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Bombs in the mail worsen an already bitter partisan season

Bombs in the mail worsen an already bitter partisan season
  (Los Angeles Times)

Within minutes of the discovery of explosive devices sent to prominent Democrats and other critics of President Trump, the national conversation turned to questions of blame and politics: How might the bomb threats affect the midterm elections? Who had the moral high ground?

The speed with which political blame became a major topic reflects a defining characteristic of today’s public debates, what political scientists call “negative partisanship.” The label refers to the manner in which dislike or fear of the other party motivates people as much as, or even more than, advocacy of one’s own party’s ideas.

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As Americans have sorted themselves out along political lines — with neighborhoods, television habits and even occupations reinforcing partisan boundaries — news events increasingly trigger negative views of those on the other side. Whether another news story will affect voters’ midterm choices remains unknown; that the overall phenomenon constrains the ability of whoever wins to govern effectively could not be more obvious.

A MANHUNT AND A BLAME GAME

The FBI and other federal law enforcement agencies quickly launched an intensive hunt to track down who sent at least 11 fairly unsophisticated pipe bombs to a list of prominent Democrats that included Hillary Clinton, former President Obama and former Vice President Joe Biden and Rep. Maxine Waters.

Friday morning, authorities arrested a suspect, a Florida man with a history of making threats.

Trump, knowing his reaction would be scrutinized, initially called for unity.

“We want all sides to come together in peace and harmony. We can do it,” he said, reading a prepared statement off a Teleprompter at a rally in Mosinee, Wis. “Those engaged in the political arena must stop treating political opponents as being morally defective.”

As he often does, Trump called attention to his own stagecraft.

"Did you see how nice I'm behaving tonight?” he remarked at one point.

By the next day, he appeared to tire of the script, tweeting a fresh attack on the the press.

“A very big part of the Anger we see today in our society is caused by the purposely false and inaccurate reporting of the Mainstream Media that I refer to as Fake News," he wrote.

By Friday, as Noah Bierman wrote, Trump went further, edging up close to the conspiracy theory espoused by some on the right: that Democrats had organized the bomb plot to distract from other issues.

“Republicans are doing so well in early voting, and at the polls, and now this ‘Bomb’ stuff happens and the momentum greatly slows — news not talking politics,” the president tweeted. “Very unfortunate, what is going on.”

Calls for unity and rising above partisanship don’t come naturally to Trump. In part, that’s a matter of personality. Political calculation plays a big role, as well.

Trump’s core supporters cheer when he goes on the attack. They admire what they see as his toughness and authenticity. His political success has come from driving up the degree of support he gets from groups that already back him, not from reaching out to convert those who disagree.

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That left Democrats free to claim the national unity banner, as Biden did in a speech near Buffalo, N.Y.

“We’ve got to turn off this hate machine. We’ve got to come together,” Biden said. “People understand that words matter. Words matter. And our children are listening.”

Biden’s words, too, involve both a core part of his personality and a political imperative. He has built his brand around the idea — asserted more than proven — that he has appeal across the nation’s partisan gap.

At the same time, Democrats have benefited considerably from voters who see them as the alternative to the polarization on which Trump thrives.

On both sides, partisans see the other side’s talk of unity as a hypocritical effort to gain advantage. Therein lies the essence of negative partisanship: Even a call for the country to come together can drive partisans further apart.

MIDTERM BIG PICTURE — A REMARKABLY STABLE RACE

For all the head-spinning news of the past year, the political outlook has changed very little: Democrats remain strongly favored to win a majority in the House; Republicans remain heavy favorites to hold on to control of the Senate.

Democrats also have strong chances to win contests for governor in several major states. The race attracting the most attention down the homestretch is in Florida. There, as Evan Halper writes, the campaign of Democratic candidate Andrew Gillum provides a crucial test of whether an unabashedly progressive candidate can win. Potential presidential candidates are keeping close watch.

Our latest USC/Los Angeles Times tracking poll showed Democrats with a 13-percentage-point lead on the so-called “generic ballot” — the question that asks voters for which party’s candidate for Congress they expect to vote. The poll is on the high end of recent estimates of the Democratic advantage in the congressional race, but all recent nonpartisan surveys have shown a significant Democratic edge.

For all of that, a lot of races remain very close — enough that both sides can still see plausible paths to victory.

Democrats have campaigned heavily on healthcare. The Trump administration handed them a new talking point on Monday when it issued rules that ease the way for states to allow insurance companies to sell health plans that don't cover preexisting conditions, Noam Levey wrote.

Trump has tried to improve Republican chances with a series of false claims and dystopian warnings of Democratic “mob” rule, Eli Stokols wrote.

