The Note: Democrats struggle for policy traction amid noise from Trump

PHOTO: President Donald Trump stands in the East Room of the White House during a ceremony, July 18, 2019.PlayNicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images
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Is there room, amid the noise and the outrage, for a policy debate?

That’s the question confronting the still-crowded field of Democratic presidential contenders, as the calendar flips closer to the next debate.

A full week was consumed by President Donald Trump’s decision to single out four freshman Democratic House members in singularly offensive fashion. The president continues to fuel that storyline, while this week figures to be consumed by Wednesday’s long-awaited Capitol Hill testimony featuring Robert Mueller.

The urgency is real for the roughly two-thirds of the field still clamoring for a spot in the fall debates. Efforts to contrast plans with Sen. Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All proposal or Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s college-debt forgiveness plan -- to cite just two prominent examples -- need to be heard to get traction.

PHOTO: President Donald Trump speaks during a Keep America Great rally in Greenville, N.C., July 17, 2019. Zach Gibson/Getty Images
President Donald Trump speaks during a Keep America Great rally in Greenville, N.C., July 17, 2019.

The condemnation of Trump has been swift and unanimous among Democrats. It’s also low-hanging political fruit -- made no less tempting by the knowledge that the president would like them to pick it.

"A stain on this presidency," Gov. Steve Bullock, D-Mont., said on ABC’s "This Week," referring to the chants of "send her back" that broke out at his rally last week.

"This president is more George Wallace than George Washington," former Vice President Joe Biden said at a fundraiser over the weekend.

Labeling Trump, though, is the easy part of the Democratic primary. It’s harder for candidates to turn the focus to something, or someone, else.

The RUNDOWN with MaryAlice Parks

In politics, when you’re explaining you’re losing, and Republicans are still playing linguistic gymnastics to try to defend the president’s actions this past week.

"He’s not a racist," Mercedes Schlapp, senior adviser to Trump’s reelection campaign, told ABC News Chief Anchor George Stephanopoulos on "This Week" Sunday, of Trump. That’s a tough headline for any team.

Rep. Liz Cheney, D-Wyo., tried to blame the conversation on the "media." Both Cheney and Schlapp argued that the president had been "clear" he did not like the ugly chants at his rally in North Carolina. Though, in fact, he’d been about as clear as mud about his thoughts on Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., and Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., all week.

PHOTO: Mercedes Schlapp appears on This Week with George Stephanopoulos, July 21, 2019. ABC News
Mercedes Schlapp appears on "This Week with George Stephanopoulos," July 21, 2019.

And, the president stood at the podium as the chants went on for 13 seconds.

Several Democrats and Republicans agreed this weekend that the conversation was a distraction from policy issues, but it’s a divisive and profound distraction that the president keeps fueling himself, as he continued to tweet about it all weekend.

The TIP with Samantha Sergi

Older people love to vote, particularly in Iowa, where voter turnout is very strong: Nearly 84% of Iowa voters age 65 and older voted in the 2016 presidential election compared to 55% of voters ages 18 to 34. But, according to many of those voters, age is not just a number.

"I don't want another president who's older than I am. So no Joe, no Bernie," 72-year-old Greg Dunn told ABC News at the Iowa AARP-Des Moines Register Forum. James O'Hara, who at 76 years old is the same age as Biden and one year younger than Sanders, said while he admires Biden he is "afraid Joe's time has passed," and doesn’t "see him being able to speak to where we’re going with the future."

Not everyone is worried though. Pat and Skip Hoelker are both 70 years old and say that age is a factor, but not a deciding factor, while 74-year-old Mark Griswold is supportive of both Biden and Sanders running for president.

"I have a 98-year-old mother, who lives at home, who is better in math skills, and sharper to detail than I am. So age is just a number," Griswold told ABC News.

PHOTO: Democratic presidential hopeful U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks during the AARP and The Des Moines Register Iowa Presidential Candidate Forum on July 20, 2019, in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Democratic presidential hopeful U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks during the AARP and The Des Moines Register Iowa Presidential Candidate Forum on July 20, 2019, in Council Bluffs, Iowa.

THE PLAYLIST

ABC News' "Start Here" podcast. Monday morning’s episode features ABC News' Elizabeth McLaughlin, who brings us up to speed on the simmering tensions between the United Kingdom and Iran -- and where the U.S. fits in. Then, ABC News International Editor Marcus Wilford tells us what to expect after the vote for the U.K. prime minister wraps up. And, ABC News' Victor Oquendo reports from Puerto Rico amid ongoing protests calling for its governor to resign. https://apple.co/2YfxGQf

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

  • President Donald Trump welcomes Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan to the White House.
  • Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, sits down with ABC's "The View" panel at 11 a.m.
  • The Washington Post will feature a live, one-on-one interview with Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., one week before the next televised debate, at 8:15 a.m.
  • House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., and Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Mich., speak at the opening session at the NAACP's 110th annual convention in Detroit at 9 a.m. Former Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams speaks at the convention's Clarence Mitchell Memorial Luncheon at 12:30 p.m.
  • Gen. Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will host Pakistan Chief of the Army Staff Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa at the Pentagon at 3 p.m.
  • The Senate is scheduled to vote on Mark Esper's Defense Secretary nomination.
  • Former Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-Texas, visits Ellis Island in New York City at 8:30 a.m. and participates in the Guided Walking Tour at 9 a.m. He then visits the Wall of Names at 10 a.m.
  • Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper kicks off a four-day Winnebago tour in West Des Moines, Iowa, as part of the "Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa."
  • Washington Gov. Jay Inslee holds a town hall in Los Angeles at 5 p.m. (PST).
  • Download the ABC News app and select "The Note" as an item of interest to receive the day's sharpest political analysis every weekday.

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