President Donald Trump’s calls for bipartisanship during his State of the Union address drew indignant scoffs from Democratic leadership and members of the party’s progressive wing. “The president failed to offer any plan, any vision at all, for our future,” said Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, referring to the speech as an “embarrassment.” Much of the news media focused on these dismissive reactions, painting a picture of a Democratic Party unwilling to hear the president. But one bloc of House Democrats is responding in a more positive fashion: the moderates the Democratic Party needs to maintain its House majority.
“President Trump’s call for unity was welcome news,” said Representative Joe Cunningham of South Carolina, who defeated the pro-Trump Republican Katie Arrington in November. Representative Ben McAdams of Utah, who unseated the Republican Mia Love, concurred: “As the president said, we can bridge old divisions and forge new solutions, if we work together.”
It might not be the most surprising news that moderate Democrats are reacting with, well, moderation to the president’s overtures. Most of them spent months during their respective campaigns making appeals to Republicans—including some of the president’s own supporters—and pledging to reach across the aisle to pass legislation. But their reaction is nevertheless meaningful: These are not only the lawmakers who can make or break Democrats’ control of the House, but if Congress is to pass bipartisan legislation at some point in the next two years, these moderate lawmakers, not vocal progressives, are likely to be the most involved. Their apparent openness to Trump’s entreaties shows how willing some of the most consequential freshmen are to quietly break with their party, even at a time of intense rancor over another potential government shutdown.
These House Democrats are some of the so-called majority makers, the 41 lawmakers who flipped red seats to blue in the November midterm elections. Their openness is all the more notable because of how partisan other parts of Trump’s speech were. Toward the beginning of the address, his second State of the Union, Trump encouraged partnership and collaboration between Democrats and Republicans. “We must reject the politics of revenge, resistance, and retribution and embrace the boundless potential of cooperation, compromise, and the common good,” Trump said. But in the same speech, he lambasted the “partisan investigations” into his 2016 campaign, painted a grim picture of immigration, and doubled down on his demands for billions of dollars to construct a physical barrier along the southern border. The combined result, as my colleague David Graham put it, “was a speech that exalted bipartisanship without displaying a strategy, or even an appetite, for achieving it.”
House Democratic leadership waved away Trump’s talk of unity, with Speaker Nancy Pelosi lamenting the president’s long history of “empty words” and the progressive Representative Rashida Tlaib of Michigan saying in an interview on MSNBC that “so much of what he was saying [doesn’t] translate into his actions.”
But where the most high-profile Democrats saw Trump performing the cause of unity, some moderate Democrats seemed reassured, particularly when it came to his calls for infrastructure investment and lowering prescription-drug prices. Representative Haley Stevens of Michigan said that she was “encouraged” by Trump’s comments on both fronts. “The president is right,” said Representative Max Rose, a freshman representing parts of New York City. “The American people are united around doing something to lower health-care costs, rebuild our infrastructure, and end the opioid epidemic.” Representative Anthony Brindisi of New York pledged on Twitter that in these areas, he will “be the first one at the table, ready & willing, to work [with] anyone serious about getting things done.”
There may be a performative aspect to some of the moderates’ reactions, too: Their districts have high shares of Republican voters, and they may feel an imperative to publicly take the president at his word when he calls for bipartisanship. There’s also still a long way to go before they’d actually need to work with Trump on initiatives such as infrastructure. First, more imminent problems are on the horizon: The 17 members of a bipartisan conference committee have only a week left to reach a deal funding the Department of Homeland Security before the government shuts down again. And even if a shutdown threat is averted, the administration has a history of false starts on legislation.
But in at least voicing a willingness to work with Trump, these moderate newcomers are showing that recent fights over the wall and the shutdown haven’t curbed their bipartisan appetite. As lawmakers return to the business of governing in the weeks and months to come, and as Democrats begin working their way down their list of legislative priorities, all eyes will be on this group to see in what other circumstances they’re willing to break the party line.