Opinion | Moderates are holding the Democratic Party back


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A view of the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C.

By Ethan Tessler, Staff Columnist

Joe Biden, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Chuck Schumer, Senators Doug Jones and Joe Manchin — these are some of the Democratic Party’s most conservative members according to GovTrack. They also happen to be some of the party’s most prominent, powerful members.
The Democratic Party has established itself as a home for those who find the Republican Party too far right but also don’t agree with the ideals found in European left parties, like the Labour Party of Great Britain. In other words, the Democratic Party is more akin to a Diet Republican Party than a true opposition party. For progressives like myself who identify with Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., this is not a party we would normally join — but it’s all we have.

While Sanders has been one of the few congressional voices of the left for decades, the emergence of progressives like AOC, Rep.-elect Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., and Rep.-elect Cori Bush, D-Mo., has given an inkling that the party could be in for a continued leftward shift in the near future. What also points to this possibility is the fact that 99% of Green New Deal co-sponsors won their races, and 100% of Medicare For All co-sponsors won their races in this past election.

While progressives had some success in this election cycle, moderate and conservative Democrats failed miserably, giving more House seats — six, as of now — to Republicans. Instead of looking inward and considering that they didn’t do a good job of representing their districts, contacting unhappy constituents or running good campaigns, many of these centrist types — like Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va. — are blaming progressives. This is completely asinine, and it points to the privilege of some of these moderates, believing that factors other than their own actions and inactions caused them to lose seats. The era of these centrist Clinton Democrats is over, and if Democratic candidates fail to embrace ever-popular progressive policies, then they will fail to win reelection.

For some reason, “electability” is an issue when it comes to the Democratic Party’s establishment endorsement of candidates. Democratic leaders think it is more effective to get a more conservative candidate, in the hopes that they will bring over some Republican voters. Thus, the more conservative a candidate is, the “more electable” they are, which helps them obtain the big-money donations from key allies of the party. That’s what happened in this past year’s Kentucky Senatorial Democratic Primary, when conservative Democrat Amy McGrath obtained the party’s blessing — from Schumer — to be the nominee before the primary was finished. This was in spite of the fact that she barely beat progressive Charles Booker — a state representative who entered the race at the last minute and obtained massive grassroots support with small donations.

Despite Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s unpopularity in his home state, he easily won reelection over McGrath. It’s highly likely that she lost to one of the most unpopular senators because McGrath is not a grassroots favorite, unlike Booker. Considering how Booker’s progressive ideology stands in stark difference to McGrath’s center-right ideology, I presume she couldn’t generate enough excitement among the biggest potential voter base — nonvoters.

Democratic strategists should’ve known that you don’t beat a boring, conservative fossil like McConnell with another boring conservative like Amy McGrath. This race is a microcosm of the larger problem in the Democratic Party — moderates are holding the party back. It’s naive for some Democrats to think they could pull Republicans from across the aisle. No matter how moderate or conservative a Democratic candidate may be, the “D” next to their name is a sure sign that Republicans will not vote for them.

Though Florida voted for President Donald Trump’s reelection, it also voted to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour — something for which progressives have been clamoring. Biden also supports a minimum wage hike to $15 an hour, but for some reason he rarely talked about it — perhaps because he didn’t want to be given the moniker of socialist, but that happened anyway.

In Orange County, California — a longtime Republican stronghold — progressive Rep. Katie Porter won reelection and embraced progressive policies like Medicare For All. There are probably a number of reasons as to why Porter won reelection, but campaigning for the masses and actually fighting for them was likely what gave her a massive boost. It also didn’t hurt that she raised big bills and spent big bills on her campaign — something many of the losing moderates failed to do.

These moderate and conservative Democrats have been blaming progressives for losing elections. They claim that progressives give the party a reputation of being “socialist” for ideas like banning fracking and allocating less money to police. In response to the attacks on progressives by these moderates and conservatives, AOC slammed them for running faulty campaigns and not raising/spending enough money.

“I’ve already started looking into the actual functioning of these campaigns … Our party isn’t even online, not in a real way that exhibits competence,” AOC said in an interview with The New York Times. “They were vulnerable to these messages, because they weren’t even on the mediums where these messages were most potent … you can point to the message, but they were also sitting ducks.”

“Sitting ducks” is such an apt description of these moderate and conservative Democrats. Out of touch with policy and out of touch with messaging.

Rep. Donna Shalala, D-Fla., was one of these moderates who lost. Her former colleague Spanberger blamed the word “socialism” for her loss in this election cycle. Spanberger and other centrists can keep blaming the “socialism bogeyman” all they want, but clearly Shalala’s actions and inactions in office the last two years didn’t get her constituents to approve of her. Shalala also raised and spent the same amount of money as her opponent, making the election an even playing field. By comparison, Porter outraised her opponent by a factor of about 11.5 and spent five times more.

All in all, these moderate Democrats worried about reelection should take a long look in the mirror and speak to their unhappy constituents more often. Maybe embrace a progressive policy or two and they might win a race comfortably. Instead of bridging the gap between yourself and your opponent to the point that you’re nearly indistinguishable, outflank them. Go after the nonvoters — who are about a third of the population — and try to rally them. Spend more advertising money on this thing called the internet, where just about everyone spends most of their time. Or you can keep blaming a word for your failures as a politician.

Ethan Tessler is a senior and writes about issues that don’t seem to be at the forefront of media attention. If you enjoyed the column, hated it or have any other thoughts, write to him at [email protected].