house democrats

Moderate Democrats Warn That AOC Is Distracting From Their Nonexistent Message

Squad goals. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Moderate Democrats are sick and tired of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her “squad” dominating the headlines. Thus, to ensure that those four progressive congresswomen do not garner any additional media attention, several House moderates decided to complain about them anonymously in interviews with CNN Wednesday.

This airtight plan appears to have backfired.

I’m only half-kidding. Obviously, moderate Democrats intended CNN to broadcast their concerns to the world. But it is difficult to reconcile lawmakers’ complaints with their apparent strategy for resolving them:

House Democrats were united in their vote to condemn President Donald Trump’s racist tweets this week, but some Democratic lawmakers are quietly expressing concern that far-left progressives have outsized influence in their caucus …


“The President’s words and actions speak for themselves. We need to focus on the issues that got (Democrats) here: jobs, health care … instead of the issues the President brings up deliberately,” said one House Democratic lawmaker, who asked for anonymity to speak freely. “Anything that takes away from bread-and-butter issues is playing into his hands.”


“The President won this one,” said another House Democratic lawmaker of the showdown. “What the President has done is politically brilliant. Pelosi was trying to marginalize these folks, and the President has now identified the entire party with them.”

If your goal is to galvanize media attention around bread-and-butter issues, whining to Jake Tapper seems like a less effective tactic than, say, taking interesting stances on bread-and-butter issues. And yet, as Vox’s Matt Yglesias notes, it has been House moderates — not Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib, or AOC — who have prevented House Democrats from advancing several of their most compelling messaging bills. Nancy Pelosi’s caucus finally passed a $15 federal minimum wage Thursday. But Pelosi had promised to pass that (popular) policy within 100 hours after assuming the speakership. Instead, it has taken seven months for her to grind down moderate opposition.

Meanwhile, centrist Democrats have blocked their party from passing a bill that would allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices, a measure that would effectively transfer large sums of money out of Big Pharma’s profit margins and into seniors’ pockets. This a winning issue in every district in the country (at least, if you value the approval of voters more than lobbyists). A recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that 86 percent of Americans approve of Medicare negotiating lower drug prices. There is a reason that Donald Trump pretended to support such a policy through the bulk of his presidential campaign, and is now desperately searching for more industry-friendly means of pushing down the cost of pharmaceuticals. The GOP cannot compete at the national level without winning an outsize share of older voters. And older voters cannot stomach the rising cost of their pills. This gives Democrats a golden opportunity to expand their coalition by gaining the upper hand on a high-salience issue: As the party that’s less allergic to price controls, they’re well-positioned to give a right-leaning constituency something it desperately wants, but cannot get from the GOP.

But moderate Democrats aren’t letting them.

The idea that Trump benefits from drawing national attention to his overt racism is dubious. But it is probably true that, all else equal, the GOP would rather be defending Trump’s attacks on Ilhan Omar than his administration’s shadow war on the 99 percent. If moderate Democrats are worried that their party is focused on issues Trump loves to talk about, they could confront the president on the ones he never acknowledges.

The president may proudly broadcast his indifference to climate change. But he has always pretended to support clean air and water. And yet, since taking office, the Trump administration has (among other things) restored Dow Chemical’s freedom to sell an insecticide that scientists say causes neural damage in small children, defended the liberty of Texas coal plants to spew deadly amounts of sulfur dioxide into the skies above the Houston suburbs, and fought for the God-given right of coal plants to dump mining waste in streams. Now, Trump’s EPA is preparing new rules that would prohibit ordinary U.S. citizens or community groups from appealing the issuance of pollution permits to nearby power plants or factories — while preserving the right of polluters to appeal the denial of such permits. Which is to say: The administration wants to give corporations more say over environmental policy than ordinary Americans, not just in practice, but in law.

On some issues, it may be pragmatic for swing-district Democrats to avoid leveling populist critiques against the Trump administration. Moderates like Josh Gottheimer, who represent Republican-leaning, affluent constituencies, have cause for opposing tax increases on the upper-middle class. But the available evidence suggests that a majority of voters — across zip codes and tax brackets — actually oppose making it easier for corporations to poison their children.

Last year, Gallup found that 62 percent of Americans believe the government is “doing too little” to protect the environment — the highest that figure has been in more than a decade. Meanwhile, some 57 percent of voters told the pollster that environmental protection should take priority over economic growth. In March of this year, 59 percent of voters told Gallup that Trump was doing a “poor job of protecting the nation’s environment.” Other surveys have found that Democrats have a bigger advantage over Republicans on “the environment” than they do on any other issue.

If Blue Dogs want to steal a share of the spotlight from AOC, they could organize rallies protesting the most egregious of the Trump administration’s environmental policies. If they’re worried that their party’s focus on anti-racism leaves white voters feeling like their issues don’t count, they could denounce the president’s demagoguery as a willful distraction, meant to hypnotize culturally conservative Americans while his corporate cronies poison their air.

Or, if environmentalism isn’t the Blue Dogs’ bag, they could focus on Trump’s lax approach to white-collar crime:

The Democrats’ burgeoning wing of affluent suburbanites might bristle at property-tax hikes. But most have little sympathy for Trump’s policy of making it easier for his fellow billionaires to evade taxes, and then defraying some of the revenue loss by reducing their state and local tax deductions.

Granted, some vulnerable Democratic lawmakers may believe that taking a confrontational stance toward the president or his party on any issue is not in their political interest. Rather, they may feel that their voters want a representative who displays a thirst for bipartisanship, and less enmity for Donald Trump than for liberal Democrats.

And maybe some of them are right. But if that is the case — if all such Democrats have to offer is the most milquetoast of messaging bills and paeans to bipartisanship — then why would they ever expect their “agenda” to attract more media attention than “the squad”?

If your mission in politics is to cower from controversy — even on issues where your party has a clear advantage, and your constituents have a vital interest — then you shouldn’t be surprised when people aren’t interested in all of the nothing that you have to say.