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WASHINGTON – Several elections across the country still hadn’t been decided when the blame game started.
House Democrats were stunned by their losses after weeks of forecasting had predicted a big win on Election Day. Whispers of leadership change swirled and House lawmakers soon moved from privately bashing one another to a public airing of grievances on social media and in the press.
It’s not a new fight, the battle waged between progressives and moderates over the vision of the Democratic party. But this time around, moderates are emboldened. After spending the last few years working in the background as progressives became a leading voice in the party, moderates came out swinging after last week’s losses.
Moderates, who helped Democrats take the House in 2018 and saw their colleagues ousted in key districts this year, not only demanded changes within the party apparatus but loudly issued warnings that Democrats will lose power during the 2022 election should they not make changes. Progressives fiercely dismiss this notion.
“For any organization, any team have been successful, you have to have unity,” said Rep. Cindy Axne, the only Democrat to win a federal race in Iowa so far this year. (One race is yet to be called). “The number one thing is you all have to be focused on the mission and the way that you’re going to go about getting there is having the same strategy to get there. When you don’t have that, unity is gone and it makes it a lot more difficult. So I do have concerns.”
The bickering over incremental progress versus bold changes has taken new form. Democrats find themselves not only quarreling about the disappointing results of the election, but already butting heads on the path forward, leaving in the crossfire both the legislative agenda in the Biden administration and changes needed to make Democratic gains in the next election.
USA TODAY interviewed around ten key Democratic lawmakers from differing factions of the party about the path forward, what needs to change in order to win areas President Donald Trump turned red and the legislation that could muster support from both sides of the aisle.
Moderates emboldened in fight against progressive policies
Intra-party disputes have become almost routine, often sprung from two important developments for Democrats in the past five years: Sen. Bernie Sanders’ popular presidential runs, that inspired a new generation of progressive activists, and the entrance of new progressives, like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., into Congress after the 2018 midterms.
Moderates, many from swing-districts or states, often focus on local issues that don’t always draw the spotlight and boast of working across the aisle to enact more incremental changes in larger policy. Progressives, on the other hand, have advocated more sweeping change, calling for Democrats to be bold on urgent issues affecting their constituents, such as climate change, access to health care and criminal justice reform.
But unlike past fights over the direction of the party, the next year marks a new moment for Democrats as they take control of the White House, forcing Biden to navigate through deeply rooted beliefs in both branches of the party.
Moderate Democrats, who saw at about 10 of their colleagues ousted by Republicans, were quick to point fingers. They argued Republican attacks linking members to socialism and the defund the police movement were a death knell and blamed some progressive members for loudly backing those ideas.
Just days after the election, House Democrats huddled on a phone call that featured yelling and tears. Rep. Abigail Spanberger, a moderate Democrats from Virginia who narrowly eked out a victory, told the rest of her conference that Democrats needed to learn a lesson from the losses or “we will be f—ing torn apart in 2022.”
In the days that followed, the argument moved to the pages of the New York Times, where Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a New York Democratic socialist, argued poor outreach and digital campaigning sunk moderates in swing districts. In turn, Rep. Conor Lamb, a Pennsylvania moderate who fended off a Republican challenger, responded that unpopular progressive messaging, such as defunding the police and talk of socialism, lost Democrats seats and could lose the House majority in the future.
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Progressives have bristled at the blame laid at their feet.
“We have to be very, very careful in pointing those fingers, and we need to just look at the data as it comes in,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Washington Democrat who co-chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
Many of the accusations hurled at progressives were not supported by evidence, she argued, pointing out that incumbent Democrats who ran in swing districts and supported Medicare for All ended up winning their reelection bids.
Moderates have similarly taken issue with assessments by progressives over the losses, notably after Ocasio-Cortez said some swing-district Democrats were “sitting ducks” due to poor voter outreach and digital campaigning.
They argued progressives in very liberal districts are out of touch with voters in their areas who aren’t supportive of many progressive policies, but rather want a Washington that works together to enact change.
“Obviously, we all need to sit down and have a big family meeting to get a better understanding of what these districts are like,” said Axne, D-Iowa. “A lot of people make assumptions about who can win where when they have absolutely no clue what it’s like here on the ground.”
Sen. Joe Manchin, one of the few remaining red-state Democrats who has been a vocal opponent of many progressive policies said the fighting was a “shame” because “there’s enough room to have every good idea put on the table.”
But, he added, proposals such as defunding the police are “so far out of the mainstream” — policies he and other Democrats could never back. “That’s when I said, ‘defund my butt!’,” a reference to a recent tweet that drew the ire of Ocasio-Cortez.
What Democrats across both spectrums think needs to change
Manchin echoed his fellow Democrats, that this election displayed clear issues the party needs to address.
“When you have someone with the flaws that President Trump had, after four years of us seeing those flaws, and they walk into the voting booth, and they say, ‘Well, that’s better than the other side, so I’ll go for him anyway,’” Manchin said. “Something’s wrong. Something is wrong. It should not have been a close election in any way shape or form.”
At the top of his list for change was Democrats making a stronger case on the economy.
“When you don’t have a message on the economy,” he argued. “…(voters) believe that that (Democratic) brand basically is more concerned and interested in people that don’t work or won’t work, more so than the people that do work and will work. There’s a problem.”
Across the board, moderates stressed that the best path forward was helping Biden get a legislative agenda through Congress and compromising with Republicans. Many stressed the need for progressives to tone down their rhetoric and for swing-district Democrats to better connect with voters back home in hopes that GOP attacks aiming to tie them to far-left policy wouldn’t stick.
