Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA), the 38-year-old House member from California, has only met President Trump once. But as he tells it, the commander in chief immediately recognized him when they came face-to-face. It was at Trump’s first address to the joint session of Congress and a group of Democrats greeted the president before the speech.
“I happened to be the last person in the line,” Swalwell told The Daily Beast in an interview. “I brought a letter to give to him from a Muslim constituent who had concerns about his Muslim ban. And as I’m handing him the letter, he looks at me and goes, ‘I know who you are. I’ve seen you on TV.’”
The night before, Swalwell appeared on Tucker Carlson’s prime-time Fox News show. It was an unlikely place to find a liberal Democrat from California. But not necessarily for Swalwell.
The congressman has made a personal effort to do more conservative media and is hoping others in his party will do the same; not just so that Trump can recognize them before White House meet-and-greets, but so that an audience that is intrinsically hostile to Democrats gets a more rounded picture of the party. It’s not an approach without risks. In Swalwell’s case, death threats have followed some of his appearances. But the congressman, who said he has been doing Fox News hits since getting invited on Sean Hannity’s show in his first weeks as a member of Congress, sees it as a net-plus.
“I think you have to go into that arena absolutely,” Swalwell advised. “You’re not going to win all of them but you can win enough of them. That’s how I see it.”
The question over how much Democrats should try to engage conservative media (Fox News in particular), and how consequential that engagement may be, has become more paramount as the 2020 presidential campaign gets underway. Trump enjoys huge sway over a swath of the electorate precisely because of his ubiquity on conservative networks and their fawning coverage of him. Some Democrats have tried to chip away at that by, in part, going into the belly of the beast. But the results have been mixed at best.
Prior to 2018’s midterm elections, some moderate and conservative Democratic incumbents tried to convince their electorates via Fox News that they were more accommodating to the president’s agenda than portrayed. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) appeared on Fox News shortly before the election to distance herself from “crazy Democrats” and singled out Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) as being ideologically way out of line with her. But she went on to lose her race to Republican Josh Hawley and later referred to the network as a “state-owned news channel,” stressing that Fox News’ incessant coverage of a Central American migrant caravan had become inescapable in Missouri.
In the run-up to his own re-election bid, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) made appeals to Breitbart, reportedly holding an off-the-record meeting with the website’s editorial team. He would later do interviews with the publication, granting them exclusives early in President Trump’s term. Manchin didn’t shy away from engaging with Fox either. The senator, who is one of the most conservative members of his caucus, won re-election in November.
“Let me just tell you, my thoughts are going to be the same whether I know you’re coming from the far right or far left,” Manchin told The Daily Beast in a recent interview. “It makes no difference. I’m going to be the same. So however you all want to report it, I would hope you’d be accurate in what I say. That’s about all. I talk to everybody.”
Asked if more Democrats should appear on the network, he said: “Absolutely. They should—Fox News? I go to Fox, CNN, MSNBC. I go to all of them. I just feel comfortable because what I’ve got to say is the same, no matter where I’m saying it.”
It’s not just the conservative-leaning members of the Democratic Party who have taken the approach of direct engagement with the conservative press. Warren, who is frequently the subject of Trump’s racist “Pocahontas” attack line and often mocked and labeled as a boogeyman on Fox News segments, has appeared on the network three times this year—once during a round of Sunday show appearances, once to discuss marijuana legislation alongside Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), and finally for an appearance about her bill on Equifax with Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA).
But, as of yet, no other prospective 2020 presidential candidates outside of Warren and Swalwell have made concerted efforts to appear on Fox News. Swalwell said that in a conversation four years ago, Bill Shine—then an executive at the network and now a top adviser to Trump—made a pitch to have more Democrats appear on their programming. But lawmakers have largely resisted because of what they view as slanted and adversarial programming that is designed—first and foremost—to demonize them and often rests on misinformation to do so. Some Democratic veterans have concluded that while conservative media should be engaged, Fox News itself is a lost cause.
“I think Democrats confuse the need to communicate to some voters that watch Fox with communicating to them through Fox,” Dan Pfeiffer, former senior adviser to President Obama told The Daily Beast. “You might as well participate in a RNC livestream for all the good it will do you. Even if the individual Fox interviewer does the unexpected and is fair, the rest of the network and the social-media side will use the interview to hurt you politically because that is their job. Most Fox viewers are a lost cause to Democrats but there are a portion of voters who are available to us and we need to try to reach them by going around not through Fox.”
Pfeiffer’s opinion of Fox News is colored, in part, by his tenure during the Obama administration, when the network spent a good chunk of its programming over-hyping scandals involving the president and helped launch Glenn Beck’s conspiratorial attacks on key White House officials. Relations were extremely icy then, with the Obama press shop even briefly refusing to call on Fox News’ White House correspondents before relenting under pressure. He said the situation is even worse now.
“Fox has always been bad, but they were a useful platform at times in 2008,” Pfeiffer said. “It got much worse after Obama won and they found out they could get great ratings by trying to scare white people 24/7 and have now stumbled into racist Pravda territory in the Trump years.”
But others in the party say that there is no logic in ignoring the most watched cable-TV news outlet, and that there may even utility in trying to reach a segment of voters whose media-consumption habits are limited strictly to the network. “You let them create a meme or you try and be on as much as you can so people can kind of see for themselves,” one Senate Democratic communications director told The Daily Beast.
That may be especially true in the 2020 campaign, when Trump and his surrogates are likely to lean heavily on the network to help orchestrate news cycles and amplify their messaging.
During the 2016 campaign, Hillary Clinton did not appear on Fox News regularly—save for a sitdown with the most high-profile, and least overtly ideological, news anchors (along with a phoner with Bill O’Reilly). Instead, her campaign tried to book surrogates to do battle with conservative commentators and Trump allies. Clinton press secretary Brian Fallon occasionally appeared on the network to defend the then-Democratic nominee. One source told the Daily Beast that the Democratic National Committee urged current California Attorney General Xavier Becerra and Rep. Ruben Gallego to appear often as surrogates to defend Clinton on the network, believing they were willing and effective messengers.
Fox’s coverage remained relentlessly negative. Nevertheless, Clinton veterans still believe engagement is valuable. Tracy Sefl, a veteran Democratic strategist, had the task of establishing a relationship with Matt Drudge of the Drudge Report, during Clinton’s initial run for the White House in 2008. She said she “respect[s] an advocate or an elected official who’s willing to appear for the sake of sharing their message” and believes that Democrats would be wise to make the effort.
“Remember, this country is far, far bigger than the Acela corridor,” Sefl said. “And always respect the audience—if you can’t, you likely shouldn’t be on.”
Longtime Clinton ally Philippe Reines said that in the lead-up to the 2016 election, he advised the former secretary of state and those close to her to put her on the network more often, believing that it could humanize her to at least a few Fox News viewers.
In the two years since Clinton’s loss, he has tried to exemplify that approach himself, appearing on the network’s shows multiple times a week.
“Ten years ago, if you would’ve watched Fox News and CNN side-by-side, you would’ve seen the same stories with different slants,” he said recently while riding in an Uber to the Fox News studio in Washington, D.C. “Today one is Mars and one is Venus. I don’t think it’d be that way if Democrats didn’t let it fester.”
—Andrew Desiderio contributed reporting