Lessons of Lamb

Democrat Conor Lamb appears to have prevailed in a gerrymandered Pennsylvania Congressional district that Donald Trump won by over 20 points less than two years ago. Hard on the heels of several other surprising victories by red state Democrats, Lamb’s strong showing Tuesday furnishes additional evidence that the Democratic Party’s road to relevance was paved by Bernie Sanders in 2016.

Like recent winners in Tulsa, Oklahoma, southwest Missouri, throughout Virginia, and Alabama’s new U.S. Senator Doug Jones and like Bernie Sanders in 2016, Lamb campaigned as an economic populist and took on the establishment of both major parties. Railing against right-to-work laws, Lamb embraced unions, supported Trump’s proposed tariffs on steel and aluminum, and promised to fight any Republican cuts to medicare and social security.

In one of Lamb’s television ads, a supporter laments that the current Congress “care[s] more about the corporations and the wealthy than the normal people.” This cri de coeur may have resonated because Lamb refused to accept corporate contributions and promised to support a new generation of Democratic leaders to replace current sinecures like Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer.

Some reporters are resisting the notion that Conor Lamb’s campaign represents a clean break from establishment Democratic politics as exemplified by Hillary Clinton’s unsuccessful 2016 campaign. Bill Scher’s well-written and informative article in Politico does indeed explain Why Conor Lamb (Probably) Won. Scher argues that Lamb’s win “does little . . . to adjudicate the raging debate over [whether Democrats should run] as proud left-wing populists or relative moderates willing to reach across the aisle.”

Scher notes that Lamb’s pro-union, pro-entitlements positions are counter-balanced by his 1) call for “Congress to improve the Affordable Care Act” rather than Medicare-for-all and 2) concern that a $15 minimum wage might be “high” for local “small business owners.” The contention that Lamb is not progressive on a number of issues is persuasive. But the assertion that Lamb represents an amalgam of the Clinton and Sanders wings is not.

On guns, Lamb is closer to Sanders, whom other Democrats have accused of being too cozy with the gun lobby, than he is to Clinton. Regarding a $15 minimum wage, Lamb uses the populist frame that small western Pennsylvania businesses cannot afford it to justify his opposition. Clinton by contrast struggled mightily to explain her position on the issue and ultimately satisfied nobody. Scher is right of course when he notes that Lamb’s position on Medicare-for-all care is comparable to Hillary’s not Bernie’s.

In the New York Times, Peter Baker and Michael Shear report that the Strong Performance by Democrat Conor Lamb in Pennsylvania Shakes Trump and G.O.P. Baker and Shear argue that voters offered a “blunt rejection of the Trump agenda” and presumably an embrace of standard Democratic policies. The reporters disregard the fact that Lamb embraced the President’s tariffs which nearly all Democratic politicians – but not labor leaders – have roundly denounced.

Scher and Baker and Shear miss the centrality of campaign finance reform as an issue for many voters. What united activists across the political spectrum in 2016 from hard-core lefties to right-of-center libertarians was a conviction that our political system is rigged in favor of corporate-approved and funded candidates regardless of their party affiliation. After winning elections with the help of a few well-heeled donors, these politicians are reasonably viewed as legislating without regard to the interests and wishes of ordinary constituents.

Thus, Hillary Clinton’s refusal to publicize the content of her paid speeches to Goldman Sachs confirmed for such voters, already deeply skeptical of her record in the Senate and as Secretary of State, that her true allegiance was to Wall Street not Main Street.

Lamb’s decision to fuel his campaign with small non-corporate donations therefore places him squarely on the progressive side of the Democratic aisle. On the corporate side sit the free-trading deregulating Clintons, Barack Obama, red state Democrats like Claire McCaskill, and ostensible liberals like Wall Street-friendly Cory Booker. The harm they did to the party is obvious. From 2008 – 2016, Democrats lost over 1,000 elected offices across the nation and ultimately the White House.

In this election cycle, Conor Lamb, Doug Jones, and others have demonstrated that Democrats can win in deep-red districts if they campaign as Sanders-style economic populists. Assuming Democratic candidates in the mid-terms follow this script, the Democrats could take control of the House in November. Even the Senate may not be out of reach although most of the contested seats this year are occupied by Democrats.

But winning an election cycle or even two in succession, as the Democrats did in 2006 and 2008, does not guarantee political hegemony. In order for their party to become ascendant as it was from the 1930s – 1960s, successful Democratic candidates must do more than campaign as economic populists. They must champion the economic interests of working and middle-class Americans after taking office.

Recent events suggest that such a reformation may not be in the cards. In the two days since the Pennsylvania special election, sixteen Democratic Senators, including Doug Jones, joined Republicans to exempt mid to large banks from Dodd-Frank’s barely sufficient limits on reckless financial institutions. In their almost united opposition to Trump’s tariffs on steel and aluminum, Congressional Democrats are also siding with financial and economic elites not America’s workers and middle-class.

These actions impair the Democratic brand and reduce the likelihood that Democrats will take back one or both Houses of Congress. Should Democrats nonetheless prevail in the mid-terms and regain influence their ascendancy will be brief if they continue to ignore America’s workers. Then the Republican onslaught on our people, environment, and values will resume after only a brief respite.

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