. But running as a Democrat in a red state like Georgia is tricky business, which shows in Jon Ossoff's quotes about Donald Trump. He's making it clear he's not running as a far-left progressive, and that he's trying not to inflame the president's supporters.

Ossoff, 30, is making a long-shot bid to seize the state's sixth congressional seat, the same one that once belonged to former Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. Needless to say, that's a challenge that demands a delicate balancing act. The district sided with Trump during the 2016 presidential election, and although it was by a narrow one-point margin, that nonetheless means there are a lot of Trump voters Ossoff doesn't want to alienate with a starkly progressive, overly anti-Trump tone.

Which is probably why he's been so noticeably careful when he's commented on Trump, seemingly trying to thread the needle between holding him accountable while not excoriating him like a Democrat in a reliably blue district might. Here's a handful of prime examples.

"A Lot Of Work To Do"

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When the Guardian asked Ossoff to name an area where he agreed with Trump, the Georgia native reportedly couldn't come up with anything specific. But it's still noteworthy that he didn't forcefully attack Trump's policies. Rather, he said the president "has a lot of work to do," and listed a few of the things that gave him cause for "concern."

I think that the president has a lot of work to do. I think that management of legislative initiatives has been ineffective, management of foreign policy challenges is somewhat volatile and that’s a cause for concern.

"I Don't Think That It Constitutes A Policy"

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In the same interview with the Guardian, Ossoff spoke out on Trump's decision to order airstrikes in Syria. And although he gave a bleak assessment, saying he didn't think it was "a step in any direction," he did call it "a reasonable response to a discrete event in foreign affairs" ― again, tying a little bit of deference into the criticism, and not voicing any objections on moral or procedural grounds.

I don’t think the strike in Syria was a step in any direction. I think it was a reasonable response to a discrete event in foreign affairs. I don’t think that it constitutes a policy or a strategy.

"I Will Work With Anyone, Including Him"

Perhaps the clearest indication that Ossoff isn't trying to be an anti-Trump candidate came in response to the president's Twitter attack against him, calling him, among other things, a "super liberal." Not taking the bait, Ossoff replied that he wants to "get things done" for his district, even if that means working with Trump.

I was glad to see this morning that President Trump has taken interest in the campaign. While I don't expect a congratulatory tweet if I win, I will work with anyone in Washington — including him — to get things done for this district.

"I'll Hold Him Accountable"

When Ossoff does criticize Trump, he's generally careful to speak hypothetically, rather than highlight specific examples of his failings. He's also very wary of impugning Trump voters, which makes sense, considering he's trying to sway some of them. In a campaign ad released in early March, Ossoff says that he'll hold Trump accountable "when" he embarrasses America or acts recklessly, but doesn't get specific about any times he may have already done that.

But when President Trump embarrasses our country or acts recklessly, I'll hold him accountable.

"Imagine You Had 30 Seconds"

By far the most pointed attack Ossoff has lobbed at Trump came in his campaign ad "Countdown," in which he raises the prospect of the president starting a needless war out of impulsiveness:

Imagine you had 30 seconds to make a life or death decision affecting thousands of Americans. That's what we expect of our President. Sound judgment. That's why it's so concerning to see President Trump act impulsively. He is not only embarrassing us on the world stage. He could start an unnecessary war. I'm Jon Ossoff and I approve this message because I'll work with anybody to do what's right for our country, but we can't let Donald Trump put us at risk.

In short, even in what's plainly his most hardline anti-Trump ad, Ossoff still tosses in a very familiar line ― "I'll work with anybody" ― to prove that he won't necessarily be some sort of hard-left bulwark against Trump's agenda.

Even that statement is out of step with the feelings of the Democratic grassroots right now, much of which is highly energized and calling for firm resistance at every turn. But catering to the party's base isn't likely to be a winning strategy for Ossoff, given the place in which he's running — thus the restrained tone and emphasis on bipartisanship. The question, of course, is whether it will work.