An angry dispute erupted among House Democrats on Thursday, with centrist members blasting their liberal colleagues during a private conference call for pushing far-left views that cost the party seats in Tuesday’s election that they had worked hard to win two years ago.The bitter exchange, which lasted more than three hours as members sniped back and forth over tactics and ideology, reflected the extent to which the 2020 campaign exposed simmering tensions in the party even as its presidential nominee, Joe Biden, stands on the brink of achieving their biggest goal of the year — ousting President Trump. [...]“We need to not ever use the word ‘socialist’ or ‘socialism’ ever again. . . . We lost good members because of that,” Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.), who narrowly leads in her reelection bid, said heatedly. “If we are classifying Tuesday as a success . . . we will get f---ing torn apart in 2022.”
As I recall, the Democratic Party platform does not embrace “socialism.” Nor does the party’s leader, one Joseph R. Biden.
Meanwhile, House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) said on the call that if “we are going to run on Medicare-for-all, defund the police, socialized medicine, we’re not going to win.” But most Democrats aren’t running on Medicare-for-all, and almost none are running on “defund the police,” a phrase rejected by Democratic politicians.
Now it’s true that there are a few Democratic members of Congress who call themselves socialist — but even they don’t go around shouting, “What we need is socialism! Socialism all the way!”
So are we supposed to believe that if Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), who represents Seattle, never let the word “socialism” pass her lips again, then that would mean that some centrist Democrat from a district 3,000 miles away would have an easy path to victory in every future election?
And what exactly are centrists asking progressives to do? It sounds like they’re saying, “Republicans falsely accused me of believing what you believe, so that means you have to change your positions and believe only what I believe.” Do they want the progressives to change their beliefs on health care or economics or some other issue? Should the progressives just stop advocating for their preferred agenda at all?
Let’s not forget, the Democratic Party nominated exactly the candidate those centrists wanted — and that didn’t in any way change what Republicans said about him. Biden was the moderate in the race, but Republicans still called him a radical socialist. It’s utterly bizarre that after all this time, there are still Democrats who believe that if they change what they say, it will change what Republicans say about them.
And, we should note, progressive activists and politicians across the country — including in the districts represented by the centrists — worked incredibly hard to elect Biden, despite the fact that he was most assuredly not their preferred candidate. One has to wonder whether centrists would have put the same energy into the election had Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) been the nominee.
More broadly, the infighting is misguided in another sense. In retrospect, what Democrats hoped for from the 2020 election — a repudiation of Trump and the GOP so emphatic that it would sweep enormous numbers of Democrats into office at all levels, on the order of the elections of 2008 or 2018 — may never have been realistic.
In fact, the election actually didn’t go that badly for Democrats in the House, when you consider the idea that in a divided country, not only did Democratic voters turn out at enormous levels, but Republican voters did, too.
This is not the prevailing interpretation of the election. But look closely, and it seems much more accurate than the story of House Democratic collapse that is being told.
Look at Spanberger. In 2016, Trump won her Virginia district by 6.5 points. It’s a swing district that leans Republican, just the kind of place where she and other centrists worry that they’re being hurt by positions advocated by more liberal members.
Which means that she did about as well as you would have expected. She wasn’t actually dragged down by association with Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) or Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) or some other Democrat from somewhere else in the country.
Some centrist Democrats in Republican-leaning districts lost. But when you examine the races individually, you see the same story over and over: A member who managed to squeak out a win in a Republican-leaning district in the extraordinary year of 2018, but couldn’t hold on in a presidential election when turnout on both sides soared.
For instance, Rep. Anthony Brindisi is losing in New York’s 22nd district — but Trump won there in 2016 by 15.5 points. Of course Brindisi was going to lose in a presidential year. Rep. Kendra Horn is losing in her Oklahoma district — where Trump won by 13.4 points in 2016. Xochitl Torres Small is losing in her New Mexico district — where Trump won by 10.2 points in 2016. None of these results should surprise anyone.
Let me be clear: I’m not saying that the best strategy for every Democrat everywhere is to embrace maximally progressive positions to produce higher turnout among the base. Representatives like Spanberger or Conor Lamb (Pa.) are successful because their moderate ideology is a good fit for their districts.
But they shouldn’t insist that every Democrat everywhere, even those who represent more progressive districts, should act as though they’re running in a Republican district. Nor should they delude themselves into thinking any Democrat can determine what nasty things Republicans will say about them.
And most of all, they shouldn’t react to utterly predictable election results by saying, “This proves that everyone in this diverse party should take exactly the policy positions that I do.” It’s always tempting to believe that, but it just isn’t true.
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