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2018 Elections - How to Win; What are the Lessons of Lamb's Victory

Conor Lamb ran as an anti-establishment, labor-backed candidate who defended the welfare state. To keep winning, Democrats will need to embrace a bold, redistributive program. If anything, the problem is that the progressive efforts are too weak, not too strong.

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Conor Lamb is not the face of the Democratic Party’s future, but his victory does show that it has one., credit: Drew Angerer/Getty Images // In These Times

Neoliberals Are Taking All the Wrong Lessons From Conor Lamb’s Victory - Kate Aronoff (In These Times)
Opening a New Way for Democrats to Run and Win - Robert Borosage (Our Future)

 

Neoliberals Are Taking All the Wrong Lessons From Conor Lamb’s Victory
 

Lamb ran as an anti-establishment, labor-backed candidate who defended the welfare state. To keep winning, Democrats will need to embrace a bold, redistributive program.

BY Kate Aronoff

March 15, 2018
In These Times
 

On Wednesday, Democrat Conor Lamb officially claimed a narrow, upset victory for a Western Pennsylvania House seat in a district that in 2016 President Trump carried by nearly 20 points. Like many of the state’s soon-to-be-dissolved districts, Pennsylvania’s 18th was designed specifically to ensure Republican victories. Yet in what will be its last election—thanks to a state Supreme Court ruling in January—the district flipped. Trump won at least 110 other Republican House districts by even smaller margins than PA-18, meaning large swathes of so-called “Trump country” may now be up for grabs. Democrats need to win less than a quarter of those seats in 2018 to take back the House.

That’s bad news for the GOP. But what does Lamb’s surprise win mean for Democrats? Among other things, it may have just shown that the party will have to abandon neoliberalism to keep winning.

A note of caution: Lamb’s victory isn’t an unambiguous sign that out-and-out progressives can sail to victory in areas carried by Trump. A former federal prosecutor, Lamb supports both coal and fracking, is “personally opposed” to abortion (though doesn’t support laws banning it), and rejects both Medicare for All and a $15 minimum wage.

Yet at a time when organized labor faces existential threats at the federal level, Lamb’s heavily union-backed campaign also signals that Democrats running as explicitly pro-labor can win—even in the face of $14 million worth of Republican opposition. Lamb enjoyed hearty backing from Pennsylvania unions, including the United Steelworkers, the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and the United Mine Workers of America, and he ran on bread-and-butter economic issues such as protecting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Unions, in turn, got out the vote against Lamb’s avowedly anti-union opponent, state Rep. Rick Saccone. “Organized labor built Western Pennsylvania, tonight they have reasserted their right to have a major part in our future,” Lamb said in his victory speech. “You have brought me into your ranks to fight with you. I am proud to be right there with you.”

While the president has described him as “like Trump,” Lamb campaigned on a relatively piecemeal economic populism that isn’t premised on Republican ideas at all—and certainly runs against the spirit of just about every economic policy Trump has pushed while in office. Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are about as close as America’s beleaguered welfare state gets to socialism, and for decades these programs have been defended by progressive Democrats against Republican attacks. Could Lamb have won in PA-18 by campaigning as a socialist? Probably not. But universal, redistributive programs are popular, despite Democrats’ occasional ambivalence about protecting and expanding them.

Party moves

The Democratic Party has long existed as a kind of coalition, bringing together establishment types like Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Blue Dogs like Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) with left-leaning progressives like Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Keith Ellison (D-Minn.). The makeup of this coalition has changed in recent decades. Through the 1990s and early 2000s—as Bill Clinton and other centrists rose to power—there was a credible case to be made that by veering right, Democrats could win elections against the GOP.

So it went that Clinton ended “welfare as know it” and deregulated the banking industry. This neoliberal approach reigned supreme up until the 2008 financial crisis, when cracks began to show. After a severe recession marked by massive job losses and a housing crisis, policy solutions grounded in market fundamentalism lost popularity among the public. The case that an agenda made up of such policies spelled the path to power began to erode, crumbling markedly with Hillary Clinton’s loss in 2016.

In the wake of Trump’s election, fights against repealing Obamacare and passing corporate-friendly tax cuts have become showcases for grassroots energy within and outside of the Democratic Party. At the same time, genuinely progressive policy solutions that have been advocated for years by groups like the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC), such as Medicare for All, are gaining popularity. The party’s left flank has long functioned as a kind of ideas factory for Democrats writ large, thanks in no small part to its close ties to social movements and progressive unions. Now, there’s a bigger market for that product.

The recent CPC Strategy Summit in Baltimore was brimming with such ideas, which are enjoying new traction thanks to shifting political winds. Though there’s no consensus as of yet as to what a full-fledged progressive platform might look like, the most recent People’s Budget offers hints in that direction.

