A ‘moderate’ Democrat isn’t code for ‘coward’

Something has to change, right? Change is on the minds of millions of Americans as we grapple with the racially motivated mass shooting at a supermarket in Buffalo and the evolving story from Uvalde, Texas, where 19 children and two teachers were killed by a gunman at Robb Elementary School while police officers stood in the school hallway, waiting to breach the classroom.

If the past continues to be our prologue, nothing will change. It didn’t after mass shootings at Columbine High School, Sandy Hook Elementary School, a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, a music festival in Las Vegas, or the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. Why would it be different now?

I’m not holding my breath to see if Sen. Joe Manchin’s (D-W.Va.) sentiment that “this time feels different” — the same sentiment he expressed regarding gun laws reform after the Parkland shooting, for what it’s worth — is borne out. My expectations are so low that anything, even the smallest move toward a society that suffers from less gun violence, would be a thrill.

However, against the backdrop of an entrenched and immovable Republican Party that clings to a tired, misguided Second Amendment-rhetoric with the strength of the Vulcan death grip, a glimmer that Democrats might be the politicians Americans want in these trying times is appearing.

I’m not naïve. All signs have pointed to a red wave in the November midterms for months. President Biden’s approval rating continues to plummet regularly. Depending on the poll, Republicans hold anywhere from a 2- to 6-point lead on the general ballot. Over 70 percent of Americans think the country is on the wrong track. And the GOP leads by 15 percent on the question of which party is better equipped to handle the economy, the number one issue to over 50 percent of Americans.

What gives Democrats some hope is that it appears that the way politicians respond to tragedies matters to people. On top of that, it seems that incursions on our rights — which the leaked draft Supreme Court opinion on Roe v. Wade represents to many of us — also factors into how Americans may make their decisions come November. The GOP holds an advantage but that doesn’t mean all voters are happy about supporting Republicans. In fact, considering the responses to these very real domestic crises, the opposite of gun restriction policy that more than 90 percent of Americans support, many voters may be primed to look for Democrats to win these rights back. 

But Democrats are throwing up their own obstacles. Recent electoral results and findings from Democratic focus groups show that Democratic voters want a fighter, as opposed to a bipartisan dealmaker, to represent them. That explains Lt. Gov. John Fetterman’s primary win in Pennsylvania over Congressman Conor Lamb, who ran a relatively bland campaign that emphasized electability above all else.

That said, there’s an inherent contradiction that if you’re a moderate politician you can’t be a fighter. The November battles will be won by execution and strength of conviction. In a country where the substance of Democratic ideas is actually quite agreeable to a majority of people, Democrats are facing a style issue, not necessarily one of issues of substance.

Establishment Democrats are the ones who are the heart of the party, owning the most popular positions on critical issues such as health care, taxes and climate change. And they’ve accomplished the most. They just have to “get loud” about it and match progressives’ enthusiasm for the issues that Americans care about.

Some areas where moderates are showing signs that they can match progressive fervor include:

Gun control: The time for patience is over. A man confronted Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) in a Houston restaurant after his appearance at the NRA convention: “Why did you come here to the convention? Why, when 19 children died?” he asked. That intensity was — and should be — matched by Democratic politicians. Texas gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke said to Gov. Greg Abbott: “You are doing nothing. You are offering up nothing. You said this was not predictable. This was totally predictable when you choose not to do anything.” And Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, where one of the most egregious school shootings happened, openly mused about whether Republicans would be moved to action if they “saw what a kid looked like after, you know, 12 or 15 bullets went through their body.” Murphy’s unbridled emotion in interviews and floor speeches sets the standard.

Abortion access: There’s a reason Republicans have been focused on the leak of the Supreme Court’s apparent abortion decision and not its potential impact: It’s a loser for them. Recent polling by Pew Research found that 61 percent of those surveyed believe abortion should be legal in most or all cases, while 37 percent say it should be illegal. A more moderate position for Democrats on abortion — in which they emphasize commonsense terminology such as “safe, legal and rare” and “choice” and avoid conversations about third-term abortions — is a winning position. This is especially true in light of no-exception legislation in at least 11 states and Oklahoma’s governor just signing a bill that bans abortion after “fertilization.” Abortion will never supplant kitchen-table issues as that which is most important to voters, but railing against this authoritarian grab by Republicans — and the challenges it could cause for American women — is a position of strength for Democrats.

Student debt cancellation: This has been a hugely divisive issue between moderate and progressive Democrats, but the stigmatization that moderates have been complacent is a complete miss. Sure, they don’t want to wipe out all debt, a view that mirrors that of most 18- to 29-year-olds, but the recently announced White House bill would erase all debt for a third of borrowers and halve it for another 20 percent — roughly $230 billion in total, notes journalist James Surowiecki. You wouldn’t know that if all you saw was a tweet by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) saying, “$10K means tested forgiveness is just enough to anger the people against it *and* the people who need forgiveness the most.” How absurd. The facts are on the establishment’s side — they should amplify them with the same passion that progressives bring to the issue.  

The economy: The economic landscape continues to pose difficulties and Democrats must stop ceding the issue. That doesn’t mean defending all Democratic policy. To the contrary, acknowledging people’s challenges and connecting through shared experiences would reap tremendous benefits. Defending the American Rescue Plan Act while also acknowledging that big-spending bills have contributed to inflation is a path forward. Prioritize issues such as gas prices and the cost of living, as well as access to health care, broadband and business development. Republicans’ messaging strategy is to criticize Democrats, not to offer their own positive plan. Democrats need to get more aggressive in their attacks on Republican non-policymaking, à la Beto O’Rourke.

There’s no good reason that progressives should have the monopoly on emotional politicking. Moderate Democrats care just as much as they do about gun violence, climate change, abortion rights, and other issues that matter to the middle class. They’ve just got to show it. Let’s get loud. 

Jessica Tarlov is head of research at Bustle Digital Group and a Fox News contributor. She earned her Ph.D. at the London School of Economics in political science. Follow her on Twitter @JessicaTarlov.