The Democratic Truce Is Over

The battle for the party’s future has begun.

An illustration of two blue-and-red donkeys butting heads against a black backdrop
The Atlantic

The jubilant mob celebrating in front of the White House on Saturday was impressive for its size but also for its heterogeneity—as though a wide sampling of Washington, D.C., residents had been dumped on Black Lives Matter Plaza to celebrate Joe Biden’s victory. There were crop-topped Code Pink protesters, dancing Black teenagers, and consultant types in their blue-checked dress shirts. Women in Lululemon leggings carried biden 2020 signs, parents carried babies, and grandmothers carried tiny, quivering dogs through the crowd.

But a sense of impermanence hung over the revelry, like the few moments of stillness before a summer storm. For Democrats, this election was an exercise in setting aside differences in support of a broader goal: ending the reign of Donald Trump. Now that this goal has been accomplished, the Democrats’ truce is over.

“As excited as I am that Trump is not going to be here anymore as president, I don’t think we should be getting comfortable,” a 37-year-old woman named Maria, who asked that I not use her last name for privacy reasons, told me at the White House rally. She carried a sign reading Biden: Not better enough. “The strongest plank of [Biden’s] platform was ‘I’m not Trump,’ and that’s not going to be good enough for the next four years.”

Progressives and moderates have already ditched their “United against Trump” banner to publicly litigate the spate of Democratic losses last Tuesday, with Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Conor Lamb of Pennsylvania offering competing diagnoses of the party’s problems. But this is just an early taste of the tensions to come. Expect intra-party fights to center on three consequential decisions: Biden’s appointments to the Cabinet and the rest of the executive branch; the extent to which Democrats should compromise with Mitch McConnell, who will still control the Senate in 2021 unless Democrats win Georgia’s two January runoff elections; and the party’s strategy to win swing states and districts in the 2022 midterm elections.

Progressives have been spoiling for a fight over Biden’s administration appointees since well before the election. Leftist lawmakers and activist organizations have sent a series of letters to the Biden transition team, urging it to fill the administration with women and people of color, and demanding that Biden shun lobbyists and top corporate executives. Lefties want to see kindred spirits such as Washington Governor Jay Inslee and Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts given top positions in the Biden government. But moderates argue that if Democrats ban appointees with corporate backgrounds, they could also be excluding some of the Democratic officials with the most experience running the federal government, as well as many qualified candidates of color. Biden’s “first priority is going to be a Cabinet that reflects the full diversity of the party and the country,” Lanae Erickson, the senior vice president for social policy and politics at the centrist think tank Third Way, told me. “Putting other litmus tests on top of that makes it harder to get the diverse Cabinet [he] might want.”

Complicating the appointment process further is the fact that, given the GOP’s likely Senate majority, Biden’s nominees will need at least a few Republican votes to be confirmed. Most moderates in the party don’t see that as a problem: They expect Biden to nominate centrist Democrats and a few Republicans who can appeal to both political parties. But leftists would rather Biden circumvent the Senate approval process altogether. They’ve suggested that Biden, like Trump, could delegate authority to lower-level officials or use the Vacancies Act to fill posts when Senate confirmations are delayed. “If McConnell refuses to confirm a Cabinet that reflects the country’s desire for an aggressive response to the pandemic and economic crisis, Joe Biden has tools to ensure he still fulfills his presidential mandate,” leaders of two progressive groups, the Revolving Door Project and Demand Progress, wrote in an open letter last week.

Democrats’ legislative prospects are looking particularly bleak. After spending weeks laying out their plans for a Democratic trifecta, Democrats now have to grapple with the fact that their agenda will likely need to get past a McConnell-led Senate. Rather than pursuing bipartisan compromise with a man who has called himself the “grim reaper” of Democratic legislation, progressives want Biden to do as much as possible through executive action. The party should be delivering “substantive improvements to the lives of the American people,” Waleed Shahid, the communications director for the progressive group Justice Democrats, told me. “Anything they pursue with Mitch McConnell will be piecemeal.”

But moderates see Biden’s role differently. Americans sent him to the White House to work with Republicans, not around them, they say. “That’s what’s wrong with our country in the past few years—an unwillingness to work across the aisle,” Representative Harley Rouda of California, a Democrat who seems poised to lose reelection in his swing district, told me in a text message. Moderates like Rouda are much more hopeful than their progressive colleagues that significant progress can be made through bipartisan give-and-take. “Biden and McConnell are products of a bygone era in the Senate. Maybe they will want to go back to that stage of consensus-building and cutting deals,” said one senior Senate aide, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak with the press. “People are going to have to consider, Is nothing better than something? Would you take DACA or a pathway to citizenship for more border security?”

