Don't underestimate Michael Avenatti 2020
The only thing I dread more than the prospect of Hillary Clinton running for president again is speculation about who else might be seeking the Democratic nomination in 2020, which, in case you're wondering, is still two years away.
This is the case in spite of the fact that I have engaged in such speculation myself and am about to do so again. Will Bernie Sanders give it another shot? Will Joe Biden try to recapture some of the Obama-era moderate magic? Or will it be someone like Kamala Harris who could split the difference between the party's neoliberal and progressive factions?
One more potential name is Michael Avenatti, the tough-talking lawyer who represented the porn star and first-time author Stormy Daniels in her lawsuit against President Trump. From the beginning, Avenatti has done more than just represent Daniels, on whose behalf he successfully negotiated a release from the non-disclosure agreement that was supposed to have prevented her from discussing her alleged dalliance with the president, establishing himself as a kind of all-around anti-Trump crusader. In June, he leaked video to MSNBC showing the inside of a federal detention facility for immigrant children. More recently he has claimed that he is representing women who have additional allegations of sexual misconduct against Brett Kavanaugh, Trump's embattled Supreme Court nominee. His intervention here is on its face somewhat suspect and his handling of the supposed accusations has not been helpful, least of all to those attempting to make the case against Kavanaugh.
Like many pairs of enemies, Trump and Avenatti have a great deal in common. Both are brash, over-the-top, publicity-mad, media-savvy, ostentatiously rich. Like Trump, Avenatti has ties to the world of D-list celebrity hangers-on. Both seem to belong to an era that most of us thought had vanished from American life, relics of a country that obsessed over the O.J. trial and watched Cops. Avenatti has been involved in some shady business ventures, including an attempted buy-out of a coffee chain that has left more than 50 lawsuits in its wake. On the other hand, he really has done things, like sue the NFL and race cars professionally in Europe, just as Trump has had some undeniable success in real estate. But at the end of the day both men are masters of communication, especially in the increasingly relevant-seeming medium of television.
This is why the idea of Avenatti running for president in 2020 is so fascinating. After announcing his interest back in August he has already begun speaking at Democratic Party dinners and visiting Iowa and New Hampshire. His coyness about his ultimate intentions — "Obviously, New Hampshire is the second state that ultimately picks a Democratic nominee. In the event I were to run, it's important to be there" — could be copied and pasted from Trump's own extended roll-out of his campaign.
Any Democrat who is serious about winning the next presidential election would do well to pay attention to Avenatti. "We have a tendency to bring nail clippers to a gun fight," he said of the party during a recent speech. He also seems to recognize that the performative wokeness on social issues so beloved of a small section of the party's coastal base does not play well elsewhere. He recently met with David Betras, the chairman of the party in Mahoning County, Ohio, and a man who perhaps better than anyone else summed up the failures of his party in 2016 when he told reporters after the election that many voters believed that the party "cared more about where someone went to the bathroom than whether or not these people had a job." It's not clear yet what Avenatti's remedy is, but he clearly has the diagnosis correct.
How likely is all of this to turn into an actual run for the White House? Not very, of course. Most people assume that all of this is an elaborate trolling effort on behalf of his client Daniels or just the antics of a bored rich guy or some bizarre mixture of the two. The speeches and the trips to early primary states might be a meaningless flirtation. Even if Avenatti forms an exploratory committee or makes some other kind of announcement, it could easily just be another PR stunt.
Which is exactly what people said about the former host of The Apprentice, even after that extraordinary ride on the escalator when he was calling Jeb Bush names and maligning the late John McCain for not being the sort of hero who doesn't "get captured."
I, for one, refuse to count Avenatti out. If he doesn't end up running for president, it will be because he doesn't want to, not because American politics isn't strange enough for a former Le Mans driver best known for suing the president on behalf of the star of Toxxxic C—loads 6. His nemesis made that clear a long time ago. In a way a Trump vs. Avenatti election would make our politics less weird. The asymmetry that made Hillary Clinton look like the absurd one for attempting to run a normal campaign would disappear. Avenatti would be a foe worthy of Trump.