The Center for Popular Democracy’s Ady Barkan, who received an award from the CPC for his work organizing against the Obamacare repeal and Trump’s tax plan, suggested the party could pioneer a different way of thinking about spending and budgets. “Democrats were definitely ringing the deficit bell during the tax fight,” he says. “That’s the model we have. Bill Clinton cuts deficits by cutting welfare, among other things… But then George Bush blows up the deficit for his wars and his tax cuts. Barack Obama ties himself in knots trying to be the responsible deficit cutter. First as tragedy, then as farce, now as Donald Trump.”

He adds, “It’s not like guns or abortions or something like that. People don’t give a shit about deficits. You tell them that they can have free healthcare and childcare and infrastructure and they’ll accept that.”

“If I had 5 years of health ahead of me now I would want to launch a campaign to guarantee everyone a good job, and say, ‘If you’re unemployed we’re not going to give you unemployment benefits. We’re going to give you a living wage job taking care of kids, taking care of old people, cleaning the streets, installing solar panels, building public housing, writing plays, singing songs,” Barkan says. In 2016, he was diagnosed with ALS, a degenerative nerve disease.

CPC member and Democratic National Committee Vice Chair Keith Ellison—who is convening a task force on the House’s Medicare-For-All bill, on which he’s now the lead sponsor—even floated the idea of a maximum wage to journalist Sarah Jaffe. “This idea that you can leave people in poverty as you are stacking up dead presidents like nobody’s business has got to come to an end,” he says, referencing corporate CEOs. “You can open a company. You can make a profit. By why do you have to make more than 21 times as much as average worker? Where did you get that damn greedy, and how did you create a philosophy to protect your greed?”

From the event’s main stage on Friday, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) noted that part of the work of arriving at and enacting a progressive agenda requires dedicated institution building, and strengthening the intellectual infrastructure, like think tanks, that informs the kind of proposals policymakers introduce. “We’ve seen the Right build infrastructure in colleges and institutions around the country,” she said. “How do we build that infrastructure for ourselves?”

From PA-18 to 2018

Lamb’s victory says as much about politics as it does about policy. He won, in part, by treating the Democratic Party’s current leadership as a burden. Lamb notably distanced himself from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), saying he wouldn’t support her for leadership should his party take the House later this year. “I think it’s clear that this Congress is not working for people…I think we need new leadership on both sides…people are ready for a new day,” Lamb said at a rally in January. He took an even more aggressive tone against Republican House Leader Paul Ryan for his attacks on entitlement programs.

As in Jon Ossoff’s failed bid for Georgia’s 6th district, Republicans tried to tie Lamb to Democratic leadership. In this case—with a candidate willing to criticize that same leadership—it didn’t stick, meaning other candidates might do the same. As Rep. Filemon Vela (D-Texas) told Politico. “Running against Nancy Pelosi is going to help you a lot more than running with her.” Several other Democratic congressional hopefuls are following suit, and disavowing Pelosi’s leadership on the campaign trail.

While certainly partisan in their emphasis, such jabs are less about left versus right politics than about candidates’ relationship to the political establishment. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC)’s penchant for backing prodigious fundraisers—many of whom are independently wealthy themselves—may well function as a kind of negative feedback loop for Democrats, whereby the party establishment backs the candidates they most resemble: issue-allergic, poll-conscious politicos who may be able to work a black-tie fundraiser better than a canvass or phone-banking shift.

All this could bode well for progressive challengers with an anti-establishment economic platform like Jess King, whose own district—now PA-11—actually became a safer Republican seat following redistricting, even as the new maps are more friendly to Pennsylvania Democrats overall.

If there’s any lesson to be learned from Lamb’s victory, though, it may be that there’s no one-size-fits-all strategy for Democrats as they try to take back the House, despite Jonathan Chait's claim that his win served as “proof of concept for a strategy that could replicate itself across the country.”

Lamb’s race may be a sign of things to come in overwhelmingly white, Republican-leaning districts with a history of high union density, something which could also be a boon for 2018 House candidates like Randy Bryce in Wisconsin and Richard Ojeda in West Virginia, both veterans like Lamb. For Democrats to win big in other kinds of districts this November, though, they will need to both register and turn out young voters and voters of color, who skew strongly progressive on issues ranging from taxes and healthcare to climate change and mass incarceration.

While different appeals will work in different districts, the underlying question now may be whether Democrats have a forward-looking agenda to stand behind, one that will compel voters to come out the polls, particularly around economic issues. There simply isn’t a political constituency for fiscal conservatism outside of both parties’ respective donor classes, as recent political science research suggests. With Republicans holding strong as a party of, by and for the wealthy, the playing field is wide open for Democrats to propose a tangible alternative not just to individual issues but to neoliberal economic orthodoxy as a whole.

