The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Moderate Democrats are still deluded about how to win

Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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Is there any political actor in Washington more deluded than the vulnerable moderate Democrat?

I feel for these people, I really do. They know their jobs are in jeopardy. They get criticized from the right and the left, and most of them want to be serious legislators finding solutions to difficult policy problems.

But they keep fooling themselves about what they need to do to avert disaster in this year’s midterm elections. They were skilled enough to get elected in the first place, but they don’t seem to grasp what will and won’t keep them in office.

The New York Times has obtained an initiative circulating among those House moderates, in which they vow to “embrace some of President Biden’s most popular initiatives and tackle rising prices while distancing lawmakers from the left’s most divisive ideas.” It includes bills with Democratic and Republican co-sponsors, to demonstrate their commitment to bipartisanship.

Taken one by one, there may be nothing wrong with many of these policy ideas. Make the pandemic expansion of telehealth permanent? Absolutely. Offer incentives for utilities to beef up cybersecurity? Sure. Make “porch piracy” a federal crime? Okay, I guess.

But the fact that these Democrats think that what they need is a list of legislative proposals they can whip out to skeptical voters shows just how much they misunderstand their situation.

Once again, Democrats are entering a defensive crouch: They’re being pummeled mercilessly, and they think that rather than hit back, the answer is to hold a 10-point plan over their heads.

Why would they think this? Let me suggest a few reasons.

If you’re a House member from a swing district, you inevitably spend a lot of campaign time explaining yourself to people who are never going to vote for you simply because there are a lot of them in your closely divided district.

Go down to the local diner or the senior center to shake hands, and you’re not just going to meet a bunch of grateful supporters. You’ll also get challenged by voters hoping for your defeat, who will pepper you with criticisms they heard from Sean and Tucker.

That means you will spend a great deal of campaigning time on the futile task of trying to win over these voters. Not as part of a strategic plan, but just because that’s how politicians act in the moment.

If some guy tells the congresswoman he doesn’t want his third-grader being forced to pledge allegiance to Ibram X. Kendiwhile renouncing her gender identity, which is what he thinks happens in the local elementary school every day, the sensible thing would be to say, “Buzz off with your ludicrous lies — I’m not going to waste a second of my time on you.”

But, of course, the congresswoman can’t do that. She has to politely listen to this lunatic, nodding along to show she appreciates his concerns. Then she’ll explain that critical race theory isn’t being taught to third-graders and no one’s trying to turn his kid trans and then segue to her thoughts about education, and before you know it, 15 minutes of her valuable time has gone by.

And, of course, she has won precisely zero votes. Now imagine she has to do that day after day, over and over, because her district is full of people like that.

She’ll wind up thinking that the only way for her to get reelected is to convince voters she doesn’t support mandated critical race theory indoctrination or forced gender reassignment. She’ll believe that the culture war is something she needs to defuse, not something she might be able to win.

Her entire approach will be based on conciliation and reassurance, because the Republicans in her district are so mad all the time. Even though she got elected in the first place because the Democratic and independent voters in her district were sufficiently mad at Republicans, she can’t bring herself to harness and wield anger in her own cause.

And just about every day, Republicans present Democrats with opportunities for attacking them. Republicans are proposing incredibly unpopular book bans. One of their leaders in the Senate just proposed raising taxes on the poorest half of Americans. At their behest, the Supreme Court looks like it’s about to overturn Roe v. Wade.

All those are weapons those moderate Democrats could wield. But they leave them on the table, preferring instead to look for ways to make Republican voters less mad at them.

In case it isn’t clear, I’m not advocating that these members run to the left. This isn’t about right or left. If they want to come up with 75 new bipartisan policy ideas to say they support, there’s nothing wrong with that in and of itself. But if they think that’s all they need to get reelected, they might want to start putting together their résumés.