The Memo

The Memo: Democratic tensions will only get worse as left loses patience

Tensions between centrists and progressives in the Democratic Party are flaring - and they are going to get worse.

One accelerant is the fact that President Biden's legislative agenda is slowing and could soon stall. This is fueling impatience on the left with the president's consensus-seeking approach.

On top of that, next year's midterm elections are starting to loom, upping the stakes in the debate over where the White House - and the party - should go between now and then.

Corbin Trent, co-founder of a progressive political action committee and a former communications director for Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), drew a parallel between the "stagnation" of the current political moment and getting stuck on a subway train on a hot day.

It's not long before small tensions turn into bigger squabbles, he said.

"Anytime you don't have a big project to work on and you are not making progress, you start to argue about your differences," Trent said. "Those differences went by the wayside during the pandemic, when we were hustling to get things in place. Now, we're stuck, just sitting here, not getting anywhere - and so the finger-pointing starts."

His diagnosis seems to fit the symptoms seen in recent weeks.

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and her fellow members of the progressive "Squad" were pitted against a dozen Jewish House Democrats in recent days.

The fracas began after Omar listed the United States and Israel along with Hamas and the Taliban as guilty of past "unthinkable atrocities." Her internal opponents accused her of false equivalency and raised the possibility of "deep-seated prejudice."

An uneasy peace was eventually reached, with the involvement of Democratic congressional leadership.

Earlier in the week, Ocasio-Cortez rebuked Vice President Harris after Harris used her first international trip to tell would-be migrants from Guatemala, "Do not come."

Ocasio-Cortez said the vice president's language was "disappointing" and emphasized that claiming asylum in the U.S. is a legal right. The New York congresswoman made a broader point too, arguing that the U.S. bears significant culpability for instability in Latin America because of past and present policies.

Most of all, though, progressives and centrists are digging their respective trenches on three vital issues that look different but are in fact intertwined: Biden's effort to pass an infrastructure bill, the future of the Senate filibuster and the need to safeguard voting rights.

The filibuster looks like it's here to stay for the foreseeable future, thanks to Sen. Joe Manchin's (D-W.Va.) opposition to weakening it. His position also dooms the most expansive effort to protect voting rights, the For The People Act. Manchin himself does not back it, and it has no chance of getting support from enough GOP senators to break a filibuster.

Biden has mostly trodden with care around Manchin, knowing that the success or failure of his push for an infrastructure deal likely lies in the West Virginian's hands.

The left is openly skeptical of efforts to hatch a bipartisan compromise on infrastructure - or anything else. Ocasio-Cortez tweeted that the idea that Republicans would ever sign on was "a hustle" by the GOP. Democrats are "burning precious time & impact" by even trying, she said.

Time will tell if her argument is borne out. Five Republican and five Democratic senators reached an agreement on the outlines of an infrastructure deal on Thursday. But it's far from certain that enough additional GOP senators will back that proposal to get it over the finish line.

In any event, those battles are part of a larger internal war among Democrats. The million-dollar question in the party remains the same as it was in the immediate aftermath of November's election - are we too far left or not left enough?

Back then, Democrats exhaled with relief that former President Trump was on his way out of the White House but were dismayed by disappointing performances in congressional races and state legislatures.

A principal reason the party came up short outside the presidential race - according to the centrists - was overly left-wing rhetoric.

The slogan "Defund the Police" often tops the list of missteps. But there was a broader sense Democrats had left themselves too open to being branded as socialists because left-wing voices had become so prominent on everything from immigration to taxation.

In a remark that has become semifamous in Democratic circles, Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.), a moderate, said on a party conference call right after the election, "We need to not ever use the words 'socialist' or 'socialism' ever again."

David Shor, a prominent data scientist who worked on then-President Obama's 2012 campaign, identifies in his personal politics as a leftist. But he differs sharply with hard-liners in that faction when it comes to how to actually win elections.

"They think that the way to win is to be bolder and make clear that you want more policies to happen. And I think that is a fundamental misunderstanding of the electorate," Shor told this column.

He noted that the median voter is a 50-year-old without a college degree and that most voters who are winnable by either party "do not want radical policy change." If swing voters held the kind of firm ideological views that would make them amenable to fiery left-wing appeals, he noted, they wouldn't be swing voters in the first place.

Shor is particularly animated on the point because, to his mind, the data is unambiguous.

"It's not like their strategy has never been tried!" he said with exasperation. "House candidates who embraced 'Medicare for All' did about 2 percentage points worse on average, when you control for all the variables. Ilhan Omar underperformed Joe Biden by something ridiculous, like 20 points!"

The difference was actually 16 points - Biden got 80 percent of the presidential vote in Omar's district, while the congresswoman was reelected with 64 percent - but Shor's point stands.

A recent report from two well-known Democratic operatives into the party's 2020 performance has added more fuel to the internal fires.

The study by Marlon Marshall and Lynda Tran, released in May but revealed by The New York Times on June 6, asserted that "Republican attempts to brand Democrats as 'radicals' worked" last November.

"Last year, when the conversation became about 'Defund the Police,' we were stuck on defense instead of telling a proactive story about necessary systemic changes," the authors argued.

They also faulted the party's approach to nonwhite voters and communities, arguing that Democrats too often believed people of color were nearly guaranteed to be in their camp and it was just a matter of getting them out to vote.

The report's authors said that many Democratic candidates who spoke to them believed the attempt to tar the party as socialists "hurt campaigns in states and districts with immigrant populations that fled socialist governments, including among Venezuelan, Cuban, Vietnamese and Filipino voters."

But those views have not dimmed the appetite for many on the left for change.

They argue it is the Democrats' relative failure to stand for a clear agenda and be responsive to its grassroots - "embrace the base," as the progressive slogan puts it - that makes the party vulnerable to attacks from the GOP and its media allies.

Those disputes are given new salience as eyes begin to turn toward the midterms. If Democrats end up with a net loss of just one Senate seat and five House seats, Republicans will return to full control of Congress - likely dooming Biden's agenda for the remainder of his first term and potentially making the gradient steeper for his reelection.

But there will be plenty of battles before that. And some on the left still hold out hope of mounting enough pressure to turn Manchin around on the filibuster - the one change that could alter everything.

That won't be done by playing nice, Trent warned.

"The problem right now is it looks like fun. Joe Manchin is getting all this press - his name is in lights, like he's on Broadway. The king of the Senate!" Trent said.

"People ask me, 'What would you do?'" he continued. "What I would do if I was, say, [Sen.] Bernie Sanders [I-Vt.], who has access to money and organization, is I might do an event or two in West Virginia shitting all over Manchin. And then I'd do a poll there and see how Manchin would do if he ran for governor in 2024."

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

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