That aim also lies behind Trump’s focus on the caravan of several thousand bedraggled migrants moving slowly north through Mexico. As Patrick McDonnell wrote from southern Mexico, the number of marchers has slowly dwindled as many have given up the trek or dropped off in Mexican villages.

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McDonnell and Kate Linthicum took this look at how the caravan got started, including an interview with one of the key organizers in Honduras, a local political figure named Bartolo Fuentes.

Trump also took a sideswipe at a perennial target, California, hitting the state over its water management policies, which he mischaracterized.

THE VILLAINESS IN CHIEF

Even more than caravans of Central Americans, Republicans have campaigned against House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi.

As Mark Barabak wrote, the invective thrown her way doesn’t faze the 78 year old San Francisco congresswoman — indeed, not much does. And if Democrats on the campaign trail criticize her, as well, that’s fine too. It all comes down to one thing, Pelosi says: “Just win.”

In an interview, Pelosi told Barabak that if the Democrats do regain control, she would aim to reclaim the office of Speaker of the House, but as a “transitional figure.”

She’s already begun to groom potential successors, including Reps. Adam Schiff of Burbank, Cheri Bustos of Illinois and Ben Ray Lujan of New Mexico, who heads the Democrats’ campaign operation this year.

DECISION CALIFORNIA

As Democrats try to flip control of the House, they’re counting on support from a lot of suburban voters who used to cast ballots for the GOP. So it’s fitting that two of their candidates in toss-up races in Orange County, Gil Cisneros and Harley Rouda, are ex-Republicans who say their former party has gone too far to the right, as Joe Mozingo and Christine Mai-Duc wrote.

Rouda got a potentially significant boost from former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, another former Republican, who put $9.5 million into ads to help Democrats in two swing California districts, Michael Finnegan wrote.

One ad backs Democratic candidate Katie Hill, who hopes to defeat incumbent Rep. Steve Knight in the 25th Congressional District, which crosses northern Los Angeles County.

The other targets Rouda’s opponent, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, on the issue of climate change.

“It’s getting hotter, but while fire and smoke choke our air, Dana Rohrabacher is radically opposed to efforts to fight climate change,” the ad declares.

As Evan Halper wrote, political strategists have said for years that climate change wasn’t a voting issue, and that activists cared about it more than the general public. But as the impact of global warming becomes more visible, its weight as a campaign issue is growing in some areas, notably Florida, and California as well.

Rohrabacher has also been under fire for contacts with Russians, which he has acknowledged, but defended. Democrats say they'll release sealed Rohrabacher testimony about his contacts if they gain a House majority, David Willman wrote.

CONFRONTING THE STATE’S HOUSING PROBLEMS

Gavin Newsom, who remains the strong favorite to become California’s next governor, says the state’s housing crisis will be one of his top priorities.

As Dakota Smith wrote, the lieutenant governor's approach to fixing homelessness when he was mayor of San Francisco outraged activists. And he's proud of that.

Experts say California needs to build a lot more housing. But as Liam Dillon wrote, our USC/L.A. Times poll shows that the public doesn’t buy that argument.

ROGER STONE, TOURING FOR MONEY

Roger Stone, the longtime Trump advisor and Republican operative, has embraced infamy and controversy for years. But now, facing investigation by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, he’s portraying himself as an innocent facing circumstantial allegations.

Chris Megerian caught up with Stone in Florida, where he regaled a crowd of Trump supporters and urged them to do two things: Vote Republican and contribute to his legal defense fund.

THE KHASHOGGI COVER-UP

Saudi Arabia’s shifting accounts of how Jamal Khashoggi died have faced a wall of skepticism in Washington and elsewhere.

On Tuesday, as Nabih Boulos and Tracy Wilkinson wrote, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called Khashoggi’s killing premeditated and Trump called the Saudi handling of the affair the “worst cover-up ever.”

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman made his first public comments on the case, as well, calling the slaying “heinous” and vowing to bring Khashoggi’s killers to justice. The prince is widely suspected of having ordered an operation against Khashoggi, although whether he directly ordered his death remains unknown.

A NEW ARMS RACE?

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Trump's decision to withdraw the United States from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty could free the U.S. to put new missiles in Asia and could also lead to an arms race with China, David Cloud wrote.

A FAREWELL FROM A TRAIL BLAZER

Sandra Day O'Connor, the first woman to serve as a Supreme Court justice, withdrew from public life this week. As David Savage wrote, O’Connor announced in a letter that she has been diagnosed with the first stages of dementia.

LOGISTICS

That wraps up this week. Until next time, keep track of all the developments in national politics and the Trump administration with our Essential Washington blog, at our Politics page and on Twitter @latimespolitics.

Send your comments, suggestions and news tips to politics@latimes.com.

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