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A Lamb in ‘Centrist’ Clothing

Terry H. Schwadron

March 15, 2018

Among those left-leaning supporters in my circle, there was a certain amount of smiling about the apparent election — recounts notwithstanding — of Democrat Conor Lamb in his Western Pennsylvania congressional district. This is another brick in the campaign to challenge and stop the Donald Trump presidency, goes the line.

At the same time, the professional pundits on television were touting the elements in this highlighted and expensive district race as a portent for November’s midterm congressional elections. The thinking about a “blue wave” of active response to Trump’s particular brand of economic nationalism, ethical disdain, and policies against Obamacare, environment and consumer protections, is strong and feeding on itself.

The “loser” in the Tuesday election, then, is seen as Trump personally, rather than Rick Saccone, the candidate.

I’d like to propose a different “loser” in this election: To me, this election is rejecting Democratic progressives, the “Elizabeth Warren wing” of the party, as it is being called, just as much as Trumpism.

Consider this: Democrats found in Lamb a good-looking, sharp, 30-year-old former Marine and prosecutor who won’t criticize Trump, who is anti-abortion and pro-assault gun (which he owns and uses), and who believes in helping union steelworkers. Oh yeah, he would not vote to keep Nancy Pelosi as his leader. In other words, they found a candidate who as easily could have been a Trump supporter as a Trump critic. Indeed, Speaker Paul Ryan and others were saying in defense that both candidates were “conservatives.”

It’s not the first time. It was much the same in Alabama, when Doug Jones was elected to the vacant Jeff Sessions Senate seat over a politically hobbled Roy S. Moore Jr. But the fact is that from a policy point of view, the distance from Doug Jones to say, Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, is not that great.

These are Democrats in the fashion of Sen. Joe Manchin, D-WVA, who is seen by the president as a “gettable” vote on most issues because of the basically conservative lean of West Virginia voters. It is why the folks around Trump keep going at Democratic Senators Joe Donnelly of Indiana or Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, or even Claire McCaskill of Missouri. He is appealing to their policy druthers rather than to party membership.

Democrats want to win, just like Republicans. So, in order to win, they see in the Lamb race a bit of a formula. They want to find younger, very centrist-to-right-leaning candidates who can appeal to white suburban voters, if that’s right for the particular district. CNN’s John King was among those analysts, armed with electronic maps with circles all over them, to identify neighborhood precincts where such candidates are doing well, even as DNC head Tom Perez discussed the Democratic appeal to a big, diverse tent of candidates who can motivate black, Latino and other groups to get out and vote.

Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a familiar Democratic voice on the television circuits, offered the best explanation. He doesn’t care whether candidates support abortion rights or resist gun controls as much as he cares that Democrats displace Speaker Paul Ryan to be able to control what issues come to the floor of the House, in this case.

Among most of my friends, the idea is pretty well set that a Democratic House or Congress can stop the most objectionable parts of Trumpism, can restore what progress has been lost in the last year, can even consider impeachment of Trump, should the special counsel investigation point in that direction.

My point is that more Democrats like Lamb or Jones is not going to result necessarily in passage of the kind of substantial gun control measures that hundreds of thousands of school students walked out of class yesterday to demand in highly admirable fashion. The exuberance of those well-spoken protesters who were registering to vote as they gathered to demand action on school safety. Ironically, those centrist Democrats who are being selected as candidates are unlikely to pass single-payer health insurance (which Trump would veto in any case) or restore environmental regulations that Trump’s EPA has dismissed.

I’m not arguing for unanimity among Democratic votes; let all the gardens bloom. But I am asking aloud whether any of this stuff matters if there are no central principles.

It’s the Bernie Sanders — Hillary Clinton fight again, idealism versus pragmatism, with Supreme Court justices in the balance if you lose. It’s the failure of the California Democratic Party to endorse Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s reelection campaign because she is seen as too centrist (to say nothing of seeking a six-year term at age 86).

For myself, I might be happier in a parliamentary-type approach to Congress, where multiple parties can actually stand for particular principles and have to work their political negotiation skills with like minds in Congress to get things DONE. Or not. The country needs to be able to agree on some basic things, and at the momet, a split country cannot even listen to the other side.

It was reported, for example, that Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) called Warren into his office to persuade her in ramping down more personal attacks in her campaign against the debate over rolling back Dodd-Frank bank regulations being supported by Republicans and those centrist Democrats. Warren, of course, says there was a reason the country had to adopt regulations of banks after the 2008 financial meltdown, and that big banks are positioning themselves to take advantage of the listed help for “community” banks.

There is no question that a 20 percentage point turnabout in left-right voting since the November, 2016 election results in that Western Pennsylvania congressional district — all at the cost of millions of dollars on both sides — should signal that there is dissatisfaction with Trump and his actions. But Democrats also need to think about what they are offering besides Not Trump.


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