What I learned in 19 weeks of working with progressive Democrats

What I learned in 19 weeks of working with progressive Democrats
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The euphoria that Democrats felt in defeating Donald TrumpDonald TrumpGaetz was denied meeting with Trump: CNN Federal Reserve chair: Economy would have been 'so much worse' without COVID-19 relief bills Police in California city declare unlawful assembly amid 'white lives matter' protest MORE was significantly tempered by their surprising loss of House seats and a failure on election night to take back the Senate. As is often the case in politics, this disappointment provoked finger-pointing by both progressives and moderates. Rep. Abigail SpanbergerAbigail Davis SpanbergerGun control advocates applaud Biden funding plan but say more must be done Trump the X-factor in Virginia governor race Bipartisan House bill would repeal decades-old war authorizations MORE (D-Va.), who narrowly escaped defeat, started things off by saying, “We need to not ever use the word ‘socialist’ or ‘socialism’ ever again. We lost good members because of that.” 

Other moderates, and many political analysts, said the term “defund the police” was responsible for some losses or narrow victories. They argued that Republicans successfully cast the most vulnerable Democrats as “socialists” and tied them to liberal ideas such as “Medicare for All,” the Green New Deal, and cutting police budgets. Said Rep. Kurt SchraderWalter (Kurt) Kurt SchraderBlue Dogs push House leadership to allow more member input Democratic majority shrinks, but finds unity Biden on precipice of first big win MORE (D-Ore.): “Democrats’ messaging is terrible. When the far-left gets all the media attention, voters get scared.”

The party’s progressive wing didn’t take this blame lying down, saying their message won the election because it stimulated record turnout among minority and young voters. Alexandra Rojas, executive director of Justice Democrats, said, “We need a Democratic Party that stands for something more than being anti-Trump.”


Who’s right? Both sides are. There is no doubt that calls to “defund the police” hurt Democrats badly. The Biden campaign realized that. In a speech in Pittsburgh, Joe BidenJoe BidenFederal Reserve chair: Economy would have been 'so much worse' without COVID-19 relief bills Biden to meet Monday with bipartisan lawmakers about infrastructure Jill Biden gives shout out to Champ, Major on National Pet Day MORE said he is actually for additional funding for police training. The speech helped the campaign put together an effective TV ad that played heavily for 10 days. But, down the stretch, Republican messaging pounded the idea that defunding the police would reduce police presence and make communities less safe. Republican messaging also was effective in scaring people about socialism. For swing voters, that can be an effective tactic. 

Democratic messaging did not effectively rebut this charge. Why not have an ad quoting Republicans in 1935 trying to scare voters by calling Social Security a socialist program and quoting Republicans in 1965 calling Medicare a socialist program? Social Security and Medicare are probably the government’s two most popular programs and voters would get the message that Republicans were trying to needlessly scare them.

Progressives are right when they say that the espousal of bold programs helped to bring out the party’s growing base of minority and young voters. They can point to Georgia, where high turnout among minority and young voters in January’s special elections finally gave Democrats control of the Senate again.

Yet even improving messaging won’t solve all of the Democratic Party’s problems. Is it possible to stop infighting before it tears us apart and robs us of the opportunity to take advantage of the implosion of the Republican Party? I believe it is, if both wings of the party would simply realize they have the same goals and aspirations for the American people: health care coverage for all; a cleaner/safer environment; a $15 an hour minimum wage; a reduction in income inequality; a fairer, more effective justice system; and ensuring every American’s right to vote. 

The difference between the party’s two wings lies in how to achieve those aspirations. But the best way to resolve these differences is for both sides to find compromises, rather than insisting on ideological purity.


Last August, I received a call from Meredith Rose Burak, a member of the board of The Sanders Institute, a think tank started by the family of Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersBiden's policies are playing into Trump's hands Hillicon Valley: Amazon wins union election — says 'our employees made the choice' On The Money: Biden .5T budget proposes major hike in social programs | GOP bashes border, policing provisions MORE (I-Vt.). She was spearheading an initiative to help Democrats take back the Senate, focusing on races where a moderate Democrat had prevailed in the primary over a progressive. I agreed to help raise money to directly communicate with young Sanders supporters who otherwise wouldn’t have been engaged. For 19 weeks I was immersed in Sanders’ world. Now, I was an avid Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonClose the avenues of foreign meddling Pelosi planned on retiring until Trump won election: report Pence autobiography coming from Simon & Schuster MORE supporter in 2016 and with Joe Biden from the day he announced, but I have always admired Sanders’ passion and honesty. I began to see the value of fighting for our highest aspirations and not settling if there is a chance to get it all.

A typical example of this is raising the minimum wage. As Pennsylvania’s governor, I felt great when I signed a bill raising the state’s minimum wage by $2 an hour, knowing that I was giving over 400,000 Pennsylvanians a $4,000 yearly raise and putting more spendable income into our regional economy. Although a $15 minimum wage is certainly fair, I thought we had no chance of virtually doubling the federal minimum in one piece of legislation. But the pandemic hit and Ms. Burak reminded me that many of our “essential” workers are paid far less than $15 an hour for risking their lives while working. She persuaded me that my position was wrong. We shouldn’t try to reach $15 an hour with wage bumps every two years when $15 is barely livable for a family of one parent and two children. It is right, and doable.   

We argued over the Green New Deal. I called it impractical, and she said that such a stance shuts down any discussion and undermines the bill’s purpose. We cannot move forward, as a party or as a nation, by drawing a line in the sand and rejecting other ideas. Our country calls for bold ideas, and we grow stronger through discussing them. We are a nation that grew strong on ideas that once were considered impractical. 

What I learned from discussing our positions on various issues is that the Democratic Party needs both wings to talk to each other, to discuss differing ideas, so that each side understands the other and we can move forward on areas where we agree and continue to argue for positions where we still differ. If we communicate, we’re likely to find some merit in what each is saying.

We also need to convince both wings of the party that they cannot insist on 100 percent purity for our candidates. Our party must remain a big tent. In 2006, when Republican Sen. Rick Santorum was running for reelection, he was a top-heavy favorite to win. Polls showed that two strongly pro-choice Democrats had no chance of beating him. A few Democratic leaders asked me to convince these potential candidates not to run so that Bob CaseyRobert (Bob) Patrick CaseyDemocrats divided on gun control strategy Senate Democrats call on DHS for details on response to Portland protests Dems' momentum hits quagmire over infrastructure plans MORE, a pro-life Catholic, could run against Santorum with a clear shot of winning. I am strongly pro-choice, but taking back the Senate and electing a senator with whom I agree on most issues was more important to me. Casey went on to defeat Santorum and has been a great advocate for progressive positions. Is he still pro-life? Yes, but as he has explained, he has done things to help women and children before and after birth.  

So, we can do this, Democrats. Think of our goals and realize that getting 70 percent of a goal is better than nothing. Maybe we should get The Squad and our Blue Dogs to work together on an important project for 19 weeks. They might just find out that their differences aren’t as significant as they thought. In politics, you can’t always get what you want, but you just might get what America needs.   

Edward G. Rendell was the 45th governor of Pennsylvania. He is a former mayor of Philadelphia and former district attorney in that city. He served as chairman of the Democratic National Committee during the 2000 presidential election. Follow him on Twitter @GovEdRendell.