Conor Lamb and the revenge of centrist Democrats
It's a truism of this age of polarization that centrism is dead. But centrist Democrat Conor Lamb just eked out an apparent victory in a special congressional election in a very red district in western Pennsylvania! Does that mean centrism is alive after all?
Well ... it depends what you mean by centrism.
Terms like "moderate" and "centrist" have long been muddled. Elite media in New York and Washington tend to use the word "moderate" as a descriptor for people like themselves: socially inclusive, secular, wealthy. Whereas many voters who are dubbed "moderate" for lack of a better term are actually motley bundles of extremism.
Until recently in Washington, however, there were two clearly identifiable strains of centrism: the moderate to liberal Republicans of the Northeast and the moderate to conservative Democrats of the South, or so-called Blue Dogs. The former are truly extinct; a "moderate Republican" today is in reality a garden-variety conservative who, in contrast to his hardline grenade-tossing brethren, happens to value intra-caucus stability over ideological purity. The Blue Dogs are still a thing, but just barely.
Might Conor Lamb's successful campaign in deep-red Trump Country point the way to a Blue Dog renaissance?
Former Obama speechwriter and budding #Resistance hero Jon Favreau is having none of it:
Conor Lamb campaigned:
1. For universal health care
2. Against Trump's tax cut
3. For expanded background checks
4. For stronger unions
5. Against cuts to Social Security
6. For a woman's right to choose
7. For medical marijuana
"Conservative Democrat." Ok. Cool.
— Jon Favreau (@jonfavs) March 14, 2018
He has a point. The Blue Dog coalition for the last 20 years has a checkered history of siding with Republicans on fiscal issues like the Bush tax cuts and Obama-era austerity that don't look so prudent or courageous with the benefit of hindsight. One espies the same truckling of moneyed interests in the handful of Blue Dog senators in red states who hope that their cooperation with Republicans in a partial rollback of Dodd-Frank financial regulations will help them secure their re-election in a tough midterm environment.
This brand of weak-kneed "centrism" is not what propelled Conor Lamb to victory in Pennsylvania. Lamb paired his background as a Nancy Pelosi-eschewing, AR-15-wielding Marine and federal prosecutor with an economic platform that is pro-union and populist — a far cry from the likes of departed pro-business Blue Dogs who sank the public option during the ObamaCare debate of 2009. One would be hard-pressed to imagine Evan Bayh or Max Baucus uttering the following:
These cuts in Medicare and Medicaid, they are no longer just chapters in Paul Ryan's book. They are there in black and white in actual bills that are sitting in the U.S. Congress that are awaiting a vote … We know the next attack on these so-called entitlements will be on Social Security. [Conor Lamb]
So what kind of Democrat is Conor Lamb? And what should his (apparent) victory teach Democrats about appealing to a larger swatch of voters?
Recall that in the wake of Barack Obama's crushing 2008 victory, David Frum, then still in the employ of the conservative American Enterprise Institute and the good graces of movement conservatism, offered the following advice to Republicans:
A generation ago, Republicans were dominant among college graduates. Those days are long gone. Since 1988, Democrats have become more conservative on economics — and Republicans more conservative on social issues. College-educated Americans have come to believe that their money is safe with Democrats — but that their values are under threat from Republicans. There are more and more college-educated voters. So the question for the GOP is: Will it pursue them? This will involve painful change, on issues ranging from the environment to abortion. It will involve even more painful changes of style and tone: toward a future that is less overtly religious, less negligent with policy, and less polarizing on social issues. [David Frum]
In the wake of the election of Donald Trump, Frum's advice doesn't seem quite as sound (though I would wager Frum would argue that the reckoning described was merely delayed in 2016). But there is still value in his insight. Indeed, its logical extension points the way forward for the party of Conor Lamb: College-educated Americans still feel like their money is safe with Democrats. Now Democratic politicians need to learn from Lamb's brand of Democratic-ness, whatever you might call it, and make sure that rural whites feel like their way of life is safe with them, too.