Representative Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey, a member of the moderate New Democrats coalition who represents a Republican-leaning district, told me that compromise is the only way forward for Democrats. “If you have an idea on how you can best serve the American people, figure out if there’s a pathway through the Senate,” she said. “If there’s not, then you’re not helping anyone.”

The biggest question Democrats are assessing is where, exactly, the party went wrong this year. Sure, they won the biggest prize, but they were also supposed to make gains in the House. Instead, they lost seven seats, in Iowa, New Mexico, South Carolina, and Florida—most in districts that Democrats flipped in 2018. Already, moderates are blaming the far left. In a caucus conference call on Thursday, Representative Abigail Spanberger of Virginia, who won a close reelection race in a district that Trump won in 2016, accused progressives of tainting the party’s brand. “We lost members who shouldn’t have lost,” she said on the call, adding that attack ads associating her with the slogan “Defund the police” almost cost her the race. “We need to not ever use the word socialist or socialism ever again.”

Other moderates echoed her in interviews with me, arguing that Republicans successfully tied them to leftist “Squad” members such as Ocasio-Cortez and Representative Ilhan Omar. “No matter what [moderate lawmakers] did personally, the Democratic Party brand stereotype of the loud folks on Twitter was louder,” Erickson told me, citing conversations she’d had with staffers for swing-state members. “They were caricatured as raising taxes, supporting socialism, the Green New Deal, defunding the police, even if they explicitly opposed those things.” One senior aide to another Democratic freshman in a red district lamented that the party should have had a better answer on police reform during this summer’s protests. “The national narrative around law and order was one I don’t think Democrats fully or capably pushed back on in an effective way,” he said.

Sherrill, who won reelection by double digits last week, told me that she managed to “overcome the national messaging that was so detrimental to so many candidates.” When I asked her what the Democrats’ messaging should be instead, Sherrill said that the party needs to be “laser focused” on making people’s day-to-day lives better. “Of course we care about broad issues of justice,” she said. But Democrats “need to be talking to people about jobs and security right now.”

Republicans, though, will continue to call Democrats socialists whether they are or not. And since Spanberger’s comments, progressives have noted that many lawmakers in swing districts ran on progressive ideas such as Medicare for All and won or are projected to win reelection, including Representatives Mike Levin and Katie Porter of California, Jared Golden of Maine, Ann Kirkpatrick of Arizona, and Susan Wild and Matt Cartwright of Pennsylvania. In Georgia, a state Democrats are poised to win for the first time in decades, the Black Lives Matter movement had 13-point net favorability, according to Tom Bonier, the CEO of the data firm TargetSmart. And in early summer, BLM demonstrations led to a huge jump in Georgia voter registration.

Progressives contend that the Democrats unseated in swing districts this year actually lost, in part, because they lacked a compelling agenda. “The conservative wing of the Democratic Party has zero ideas to offer, save that they think the left is going too far and Trump is going too far,” Justice Democrats’ Shahid told me. Moreover, the House Democrats who lost simply failed to run modern, social-media-focused campaigns, Ocasio-Cortez told The New York Times over the weekend. “If you’re not door-knocking, if you’re not on the internet, if your main points of reliance are TV and mail, then you’re not running a campaign on all cylinders. I just don’t see how anyone could be making ideological claims when they didn’t run a full-fledged campaign,” she said. (Lamb disputed this, telling the Times, “It’s not a question of door-knocking, or Facebook. It matters what policies you stand for, and which ones you don’t,” adding that his constituents “are not clamoring for” single-payer health insurance or the Green New Deal.)

House Democratic leadership might be tempted to ignore the small but vocal contingent of progressives like Ocasio-Cortez as it strategizes for the future—especially since a moderate Democrat just won the White House. But the Squad grew by a handful of members this election. “Ayanna [Pressley] and AOC and Cori Bush and Mondaire Jones, they will have a huge influence,” one progressive lawmaker told me, explaining that in a smaller Democratic caucus, progressive voices will be even louder. With those lawmakers in power, along with progressive groups such as Justice Democrats, the Sunrise Movement, and Indivisible, “there’s almost going to be an equal force, an unusually strong force, as a counterweight to the administration—and even [to House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi.”

Democrats’ immediate urge to point fingers even before all the votes have been tabulated and all the exit polls have been weighted does not bode well for the party’s ability to develop a unified strategy ahead of the 2022 midterms. And, actually, the next test of their messaging will come much sooner than that: Georgia’s two Senate seats will be decided in runoff elections in January. If Democrats somehow manage to win both, the party would control the Senate, with Vice President Kamala Harris as the tie-breaking vote. Already, Democratic leadership has set the tone: If “we are going to run on Medicare for All, defund the police, socialized medicine, we’re not going to win," House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn reportedly warned on the Democratic-caucus call, to the frustration of many progressives. The next two months, Pelosi added, will be “fraught with meaning.”