Democrats can’t continue on for long as a house divided against itself, with bodies like the DCCC backing establishment-friendly candidates as the party’s activist base shifts against the establishment and toward bold progressive policies. While Conor Lamb is not the face of the Democratic Party’s future, his victory does show that it has one. How bright it will be may depend on how willing the party’s top brass is to accept new ideas and new leaders from its left flank.

[Kate Aronoff is a writing fellow at In These Times covering the politics of climate change, the White House transition and the resistance to Trump’s agenda. Follow her on Twitter @katearonoff]

Reprinted with permission from In These Times. All rights reserved. Portside is proud to feature content from In These Times, a publication dedicated to covering progressive politics, labor and activism. To get more news and provocative analysis from In These Times, sign up  for a free weekly e-newsletter or subscribe to the magazine at a special low rate.

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Opening a New Way for Democrats to Run and Win

If anything, the problem is that the progressive efforts are too weak, not too strong.

by Robert Borosage

March 16, 2018
Our Future

Conor Lamb’s stunning win in the special election for Pennsylvania’s 18th House District showed the blue wave building as the November midterms approach.

It also triggered an immediate debate about what the victory says about Democratic strategy this fall, amid warnings from the Democratic political pros that efforts to drive a bold progressive agenda will undermine Democratic prospects in conservative districts like Lamb’s.

Lamb’s remarkable surge in a district that favored Donald Trump by twenty points proves the “Resistance” is real. Republicans outspent Lamb and his allies by a five-to-one margin, and threw their entire playbook at him: Trump, tax cuts, tariffs, attack ads, and more. None of it worked.

With over 100 Republican-held districts more competitive than the one Lamb now represents, the panic in Republican circles is surely justified.

Lost in a Masquerade

Publicly, House Speaker Paul Ryan sought to discount the result by arguing Lamb masqueraded as a conservative. In a somewhat similar vein, some pundits and Democratic party officials suggested Lamb’s victory validates the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s strategy of finding candidates that “fit their districts,” which is often code for recruiting more conservative or corporate Democrats.

While Lamb said he wouldn’t vote for Nancy Pelosi to lead the party and was personally pro-gun and opposed to abortion, the notion that he ran as a conservative is fanciful. Jon Favreau, Obama’s former speech writer, demolished it in one tweet, noting that Lamb campaigned for universal health care, against Trump’s tax cut, for expanded background checks on gun sales, for stronger unions, against cuts to Social Security, for a woman’s right to choose and for medical marijuana.

Lamb put voters’ kitchen-table concerns at the center of his campaign, and made himself the champion of working people in his district. He railed against House Speaker Paul Ryan for passing tax cuts for the rich and corporations while pushing deep cuts in Social Security and Medicare. He supported Trump’s tariffs while campaigning against our failed corporate trade policies. He embraced unions against an opponent who favored right-to-work legislation.

Lamb’s campaign was fueled by small donations and a field operation bolstered by unions. The DCCC largely stayed out of the race until late, and it’s likely it raised more money off the race than it actually put into it.

Drawing Conclusions

There are two major conclusions to be drawn from Lamb’s victory in Pennsylvania. First, even in a growing low-unemployment economy, working people are looking for someone who will stand with them. A bold progressive economic agenda beats the Republican attempt to use top-end tax cuts, deregulation and attacks on government to cover their remorseless assault on workers. Even Trump’s tariffs and posturing about trade didn’t make the difference in this very red district.

Second, the turnout in the race showed once more that Democratic voters are mobilized and energized. Democrats came out in larger numbers than Republicans which usually does not happen in off-year or special elections. Even a massive effort by outside conservative groups could not counter that passion.

As the annual Strategy Summit hosted by the Congressional Progressive Caucus Center in Baltimore last weekend showcased, progressive movements and leaders are gaining capacity and confidence in driving the demand for Democrats to embrace a bold agenda for change. (Full disclosure: I chair the board of the CPCC).

A New Strategy

The Congressional Progressive Caucus is the largest and most diverse group in the House. Its members tend to come from strong Democratic districts. They are increasingly united behind a bold populist agenda – fair trade, $15.00 minimum wage, Medicare for All, expand Social Security, tuition free college, support for worker rights and unions, public investment to rebuild America and drive a Green New Deal.

The summit featured prominent House members who are in the CPC, such as Keith Ellison and Pramila Jayapal, as well as progressive champions like Senator Elizabeth Warren and New York Mayor Bill DiBlasio. Bernie Sanders spoke by video. All called for both mobilizing against Trump and Republicans and for demanding fundamental reform. Warren was saluted for her courage in calling out Democratic Senators who have lined up with the big banks to weaken bank regulation.