Congresswoman-elect Carolyn Bourdeaux, one of the only Democrats to flip a district this year, said Republican attacks tying her to Medicare for All and defunding the police did not work because she was “clear on where my feet are planted.” She doesn’t support either and stressed the need for Democrats to take a district-by-district approach.
Axne credited her win in Iowa to the connections she built in her district. She stressed that Democrats needed to examine voting trends among rural residents and examine why Democrats lost so many over the years.
“We continue to ignore them. I didn’t ignore them. And that’s why I’m sitting here because their voices are valuable. They deserve to be heard and they’re important for this country’s success,” Axne said.
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Progressives have offered their own remedies, with Ocasio-Cortez in the Times arguing Democrats as a whole need to “understand that we are not the enemy. And that their base is not the enemy.”
She stressed the need for differing factions of the party to work together and “use the assets from everyone at the party.” Specifically, Ocasio-Cortez highlighted the need for Democrats to invest more online in digital advertising and outreach.
“These folks are pointing toward Republican messaging that they feel killed them, right? But why were you so vulnerable to that attack?” Ocasio-Cortez said in the Times. “If you’re not door-knocking, if you’re not on the internet, if your main points of reliance are TV and mail, then you’re not running a campaign on all cylinders. I just don’t see how anyone could be making ideological claims when they didn’t run a full-fledged campaign.”
Progressives like Jayapal and Rep. Mark Pocan, both of whom co-chair the progressive caucus, were more subdued about immediate changes in Democrats’ approach. Both said a deep-dive into voter data would display more about what went wrong this cycle and what changes were needed, something the House Democrats’ campaign arm has already promised it would do.
But both agreed Trump is an outlier in politics that likely had a greater impact than polling could predict and his removal from the White House could change things significantly in the next cycle.
“I do think – we all do – that the anomaly really is that Donald Trump has been historically odd to the political system,” Pocan said.
Jayapal added that far-left ideas and organizing boosted voter turnout in critical swing states and in cities like Detroit, Philadelphia, and Atlanta, which led to Biden’s presidential win.
Democrats’ losses this cycle were “tough,” she said, but she noted Republicans and Trump had been “working every day since he came into office to organize on the ground, to invest in real infrastructure, different kinds of media that reach people.” Democrats did not necessarily anticipate the kind of turnout Trump would drive, nor did they organize as consistently over the course of the year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
How will Biden weather a fractured party
Biden ran as a moderate, someone known for making deals across the aisle. But since he left the Senate at the beginning of 2009, a lot has changed. Partisanship is deep-rooted, even in the Senate that has historically been known for its members’ ability to strike a deal. The number of red-state Democrats has dwindled. Only three Democratic senators represent states won by Trump in 2020.
And while leaders on both sides of the aisle have said they hope to get bipartisan deals across the finish line, Biden could be the first president in more than 30 years to take office without control over both chambers of Congress. Democrats still have a chance to take control of Congress if they win both Senate seats in Georgia in a January runoff, though it will be a tough feat in a state turning purple with a history of backing Republicans.
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“I think the country spoke pretty loudly in this last election that they want us to work together,” said Rep. Josh Gottheimer, who co-chairs the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus. “I believe there was a lot of ticket-splitting and a lot of voters who said we want to turn the page on the White House, but we want a check (on a purely Democratic agenda.)”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi downplayed concerns that her smaller majority in the House and the likelihood of the Senate remaining in Republican hands would mean a less aggressive legislative agenda.
“We still have the power of the majority, but on top of that, our leverage and our power is greatly enhanced by having a Democratic president in the White House,” Pelosi said Friday at a news conference.
There could be room for compromise.
Nearly every lawmaker who spoke to USA TODAY identified a coronavirus stimulus package and infrastructure as key areas where Democrats could work with Republicans. Biden’s platform called for a $2 trillion investment in infrastructure and clean energy during his first term.
Besides Senate Republicans possibly standing in the way, Biden will also have to navigate the demands of progressives, some known to reject proposals backed by party leadership over concerns they did not go far enough. The Progressive Caucus, which counted close to 100 members in the last Congress, will expand its numbers in the next Congress and could flex its muscle as one of the largest voting blocs in House.
Moderates expressed anxiety that the far-left flank of the party could potentially make it difficult for them to get things done.
“I am somebody who believes progress is better than purity,” said Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla. “This whole idea that somehow focusing on what can be done is not bold is incorrect. In my opinion, bold is getting things done.”
Progressives say their goals have not changed and didn’t deny there could be members who vote against legislation if it didn’t go far enough.
“Are we always going to try to move things to be bigger and bolder? Likely,” Pocan said, arguing not many bills were likely to move through Congress because of expected Republican control of the Senate. Instead, Pocan said, most changes would occur by executive action. Other progressives were confident they would be able to move forward on legislative priorities.
Congressman-elect Mondaire Jones said progressives could be patient, calling progressivism ” long-suffering work.”
But another progressive freshman from New York, Congressman-elect Jamaal Bowman, said progressive priorities like COVID-19 relief, Medicare for All, public housing investment, and the Green New Deal were “demands of the American people” that Biden needs to respond to.
“Democrats – moderates and progressives alike – need to be ready to hold him accountable,” he said.
Biden, for his part, has struck an ambitious tone. He said Tuesday he wanted to work with Congress “to dramatically ramp up health care protections, get America to universal coverage, and lower health care costs as soon as humanly possible.”