The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Democratic leaders play a ridiculous blame game with progressives

Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) talks to constituents outside of Open Door Baptist Church in Chesterfield County, Va., on Nov. 3. (Julia Rendleman/For The Washington Post)
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If a football coach went into a game saying “we’ll rely on passing the ball,” executed that strategy, lost the game, then blamed the loss on running the ball, everyone would laugh at that coach. And yet that’s exactly the approach Democratic moderates are taking after Tuesday’s disappointing House and Senate results: Reject progressives’ suggestions, then blame those suggestions anyway for their failures.

Remember, from the Democratic primary onward, party leaders warned against running on Medicare-for-all, a Green New Deal and other progressive ideas. That approach, they said, would lead Democrats to lose states such as Florida. (About that…) Instead, Democrats went small, focusing on saving the Affordable Care Act and providing a check on President Trump.

But after the party lost House seats and failed to retake the Senate, the knives are out for the left anyway. On a House Democrats conference call on Thursday, party leaders and moderates blamed their failures on progressives. Majority Whip James E. Clyburn of South Carolina warned against running on defunding the police or socialized medicine. (Since 2007, Clyburn has collected more than $1.2 million from pharmaceutical PACs, among the most of anyone in Congress.) The attacks were best summed up by Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.): “We need to not ever use the word ‘socialist’ or ‘socialism’ ever again. … We lost good members because of that.”

President-elect Joe Biden pledged to "unify the country" in his first address after he was announced as the projected winner of the 2020 election (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Spanberger’s view was echoed by Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) on “Meet the Press”: “I don’t think the American people want to sign up for the Green New Deal. … I don’t think they’re interested in Medicare-for-all or higher taxes that would slow down the economy.” But this diagnosis is at odds with the numbers. A near-majority of voters in swing districts supported the Green New Deal. Fifty-three percent of Americans support Medicare-for-all (and 70 percent support a public option). In exit polls, 57 percent of voters expressed support for Black Lives Matter. In Florida, while moderate Democrats up and down the ticket fell flat, voters passed the $15 minimum wage that the left has been pushing for years. As Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) observed, every swing-district House Democrat who co-sponsored Medicare-for-all kept their seat.

Yet even if we assume that these polls and results are all misleading, as Ocasio-Cortez pointed out on CNN on Sunday, “not a single member of Congress that I’m aware of campaigned on socialism or defunding the police.” It’s understandable that congressional Democratic leaders want to blame something other than their own candidate recruitment process. But if a candidate didn’t run on defunding the police, yet still couldn’t avoid being tied to “defunding the police,” that’s the candidate’s fault. If a candidate ran on reaching across the aisle, yet got defined as a socialist, that’s the candidate’s fault. And if that candidate couldn’t manage to tie his or her Republican opponent to almost a quarter of a million covid-19 deaths in the United States, a tanked economy or a dozen other policy fiascos, at least one of which was probably directly relevant to the candidate’s district, that’s the candidate’s fault.

And it’s the fault of a party that is far behind the times when it comes to campaigning online. During the George W. Bush presidency, Democrats dominated the digital space: Forums and blogs (the so-called Net roots) gave the party an edge in both advertising and organizing. But in 2020, sites like Facebook and (especially) YouTube absorb Americans’ attention spans, regardless of affiliation. Yet Democrats are still playing catch-up from 2016 on the former and have barely begun to mobilize on the latter. Progressives such as Ocasio-Cortez have built their brands in this new online space with techniques the whole party could learn from. Yet leadership has all but ignored their successes.

Offline, things are little better. Black, brown and working-class voters delivered Joe Biden the presidency; the hard work of turning out those voters wasn’t done by the national party this year, but by grass-roots organizers over many years. Stacey Abrams, whose 2018 Georgia gubernatorial campaign cemented the organizational groundwork that turned the state purple this cycle, noted on CNN that “for minority communities, there has to be consistent engagement.” Running away from Black Lives Matter and real health-care reform is the opposite of that approach.

This is not to say there is a one-size-fits-all approach to contesting 100 Senate seats and 435 House seats. But it is simply false to claim that standing up proudly for policies such as Medicare-for-all and a Green New Deal hasn’t worked, when the truth is it hasn’t been tried. For decades, congressional Democrats have run every cycle with a moderate message engineered by moderate, high-priced consultants. When this plan succeeds, the party establishment trumpets their wisdom. Yet when it more frequently fails, the leadership and moderates blame the progressives they rejected the entire campaign. It’s a “heads we win, tails you lose” approach, and it’s a farce. Until congressional Democrats stop punching left and start fixing their mistakes, more disappointments are sure to follow.

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