WASHINGTON — Democrats may have captured the White House, but that doesn’t mean their problems are over.
A party that was stitched together by its fear and dislike of President Trump is already starting to strain at the seams now that they’ve defeated him. Progressives and moderates on Capitol Hill are blaming each other for losing congressional seats while battling to determine the best legislative agenda and message to rally around.
Since Election Day, the reckoning has taken place in contentious conference calls, dueling memos, and pointed media interviews in a preview of the challenges President-elect Joe Biden, who ran as a moderate, will face when he officially takes the helm of the fractured party in January.
Biden has tried to stay out of the fight. But he is already under pressure from the left to stack his Cabinet with progressives, even as the party’s moderates beg them to tone down their rhetoric and tack to the center before the 2022 midterm elections.
“Biden has to be the leader that we elected him to be — not Mitch McConnell’s vice president,” said John Paul Mejia, a spokesperson for the Sunrise Movement, a liberal grass-roots group that pushes for aggressive policies to combat climate change.
In Congress, moderate Democrats are criticizing their liberal colleagues for embracing racial justice activists who pushed to overhaul police funding, saying it cost the party support from more moderate suburban voters who backed Biden but rejected down-ballot Democrats.
“Defund the police? Defund, my butt,” West Virginia Democratic Senator Joe Manchin said in a colorful tweet last week. “We do not have some crazy socialist agenda, and we do not believe in defunding the police.” Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez of New York, one of the Democrats’ most liberal lawmakers, responded by tweeting a photo of herself, dressed in all white at the State of the Union address, glaring at Manchin as he applauded Trump.
Each side is parsing over election data to bolster their point, with progressives claiming Biden won the election due to mobilizing Democratic base voters including young people and voters of color while moderates point to Biden’s gains with formerly Republican and mostly white suburban voters in the blue wall states of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.
Progressives see a mandate for bold change, while moderates see many voters clamoring for a middle-of-the-road approach by splitting their ticket between Biden and Republicans. Republicans have picked up at least seven seats in the House, with more races left to call, and some vulnerable GOP senators, including Maine’s Susan Collins, held off well-funded Democratic challengers.
That will likely leave Speaker Nancy Pelosi with one of the narrowest House majorities since World War II, while Democratic hopes for controlling the Senate rest on the uphill task of sweeping two Georgia special elections in January.
“I think we have to still capture the middle if we want to lead,” said Representative Stephen Lynch of Massachusetts. “I’ve been there long enough to know that there’s a huge difference when you have that center with you — you can actually accomplish things.”
Lynch is among the moderate House Democrats who believe Republicans were able to weaponize activists' call to “defund the police” in the wake of George Floyd’s killing to defeat down-ballot Democrats, whom they painted as socialists.
In a recent House Democratic conference call — one that featured tears and some shouting — progressives pushed back on that characterization, saying they believed they were being unfairly scapegoated.
Representative Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts called blaming progressives for down-ballot losses “simply incorrect.” A diverse coalition of voters delivered Biden the win and “health care justice, environmental justice, and racial justice are winning issues with the American people,” she said.
“I would encourage us to focus our attention not on the voters who showed up for Trump and predictably voted for Republicans down ballot, but on the coalition of voters who elected Joe Biden and Kamala Harris decisively, elected a Democratic majority in the House and are on their way to flipping the Senate in the Georgia runoff,” Pressley wrote to the Globe.
In dueling memos, the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way pointed out that Biden outperformed progressive candidates such as Kara Eastman in Nebraska and Representative Ilhan Omar in Minnesota, while a coalition of progressive groups argued that Democrats in swing districts who backed Medicare for All — such as Representative Katie Porter in Southern California — won their races and that more conservative Democrats lost races in those districts than liberals overall.
The liberal groups also took a swipe at Pelosi for showing off her fancy freezer and ice cream during a TV interview at a time when many Americans were struggling due to the economic effects of COVID-19 — arguing that Democrats need to rally around a clear populist economic message.
