The Memo: Divided Democrats search for common ground

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Democrats are stuck between two competing impulses as the smoke begins to clear from the 2020 election.

On one hand, there is frustration that the party did not do as well as it expected in House and Senate elections — an emotion that is finding expression in sniping between the party’s centrists and its left-wing.

On the other, there is reluctance to get sucked into an all-out internecine fight at a time when many of the party’s supporters are jubilant about President Trump’s defeat — and when conservative media is eager to seize on Democratic divisions.

The stakes are high, however, with members representing competitive districts complaining that leftist rhetoric endangered them, while the left pushes back, warning of the dangers of taking the party’s core supporters for granted. 

“Embrace the base” has become a progressive rallying cry on social media.

Tensions have boiled over at times, most notably in a conference call among House Democrats immediately following the election, which was swiftly leaked to the media. 

Moderate members on that call complained that the left had made it too easy for Republicans to tar the party as socialist, while the left shot back that the centrists were, in effect, demanding acquiescent silence.

The rows continued in media interviews. Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) told CNN that the slogan “defund the police” was “killing our party.” Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.), a centrist who represents a competitive district, told the New York Times that his constituents were “extremely frustrated by the message of defunding the police and banning fracking.”

When Lamb was asked about polling which appears to show that a number of progressive agenda items are popular, Lamb shot back, “You can tell me all the polling you want, but you have to win elections.”

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), by far the most high-profile House member on the left, has been the implicit target of some intra-party attacks, and has shown herself willing to fire back.

When Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), one of the most centrist Democrats on Capitol Hill, tweeted his complaints about the “defund the police” slogan, Ocasio-Cortez responded with a photo of herself glaring at him. Her tweet had gained more than a half-million likes and almost 70,000 retweets by Friday evening.

Yet Ocasio-Cortez has also sought to emphasize that her critiques are not that different from other, much less left-wing, members of the party. She has argued, for example, that some Democratic candidates fell short in their digital strategy, a thesis that has no particular ideological tilt.

She has also highlighted that Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.), who lost his bid for reelection, and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) have raised broadly similar points about long-term investment in communities and being responsive to the needs of constituents.

After tweeting Jones approvingly, Ocasio-Cortez added, “Again, neither of us is saying GOP messaging didn’t hurt. And no one is telling folks in tough seats to adopt activist messaging. We are saying the messaging hurt to the extent that it did because our operations & investments are not great and it makes the party vulnerable.”

There is some support for this view even among Democrats at the other end of the party’s ideological spectrum.

“My own view is that AOC’s criticism is half-right,” said Simon Rosenberg of the New Democrat Network, a centrist group. Rosenberg argued that the New York congresswoman was correct in questioning “whether Democrats have moved as far in a digital-first posture on communication as we need to be.”

But Rosenberg contended that the prominence of the left, and its slogans, make it more difficult for Democrats to win down-ballot races. 

His argument, in essence, was that Biden was able to overcome GOP attempts to tie him to socialism because he was already extremely well-known, has a very long record and beat leftist challengers in a closely-watched national primary. An average House candidate, he noted, has none of those advantages.

“Joe Biden was able to take all these attacks on ‘the radical left’ and ‘defund the police’ because he had so much exposure to the country,” Rosenberg said. “But if you are a House member running where your district is a small bit of a big media market, and you get $2 million or $3 million of ads tying you to ‘defund the police,’ your ability to rebut that is far different from Joe Biden’s ability to rebut that.”

While the policy differences between the left and the center-left are very real — including topics like the Green New Deal and “Medicare for All” — there is some degree of consensus that Democrats need to strengthen their campaigning and communications operations.

Progressive strategist Jonathan Tasini, who backed Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in both the 2016 and 2020 primaries, complained about the leadership provided by Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez, and the deference he believes is wrongfully accorded to a number of centrist operatives.

But Tasini also noted: “My progressive friends sometimes want to shortcut the hard work it requires to win on the ground with good campaigns. It’s not good enough to say, ‘All these issues poll really well.’ Getting from a poll to actually winning — that’s a long road.”

The left vs. center battle will resume again over President-elect Joe Biden’s personnel choices. Much attention, in particular, will be given to whether he seeks to include figures like Sanders in his cabinet.

Biden got off to a positive start, at least, when his choice for chief of staff, Ron Klain, was praised by prominent voices on the left such as Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).

For now, Democrats are trying to conduct a civil, if tense, discussion about their future direction. 

But the party’s schisms could burst out in the open again any time in the weeks to come.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.


Tags 2020 election Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Bernie Sanders defund the police Donald Trump doug jones Elizabeth Warren Green New Deal Joe Biden Joe Manchin Medicare for all Tom Perez

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