The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Once again, a House caucus faces internal pressure. Once again, it comes from the right.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) waits to speak during a news conference with members of the Poor People’s Campaign outside the U.S. Capitol on Aug. 25. (Win Mcnamee/Getty Images)

It seemed fair to assume when Democrats regained unified control of the federal government this year that the party would suffer the same fate as Republicans did in 2017: an agenda that was constantly at the mercy of the party’s far flank.

Theoretically, this makes sense. We’re used to internal partisan debates in which the majority of the caucus is being challenged to be more aggressive in pushing to the extreme. The Democrats’ narrow margins in the House and Senate offered an excellent opportunity for the most-liberal members of the House Democratic caucus to push policies further to the left.

Again, we saw this four years ago at the birth of the unified Republican government: An effort to overhaul the Affordable Care Act was undermined early that year by unified opposition from the House Freedom Caucus, a group including the party’s right-most members.

Instead, the first rebellion from within the Democratic caucus — 10 members who’ve obstructed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) plan for simultaneously passing measures targeting infrastructure and other government spending — came from the political middle. Or, considered in the context of the Democratic caucus, the rebellion once again is coming from the right.

We can visualize this. The graph below shows the 2021 Democratic and 2017 Republican caucuses. The groups that were applying pressure to the caucus overall are indicated as darker-colored circles (including two Republicans who bailed on the Freedom Caucus after the health-care fight). In each case, the members of those groups sit well to the right of the rest of their caucuses ideologically, using measures of ideology compiled by Voteview.

There are a few obvious reasons that the pressure in both cases pulled in the same direction.

One is that more-moderate Democrats are also Democrats who are in more purple districts (as calculated by DailyKos). In other words, these are members who might theoretically be considered more at risk in next year’s midterm elections.

Or, at least, they might feel as though they need to pressure their caucuses. After all, the density of moderate- and conservative-identifying voters continues to be larger than the density of liberal-identifying voters, even after the Democrats’ increased embrace of that label over the past several decades. If you represent a swing district, you’re by definition going to have fewer voters sitting firmly on the left.

Consider Gallup’s polling data on that question. About half of Democrats identify as liberal. About half, then, identify as moderate or even conservative. By contrast, three-quarters of Republicans identify as conservative. In other words, Republicans are more densely ideological than Democrats. And, in other words, the pressure in both 2017 and 2021 came from groups that could argue they represented a significant portion or even a majority of the party’s base.

All of this, of course, depends on labels and framing. This is self-identified ideology, which means different things to different people. Similarly, the legislation at stake has broadly been framed as strongly liberal, making it more likely that moderates seeking to avoid being slapped with that label would want to demonstrate some form of objection. If the legislation weren’t cast that way — as, for example, the coronavirus relief bill passed earlier this year mostly wasn’t — there’s less perceived political risk in voting for it.

The framing of the current Democratic policy proposals as liberal has been helped by the fact that the caucus’s left-most members have indicated support for them. Sure, prominent liberals in both chambers have argued that the package doesn’t go as far as they’d like, but the inclusion of a large, filibuster-proof spending bill that will accompany the bipartisan agreement passed by the Senate has largely mollified liberal opposition. That has both made it less likely that opposition would come from the left and given the caucus’s more moderate members something against which to push.

Perhaps the most important qualifier here is that this could change. Ultimately, the effort to reform the Affordable Care Act was tanked not by House conservatives but by then-Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), one of the chamber’s more moderate Republicans. In other words, we could certainly see future legislation be delayed by opposition from the Democratic caucus’s left.

But that may be unlikely for another reason. The House Freedom Caucus was fundamentally committed to opposing government spending and intervention; liberal Democrats very much are not. Threats to kill legislation are much more credible coming from a group that’s trying to stop government from doing things than from a group that wants government to act.

For now, though, the question appears to be moot, with Pelosi’s plan apparently on track for success. Those 10 moderate Democrats also won in one sense, garnering various headlines and news articles that can be plastered on mailers next November.