Rashida Tlaib isn’t apologizing for wanting to yank money away from bad police departments. She has no second thoughts about her embrace of the Black Lives Matter movement, or for wanting to aggressively fight climate change.
House Democrats lost seats instead of expanding their majority, underperforming expectations across the board. And moderates have pounced on liberals like Tlaib, the Michigan congresswoman, accusing them of handing conservatives a set of slogans and policies to scare voters.
But Tlaib and other House progressives don’t want to hear it. It all amounts to unfair blame-casting designed to shame them into staying quiet, they say, right as Democrats gain control of the White House.
“We’re not going to be successful if we’re silencing districts like mine,” said Tlaib, who told her colleagues something similar during a contentious call last week. “Me not being able to speak on behalf of many of my neighbors right now, many of which are black neighbors, means me being silenced. I can’t be silent.”
“We are not interested in unity that asks people to sacrifice their freedom and their rights any longer,” said Tlaib, whose Michigan district is among the poorest in the country. “And if we truly want to unify our country, we have to really respect every single voice. We say that so willingly when we talk about Trump supporters, but we don’t say that willingly for my Black and brown neighbors and from LGBTQ neighbors or marginalized people.”
Only a few days after the presidential race was called, Tlaib and other progressive leaders are making it clear there will be no honeymoon for Joe Biden. They have their own takeaways from the election: Top progressive groups are circulating a postelection memo that criticizes centrists for playing into Republicans’ “divide-and-conquer racism.”
For the liberal ranks, which will grow their numbers within the Democratic Caucus in 2021, the next few months are pivotal to their cause. Biden’s picks for his Cabinet and the White House could determine progressives’ success in shaping policy. Multiple left-wing strategists and activists don’t want Biden to play nice with Senate Republicans despite the president-elect’s expressed desire to work across the aisle — and they don’t expect much of a Kumbaya moment with members of their own party on the opposite end of the Democratic spectrum.
“If [voters] can walk past blighted homes and school closures and pollution to vote for Biden-Harris, when they feel like they don’t have anything else, they deserve to be heard,” Tlaib said, choking up as she expressed frustration near the end of an interview this week. “I can’t believe that people are asking them to be quiet.”
Tlaib wants to see a public educator and labor advocates in top positions. And the congresswoman has made clear her urgency to the president-elect. When he visited Detroit in October, Tlaib told Biden that “I might not be your favorite member of Congress because I’m on a different timeline, sir.”
Though the family feud among Democrats has dominated most postelection headlines, progressives aren’t letting the criticism from their centrist colleagues hinder their push for power within the coming Biden White House.
A day before Biden was declared the winner, Sen. Bernie Sanders said he will introduce a 100-day agenda of his own into the Senate. “We’re going to have to do everything humanly possible to make sure that Congress and the new president move rapidly and aggressively to address the enormous crisis facing our country,” he said.
Incoming Rep. Marie Newman of Illinois was more hopeful than some of her progressive colleagues about the possibility of a stimulus package or infrastructure plan that includes renewable energy jobs aimed at mitigating climate change.
“We’re having a really good family discussion,” said Newman. “A good ‘come to Jesus’ once in a while is a good thing because we all figure out what is really wrong.”
Rep.-elect Mondaire Jones of New York said he’s “laser-focused” on what the Justice Department under Biden looks like, and warned against appointing Republicans to key positions. Jones said Democrats should go all out in a pair of Senate runoffs in Georgia to win the majority because he wants Biden to be able to install more “progressive thinkers" as federal judges.
And as names like John Kasich, the former Republican governor of Ohio, and Democrat Rahm Emanuel, circulate as possible additions to a Biden administration, progressives are keeping a watchful eye. Kasich was quick to blast liberals, claiming they almost cost Biden the election.
“It would indeed be quite divisive for Joe Biden, who along with Kamala Harris is nearly 5 million votes ahead of Donald Trump and Mike Pence, to revert to appointing Republicans in his Cabinet,” Jones said. “This isn’t even just about Republicans versus Democrats. This is about getting the right kinds of Democrats in leadership.”
Progressive groups, including Justice Democrats, Sunrise Movement and Data for Progress, are circulating a memo on their diagnosis of the election results, turning moderates’ attacks on their head.
“Republican attacks levied at Democrats this cycle based on terms like ‘defund the police’ or ‘socialism’ have become scapegoats for Representatives like Abigail Spanberger, Conor Lamb, and other senior Democrats,” said the memo, which was shared first with POLITICO. “Not a single Democrat — progressive or otherwise — argued that Democrats should run primarily on these themes.”
“These attacks will never go away, nor will demands for reform from social movements,” the memo continued. “The attacks are designed to stoke racial resentment.”
In a contentious call last week among House Democrats, Spanberger — who barely hung on to her Virginia swing district — lambasted liberals. “No one should say ‘defund the police’ ever again” or the party would get “torn apart” in 2022,” she said. Other moderates blamed the left’s call to ban fracking on Democrats’ underwhelming performance down ballot.
Progressive groups laid out their own dire diagnosis in their memo and called on moderates to adopt a clear economic message, which they said was lacking this year. Democrats will lose the House in 2022, they wrote, if "we abandon our core progressive base and agenda.”
Progressives said they are “afraid” of a world in which Biden makes bipartisan appeals to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell with limited results.
“That approach to governance could really threaten party unity and the 2022 midterms, because Mitch McConnell’s sole goal will be to make Joe Biden swallow as many toxic poison pills as possible that make it harder to campaign in the midterms,” said Waleed Shahid, a spokesperson for Justice Democrats. If McConnell controls the Senate, Shahid said, the fundamental question will be “how much hardball will Democrats play.”
Progressive lawmakers also argue that Democrats never formed an offensive strategy on climate change and racial justice, and instead were forced to defend their policies on Republican terms.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York told POLITICO in an interview shortly after the election that Democrats will continue to play defense in swing seats if they don’t establish a cohesive message on race and racism.
“It’s not just like some moral question about how you confront racism in elections, but it is now an existential crisis for the Democratic Party,” Ocasio-Cortez said. The problem, she said, is Democrats don’t want to talk about race. “Anti-racism plays zero percent of a role in Democratic electoral strategy — zero, explicitly, implicitly,” she continued. “I’m not telling people to virtue signal, but there’s just like no plan for it.”
Ocasio-Cortez, like moderates, wasn’t happy with the party’s messaging on climate change, which she said ended on “not the ‘Green New Deal’ and ‘we love fracking.’”
“You don’t have to even bring Green New Deal into this,” she said. “Why aren’t we talking about creating 20 million jobs, putting a solar panel on every roof. We need to talk in images and sights and sounds.”
It’s time, Ocasio-Cortez said, for Democrats to “take our gloves off with Republicans.”
“We’re always messaging around bipartisanship and how much we love working with Republicans all the time in a lot of these sensitive areas,” she said. “We need to have an unapologetic agenda, have an actual alternative and countermessaging that is distinct from the Republican Party instead of trying to play to notions of civility. … I just really hope that it gets through to a lot of people that this idea that we can win over white voters on a civility argument is like not a reliable strategy.”
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