Progressive demands put new pressures on Democrats

Progressive demands put new pressures on Democrats
© Getty Images

Democratic presidential hopefuls, under fierce pressure from liberal activists and base voters, are racing to embrace a series of progressive policy proposals that are quickly emerging as litmus tests ahead of 2020.

At town halls and meet-and-greets in early primary states, the Democrats are being pushed to stake out positions on “Medicare for all” and the Green New Deal, the progressive plan to combat climate change and economic inequality.

ADVERTISEMENT

Reparations for the descendants of slaves, the abolishment of the Electoral College and an expansion of the Supreme Court to counter President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump calls Sri Lankan prime minister following church bombings Ex-Trump lawyer: Mueller knew Trump had to call investigation a 'witch hunt' for 'political reasons' The biggest challenge from the Mueller Report depends on the vigilance of everyone MORE’s nominees are additional issues that until recently would have been on the fringes of Democratic politics.

A number of liberals are cheering the discussion on.

“Democratic primary voters want to win and therefore they’ll demand transformational ideas,” said Adam Green, the co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which has backed Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenTrump pushes back on impeachment talk: 'Tables are finally turning on the Witch Hunt!' Warren unveils plan to cancel student loan debt, create universal free college Moulton enters 2020 White House race MORE (D-Mass.) in the presidential primary.

Some suggest a failure to back certain proposals could doom them in the primary.

“Part of the reason that we’re seeing so many of these candidates back the Green New Deal, even when they weren’t talking about it in 2018, is because they’re looking at the political weather,” said Stephen O’Hanlon, the communications director for the Sunrise Movement, a climate advocacy organization that has sought to inject the Green New Deal into the 2020 primary as a critical issue.

“It’s a litmus test for Democrats and it’s essential for any candidate who wants to earn the youth vote to show that they’re ready to stand up for our generation’s future,” O’Hanlon said.

At the same time, these new litmus tests have prompted worries that candidates may be setting themselves up for trouble in the 2020 general election, which Trump is already casting as a referendum on socialism.

“Socialism is not about the environment, it’s not about justice, it’s not about virtue. Socialism is about only one thing: It’s called power for the ruling class,” Trump said in a two-hour speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference earlier this month. “All of us are here today because we know that the future does not belong to those who believe in socialism.”

While progressives warn that nominating an establishment-minded centrist candidate would give Trump a clear path to a second term in the White House, former Vice President Joe BidenJoseph (Joe) Robinette BidenWarren unveils plan to cancel student loan debt, create universal free college Moulton enters 2020 White House race The Hill's Morning Report - Is impeachment back on the table? MORE — widely viewed as a moderate — leads virtually every early poll of the Democratic primary field despite not yet declaring a campaign.

Several liberal activists and strategists also are dismissive of the suggestion that Medicare for all or the Green New Deal have become litmus tests for Democrats, arguing that they did not expect candidates to unite behind a single piece of legislation or policy prescription.

“I think voters are expressing openness to different ways to get there,” said Navin Nayak, the senior vice president at the Center for American Progress. “I don’t know that there’s a litmus test where if you don’t address a specific policy that it’s a problem.”

There’s little question that headwinds in the party are pushing things to the left, something likely to surface in races for the Senate, where a handful of centrist Democratic challengers will be working to distance themselves from the liberal priorities being debated on the presidential trail.

Democrats are defending only 12 Senate seats in 2020 — a much easier map than that of 2018, when they were scrambling to safeguard 26 seats — but they’re hoping to win control of the upper chamber by picking off Republicans in battleground states where the liberal agenda may prove a liability. One incumbent Democrat, Sen. Doug Jones, will be fighting for his political life in deep-red Alabama.

Hoping to exploit those divisions, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellThe Mueller report is a deterrent to government service Senate Republicans tested on Trump support after Mueller Anti-smoking advocates question industry motives for backing higher purchasing age MORE (R-Ky.) has scheduled floor votes on the Green New Deal for next week.

The pressures facing Democrats are less pronounced in the House, where lawmakers are catering to much smaller audiences and the messaging mantra from party leaders remains a simple one: speak to your district.

“All politics is local,” Rep. Cheri BustosCheryl (Cheri) Lea Bustos2020 is the Democrats' to lose — and they very well may DCCC opens Texas office to protect House pickups, target vulnerable GOP seats Speaker in waiting? Rapid rise of Hakeem Jeffries fuels talk MORE (D-Ill.), the head of the Democrats’ campaign arm, told The Hill earlier this month. “If you take care of things at home that's how you can be successful politically.”

Still, the activist wing of the party remains intent on seeking ideological purity in its candidates.

On Thursday, for instance, progressive groups will protest a district office of Rep. Tom O’Halleran (D-Ariz.), a Blue Dog who already has a primary opponent, pressing him to endorse a net neutrality bill.  

Republican operatives, meanwhile, have been only happy to join McConnell in highlighting the divisions across the aisle by airing the liberals’ legislative wish list in an effort to brand all Democrats — particularly the vulnerable centrists — as leftist radicals.

“Freedom or socialism — that’s the choice in 2020,” Rep. Tom EmmerThomas (Tom) Earl EmmerMcCarthy holds courtesy meeting with ex-Rep. Grimm Progressive demands put new pressures on Democrats Schultz recruiting GOP insiders ahead of possible 2020 bid MORE (R-Minn.), head of House Republicans’ campaign arm, said in announcing the 55 Democratic incumbents the GOP is targeting this cycle.

The competing Democratic agendas highlight the balancing act party leaders and campaign strategists are scrambling to execute heading into the crucial 2020 elections.

On one hand, they want to maximize voter turnout by tapping the energy of their liberal base, which is clamoring for the party to embrace ideas like the Green New Deal, Medicare for all, the elimination of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the impeachment of President Trump. On the other, they're fighting to expand their appeal in more conservative regions where those same ideas could alienate voters and damage their chances at the polls.

Democrats won control of the House last year, not in the blue districts, but by picking up GOP-held seats across the country. It's a dynamic noted by more moderate Democrats frustrated with the media’s focus on a handful of high-profile liberal freshmen such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezTrump takes aim at Dem talk of impeachment Democrats leave impeachment on the table Michael Steele: A missed opportunity at holding banks accountable MORE (D-N.Y.), a social media superstar who identifies as a democratic socialist.

“Apparently, in the media, the impression is she represents the future — that's the face of our party moving forward,” said one lawmaker, referring to Ocasio-Cortez. “So would it come as a surprise to you to learn that 33 of the 40 seats we picked up are New Dems? They're not progressives. Thirty-three out of 40, it's not even close."

“She represents a safe New York district where she knocked off somebody because it's 50 percent Hispanic,” the lawmaker continued, alluding to Ocasio-Cortez's primary victory over former Rep. Joseph Crowley. “But that ain't how a whole bunch of other people got elected.”

Green, however, refuted that notion, arguing that a number of freshman Democratic lawmakers won in 2018 by campaigning on progressive platforms, like Medicare for All and expanding Social Security. 

"Clearly bold economic populism is the way to win in red and purple districts," Green said.

Bustos, who represents a rural district carried by Trump in 2016, acknowledged the potential threats facing moderate Democrats from both the left and the right. But party leaders, she vowed, will rally behind the sitting lawmakers.

"We're an incumbent-friendly organization here,” she said.

--Updated at 9:57 a.m.