Democrats veer left as Trump cements hold on Republicans
Conor Lamb proves running as moderate is a winning strategy
Conor Lamb's apparent victory in Pennsylvania this month was a powerful message to Republicans about the current unpopularity of the president and the harbinger of a possible wave election. But what was the message his victory sent to Democrats? It means that being a calm, thoughtful and polite moderate is a winning strategy once more. It also means that being constructive is very important to American voters after years of vitriol on both sides of the political divide.
The pendulum of politics swings back and forth in America and always has. But despite social upheaval or political reorientation, most Americans are part of a large political center. Most Americans want politicians to get things done once they get there. There are some, particularly loud folks on TV and on Twitter, who like the pontificating vitriol, wild rhetoric and extremist views. But congressman-elect Lamb's victory proves that you can win by articulating your beliefs in a polite, intelligent and dignified manner.
Democrats hoping for 2018 and 2020 success need to heed this lesson: You cannot win unless you appeal to Independents in the national electorate and moderate Republicans in right-of-center congressional districts or states. The post-2016 analysis that the Democrats are a party veering rapidly to the left still sticks in the minds of so many pundits. But going too far left in primaries to appease this assumption makes for a difficult road to get back to the political center.
Some believe that moderation is an indication of a preference for half measures and weak principles. This could not be farther from the truth. What it really means to be a moderate is to believe in getting things done and building consensus. Lamb shows that you don't have to have moderate views on every issue to be a moderate. You simply have to be willing to put solutions above ideology. The political system we have needs moderate voices in order to function, and the rising political fortunes of moderate candidates may bring a new era of legislative productivity to Congress.
Centrists and moderates tend to focus on what's really important to people. Jobs and economic issues are always critical, but successful politicians like Lamb personalize those concerns to the specific needs of their congressional district or state. Largely, candidates should leave the commentary on the social and cultural issues of the day for another time, and realize most voters care more about jobs, the economy, health care and education.
Political consultants will tell candidates that raising money is the key to success. It's important, but just as important is direct voter contact. That means knocking on doors, going to get coffee at the local diners, and making sure you are out there talking to the people you hope to represent. That keeps you grounded. If you're reading this and thinking about or already running for office, don't let the political pundits drive you to do nothing but phone time and raising money. Lamb was outraised and outspent many times over by his opponent and the Republican Party. But he won because he was reaching out to voters on a daily basis.
I'm making my suggestions as a Democrat who represented a conservative district for 18 years. One day the wave might build again in the other direction. The truth is that these basic principles are just as true for Republican candidates as well. It boils down to this: Be the person who folks want to sit next to in church or talk to in a coffee shop. Don't be the person screaming on TV and getting ignored by most Americans. Don't be the person failing to get anything constructive done.
Dan Glickman served as U.S. secretary of agriculture under President Clinton and represented Kansas in Congress for 18 years. He is now vice president of the Aspen Institute. Follow him on Twitter @DanRGlickman.