“When one of our candidates loses, it’s because the progressive movement is terrible; when one of theirs loses it’s a one-time thing,” said Rebecca Katz, a progressive political strategist who helped write the memo. “And it’s not true either way.”
This debate over which voters propelled Biden to victory has high stakes for the policy choices he will make over the next four years as he attempts to enact an agenda while facing either a divided Congress or a razor-thin Democratic majority.
“The truth is that everybody’s got a point,” said Ian Russell, the former head of the House Democrats' political arm. “I’m hoping that the various corners of the conference that are hotly debating what worked and what didn’t can settle on agreeing together to both not scare off voters who may have lent their votes to the Biden ticket for the first time ever, but also to give our base a reason to turn out in the midterms.”
Former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell, an early Biden backer, urged the president-elect to make a $15 minimum wage one of his first policy proposals, as a unifying bill that could stop progressives and moderates from being “at each other’s throats” in the House. Rendell also suggested an infrastructure package as a way to build party consensus.
“All Democrats — moderate, left, and center — we all think there should be a robust infrastructure bill,” Rendell said. “Infrastructure is the key.”
Other Democrats, including Pelosi, have signaled that one of their first priorities will be legislation on voting rights and anti-corruption. Pressley urged action on the Green New Deal and Medicare for All.
None of those initiatives came up as top priorities in Ron Klain’s first interview since Biden named him as his White House chief of staff. Klain told MSNBC that Biden’s early focus would be on coronavirus relief, an immigration reform bill, and reversing Trump’s environmental moves administratively — including rejoining the Paris global climate change accord.
For now, the arena for the intraparty battle has moved to Biden’s Cabinet. The Sunrise Movement and the Justice Democrats, another influential liberal group associated with Ocasio Cortez, have called on Biden to appoint Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts to his Cabinet, along with other progressives. Both could be difficult to confirm if the Republicans hold onto control of the Senate.
Progressives expect Biden to fight “tooth and nail” for their agenda by making liberal picks to his Cabinet, Mejia said.
Biden, who ran on a message of uniting the country, is so far floating above the fray. His early appointments to his transition team include both hard-charging progressives with a history of targeting Wall Street and people with ties to corporate America and Big Tech — a mixed bag that is not enough to infuriate progressives or placate them. And Klain is a long-time establishment Democrat who is nonetheless a welcome choice for liberals who feared Biden would pick a more corporate-friendly option from his inner circle.
The transition picks show “an openness to input from progressives” said Jeff Hauser, the director of the Revolving Door Project, an organization that is pushing the Biden administration to avoid hiring former lobbyists. “Everything is consistent with Biden being a big-tent president.''
Biden has already spoken to some Republican senators, and his allies suggest he earnestly wants to work with them in order to pass coronavirus relief and other bills. Given the strong possibility of a Republican-controlled Senate led by McConnell, there’s no other way to make progress, they point out.
“He knows that it isn’t just going to be Democrats that are able to carry the day on anything because Mitch McConnell and Republicans can stop an awful lot of what he wants,” said Chuck Hagel, the former defense secretary under President Obama and Republican senator from Nebraska. “He’s going to have to have Republicans with him on some of these big issues.”
Hagel said he expects Biden would tap Republicans to serve in his administration as well, including, potentially, former Ohio governor John Kasich, who endorsed Biden.
But progressives point out the vast majority of Republican senators are not even recognizing Biden as president-elect or breaking with Trump’s refusal to initiate the transition, a historic departure from norms that gives them little hope for compromise. They are pushing Biden to adopt hardball tactics — swift and meaningful administrative changes as well as progressive Cabinet picks.
“Democrats right after Trump won were putting out statements saying they wanted to work with him,” Katz said. “This time Biden won and Democrats are still putting out statements saying they want to work with Republicans.”
Katz said liberals are tired of establishment Democrats extending the olive branch without Republicans taking it up — and they plan to push Biden to fight. “The left is getting serious about this stuff,” she said. “We need to do more.”