Chris Shelton, President of the Communications Workers of America, summarized the progressive commitment most forcefully in his keynote address. “The fight for our country’s future,” he declared, “starts with The Resistance, standing up every day against the petulant, racist, fascist-coddling, phony populist, pro corporate, lying lunacy that cascades out of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue on an hour-by-hour basis.”

At the same time, he argued, progressive movements must continue “the fight to construct a set of visionary, value-based progressive populist politics that can win back a governing majority in this country.” That’s an agenda that “puts Main Street before Wall Street, that is serious about fighting for racial, gender and environmental justice, that is deeply committed to restoring [our] democracy… If we don’t deliver a positive message that resonates with working people in this country, then we will continue to lose.”

Shelton contrasted Wall Street Democrats with “poor people, working people, people of color, young people, women, LGBT people, immigrants” who must be the heart and soul of the Democratic Party. He called on Democrats to lead on raising the wages of American workers, on stopping the offshoring of jobs, and on protecting unions and worker rights at the workplace.

Shelton admits that too many of his members voted for Trump, in order to “shake things up.” Trump is trying to lock in that working class support with his trade, tariff and tax postures, as well as the vicious race-bait appeals. Shelton argues that the only answer is a bold agenda for economic justice that appeals to working people of all races, genders and sexual preferences. That agenda expands the appeal of Democratic candidates rather than limiting it.

A Progressive Agenda

The Progressive Caucus is driving that agenda inside the Congress, as its PAC is raising new resources to support progressive candidates in the field. The CPC’s infrastructure bill will largely define the Democratic response to Trump’s sham proposals. Its trade principles offer Democrats an alternative to the failed strategy of the past. Its annual People’s Budget has been gaining traction among mainstream Democrats. At the summit, Keith Ellison announced he would spearhead the push for Medicare for All.

Speakers at the CPCC Summit also highlighted the movements that are mobilizing across the country: The victorious West Virginia teachers strike will inspire teachers and other workers across the country. The Women’s March will mobilize in 10 states and Planned Parenthood announced a $20 million electoral program. Progressive groups like Our Revolution, Move on, Democrats for America, Working Families Party, the Progressive Congress Change Committee, People’s Action, Indivisible, Justice Democrats and others are building capacity to recruit and support insurgent candidates.

Democratic leaders got the message of the 2016 election: voters are looking for big change. Senate leader Chuck Schumer brought Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders into his leadership group. House leader Nancy Pelosi came to the CPC Summit to champion the need for a bold economic agenda.

From Old to New

Yet, the DCCC and the party pros who run it remain wedded to the old ways of doing business. They recruit candidates with deep pockets or the ability to raise big money and tend to seek out military veterans and social conservatives for contested districts. Establishment Democrats also try to limit the financial drain of contested primaries by undermining candidates like Laura Moser in Texas who might win a primary, but by DCCC calculation, are less likely to prevail in the general election. They decry “litmus tests” like Medicare for All which Republicans could attack.

Even in short-term electoral terms, there’s little reason to accede to the party establishment’s advice. The DCCC’s track record for picking “winners” over the last election cycles hasn’t earned respect. As the attack on Moser showed, efforts to undermine insurgents are likely to backfire. Primary challenges both reflect and can help build a more energized base. Resources aren’t finite – they can expand geometrically with excitement and passion, as the Sanders campaign surely demonstrated.

Fears about divisive party primaries crippling candidates are overblown. The threat of Trump and Republicans unites Democrats. The litmus tests define the candidates that progressive groups will use limited resources to support. That doesn’t mean progressives won’t rally in the general. The threat of Trump and Republicans unites Democrats.

If anything, the problem is that the progressive efforts are too weak, not too strong. Our Revolution is focused more on state and local races than on the congressional battle. The other groups have a limited slate of insurgents that they are supporting. Unions and the CPC PAC are more comfortable operating in the general election rather than in primary fights. The DCCC and the Democratic Party pros still play the largest role by far in determining who gets a leg up in primary races and who gets pushed down.

Midterm elections are about passion and energy. Democrats need a sea change, and the resistance to Trump is lifting the tide. Lamb’s victory shows is that Democrats don’t need purity to come out in large numbers to take back the Congress and confront Trump. It also shows that Democratic candidates who champion a bold kitchen table agenda can win even in the reddest of districts.

[Robert Borosage is the founder and president of the Institute for America’s Future and co-director of its sister organization, the Campaign for America’s Future.]

A version of this article was first published in TheNation.com, where Borosage writes weekly.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.