Joe Biden hasn’t even been officially declared the winner of the presidential election, but the House Democratic caucus still jumped on a conference call on Thursday that sounds like my own personal version of hell.
Former CIA official and first-term Rep. Abigail Spanberger of Virginia, seems like she’ll barely hold on to her seat. She ran four points behind Joe Biden in the state and three points behind him in Henrico County, the most populous one in her district. Spanberger is a conservative Blue Dog Democrat, someone who was frequently mentioned in Politico and other places as a “majority maker” as part of the reaction to the popularity of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Squad. She ran explicitly against Medicare for All and against socialism, but during the call on Thursday, she reportedly blamed her close race on socialism and the movement to defund the police.
Spanberger actually increased her vote share from 2018, which can only mean that when the Republicans ran the attack ad against her, voters liked what they saw!
It’s also highly possible that this was a problem of poor strategy on the individual level. Without naming names, Ocasio-Cortez said in a series of Friday morning tweets that some of the Democrats who lost and are now blaming socialism and Black Lives Matter spent very little on digital and TV advertising, in a year where that was even more important. It’s possible the decision by the Biden campaign to begin its doorknocking program in October also played a role.
But it wasn’t just disgruntled first-term Democrats in districts where Republicans have a six-point registration advantage complaining about this. Rep. Jim Clyburn, the third-ranking Democrat in the House who represents deep-blue Charleston, SC, implied during the call that if the Democrats talk about Medicare for All or really anything that would remotely seem like the they might try to improve people’s lives once they’re in power, it would be disastrous in Georgia, where the party is trying to secure a Senate majority by taking two seats off Republicans in January runoffs.
This is despite the fact that most of the incumbent freshman members who co-sponsored Medicare for All—many of them not exactly self-described progressives, aside from Katie Porter, the most successful of the bunch—all won their races.
For all of the shots about “purity,” the latest of which came from an anonymous centrist Democrat in a Washington Post piece about the call, it’s very clear what the role the center envisions for the left in the Democratic coalition looks like: quiet at best and preferably nonexistent. This is why whenever there’s some blame to go around for some Democratic loss or another, it somehow always gets shoved toward the left. These people are just as much driven by ideology as the people they want to blame for their failures—Justice Democrats, Black Lives Matter, the damn reds.
But it has no basis in reality. For eight years, Barack Obama was called a socialist Muslim by the right, as Rep. Rashida Tlaib—who undoubtedly helped deliver Michigan for Biden—pointed out during the call. And yet he somehow managed to win Florida twice, the first time by a margin similar to Donald Trump’s 2020 win. He won Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin both times. He won North Carolina and Indiana once, and gave the Democrats the largest House majority they’ve had ever since.
Joe Biden did not run as a socialist. During the primary and the general, he ran, in his own words, as the guy who “beat the socialist,” a reference to Bernie Sanders. He ran against Medicare for All and even indicated he would veto the bill if it ever came across his desk. The architect of the crime bill, he also explicitly ran against defunding the police. And ultimately he’s going to win by several points nationally. What’s the excuse there?
One thing centrist Democrats might consider is that in a lot of places, their brand is absolute garbage even if their policies are well-liked. How else do you explain a 23-point victory for a $15 minimum wage in Florida and a three-and-a-half point loss for Biden, who supported it? How do you square a 67% defeat of right-to-work in Missouri in 2018 along with a six-point loss for Claire McCaskill? What is the lesson from voters casting ballots for recreational weed in Montana and South Dakota, and medical weed in Mississippi, despite those states all going for Trump by double-digits? It’s not the fault of trans people, socialists, or Black Lives Matter.
The Democrats are struggling in these places for the same reason they’re beginning to get successfully primaried from the left, at the local, state, and federal level, in the urban centers they’ve ruled forever. They have not learned the lesson of why Bernie Sanders was such a force in the last two primaries even if he ultimately came up short, or the lesson of why Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez resonates with so many people. They have not even learned the lesson of why conservative Democrats who run as far away from the national party as possible are often successful. People do not like them, and more often than not elections between Democrats and Republicans are decided based not on who has the better vision for America, but on who has a worse reputation in that particular place at that particular moment.
At this point, as Alex Pareene wrote for the New Republic yesterday, it’s debatable how much of this can be blamed on the lack of a coherent or even positive, progressive message as opposed to the Democrats’ association as the party of an ineffective, inefficient state outside of the crumbs of a safety net they established decades ago. It’s an open question whether their reputation is salvageable in a lot of these places. If it is, it’s a good bet that it’s not through another rightward shift that doesn’t actually do anything for anyone.