Democrats are bearing the brunt of Americans’ frustration over the direction of the country, with few distinguishing between the two wings of the party and who’s most at fault.
Early into President Biden’s administration, progressives and moderates were constantly at odds. Each side publicly and privately blamed the other for ideological differences, and inaction defined the debate, leaving voters perplexed about which side was right.
Now, much of that squabbling has dissipated. Just over three months from the midterms, Democrats are temporarily tabling their disagreements, watching voters’ anger, the president’s low polls, and a disastrous national climate redefine the terms of the discourse.
“It’s not about progressive or moderate at this point,” said Bill Neidhardt, an operative with the firm Left Flank Strategies and former spokesman for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) “It’s about action vs. inaction.”
“Voters aren’t looking at ideology. They are looking at who the hell will actually do something about all of this. Inflation. Abortion rights. Mass shootings,” he said. “You name it.”
The apparent unity didn’t happen overnight. Lively scuffles over policy, candidates and strategies exposed fissures in a party still fractured from years of resentments that seemed hard to reconcile. Liberals often took to Twitter to air their grievances, while centrists countered through opinion pages and cable news. The cycle played on repeat.
Progressives essentially wanted Biden to use his White House influence, bolstered by a Democratic-controlled Congress, to enact some of his most ambitious campaign promises. They urged him to be a president who used the power of government to make big changes for people.
Moderates wanted to reign him in. They cautioned that Biden could be negatively seen as giving too much away and exhausting resources at a time when many thought restraint was the cure to the spoils of the Trump era. They warned that left-wing proposals and jargon could alienate the kinds of voters he needed to keep.
But many of those conversations now seem like last semester’s syllabus. The theoretical lost out to the practical, and Democrats are calling for action over endless talk before they lose everything in November.
“Our house is on fire and it feels like the president would rather criticize the people acknowledging the fire and calling 911 than go after the arsonists,” said Democratic strategist Michael Starr Hopkins.
“Voters don’t care about progressive vs. moderates or liberal vs. conservative, they care about whether it feels like their lives are getting better,” he said. “Voters want to feel like their candidate is fighting for them.”
The comradery over shared anger comes at a pivotal moment. Biden has hit the lowest point in his presidency while anger has reached a new high. After the Supreme Court followed through on a leaked draft memo indicating that the conservative majority would overturn Roe v. Wade, the party has been spiraling.
Democrats of all stripes are equally upset that the White House, despite getting an unofficial heads up, seemed to have no cohesive strategy or plan to ensure women’s rights to abortion wouldn’t be wiped out completely.
On Friday, officials indicated that Biden would sign an executive action from the Department of Health and Human Services to protect things like access to birth control and take steps to secure women’s privacy during sensitive health matters.
But many Democrats thought that already came too late.
Damaging problems have been escalating for months, with little changing. Gas prices remain at an unsustainably high rates and gun violence persists with stinging frequency, with recent figures totaling more than 300 mass shootings this year alone.
In one shocking survey released this week by Monmouth University, only 10 percent of people who responded said they think the country is currently on the right track. The poll indicates that that figure is an “all-time low.”
To make matters worse, those issues come amid smaller optical blunders. Several top administration officials in both Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris’ offices have headed for the exit or announced plans to depart soon, further adding to a sense of internal chaos. This week, White House communications director Kate Bedingfield confirmed that she’s leaving her post as one of Biden’s closest advisers.
“For all of the good that Biden has done, he’s failed miserably at making the voters feel like their lives have improved under his watch,” Starr Hopkins said.
While many Democrats see a common target in Biden, others, including lawmakers who have worked alongside him on domestic priorities, see positives in their party, especially when compared to the GOP.
The Jan. 6 hearings investigating the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and a shadow Republican primary well ahead of 2024 are already underway, and members from both parts of the Democratic Party are ready to show how their side is different. With a little more time and attention, some say, they can make that contrast really clear for voters.
They also acknowledge that where there was once a sense of intense division, the issues that do have crossover appeal are being spotlighted in a new way that has surprised them.
Progressives and moderates are working together in key swing states like the Pennsylvania Senate race to elect Lt. Gov. John Fetterman over Trump-endorsed Dr. Mehmet Oz, and in Ohio, where Democrats are set on elevating Rep. Tim Ryan to the Senate over J.D. Vance, another populist Republican who has the former president’s backing. That party blueprint is being replicated in a variety of other down ballot races with high stakes ramifications in November.
“The relationships that we have with frontliners has grown,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a top House progressive, told The Hill about Democrats that the party has listed as the most vulnerable and in need of protecting.
“The ideas that we’re pushing for are not just progressive ideas, they’re ideas that are embraced by people in the toughest districts.”
That would have been hard to imagine last year, when opposing Democratic lawmakers were publicly battling each other during negotiations around Biden’s “Build Back Better” package and a separate infrastructure bill. Many on the left saw centrists as blocking what needed to be done to pass certain climate, health, and childcare provisions, while moderates believed they had the best approach to getting legislation to the president’s desk.
“We just have to remind people that we are still winning,” Jayapal said, assessing the scale of what’s at stake for Democrats. “We can’t afford for people to swing out and go to the couch.”