If you’re the chair of the campaign arm of the House Democrats, it appears that one way to win the support of your fellow party members is to promise them job security.
The ongoing spat between Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair Cheri Bustos and the Democratic left stems from the DCCC’s decision last month to blacklist vendors who work for primary challengers to House Democratic incumbents. The decision reportedly had almost immediate impacts on at least one House race, and last week, some newer House Democrats including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, and Ro Khanna—all of whom won their seats through primary challenges in heavily Democratic districts—criticized the organization for its move.
According to a new story in Politico, the fight has continued behind closed doors, with Congressional Progressive Caucus leaders Mark Pocan, Pramila Jayapal, and Khanna enaging Bustos in a “heated meeting” last week. But on the whole, a lot of Democrats seem to think Bustos is just doing an incredibly bang-up job:
“We don’t have time for games, we don’t have time for hugs and kisses,” Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.), former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said in an interview, praising Bustos for taking a hard line to protect the party’s incumbents ahead of a difficult 2020 campaign.
Bustos’ style is one several members said is needed in this moment, as Democrats wage war against Trump and hope to not only hold the House but flip the Senate and White House next year.
“What you see is what you get,” said Lacy Clay (D-Mo.), who fended off a liberal primary challenger last cycle. “She’s up front about her positions and you have to respect that.”
Added Clay: “She’s brought a new perspective and sometimes you need to change the way you do things around here.”
Jayapal responded to the Politico story this morning in a series of tweets:
Politico’s story obscures why the rule change has caused such a rift in the caucus by framing the story as Bustos (who is described as a “former journalist and “public relations executive”—she worked in corporate communications for hospitals, which helps explain her anti-Medicare for all stance) taking on the “insurgent left” in order to protect “vulnerable” and “moderate” members of the caucus.
When you look at who progressive Democrats usually talk about challenging in primaries, however, it becomes obvious that the move isn’t meant to protect a Democratic majority. It’s designed to keep power in the caucus firmly in the hands of moderates, rather than progressives. It’s an active ideological choice on the part of Bustos.
Take Bustos’ fellow Illinois Democrat Dan Lipinski, for example. Since 1959, there have been a grand total of 2 years where the district was represented by a Republican. Despite the makeup of his district, Lipinski—who got his seat in the first place by pure nepotism—voted against the Affordable Care Act and is staunchly anti-abortion. Progressives aren’t pushing to get this guy out because he’s not a socialist; it’s because he’s an actual right-winger protected in a liberal district by his family name and the the D next to it.
Last year, a markedly more progressive candidate, Marie Newman, ran against him with the support of other House Democrats from Illinois, and nearly knocked him off. She’s reportedly considering another run, but while Newman’s politics are much more in line with both the party and the district, the DCCC’s new rules are designed to keep people like Newman out. More than that, they’re designed to stymie internal party democracy.
While the goals of progressives both inside and outside of the party might very well eventually be to run progressive primary challenges against conservative Democrats in seats winnable for Republicans, it appears that right now, they’re focused more on the Lipinski types. In December, Justice Democrats executive director Alexandra Rojas told Splinter that while the organization believes progressive ideas “resonate everywhere,” the organization—which helped drive Ocasio-Cortez’s upset of Joe Crowley last year—would be “heavily focused on blue districts” in 2020.
The overarching argument that Bustos and her allies have been making through the press over the past few weeks, however, is that this is a move to prevent primary challenges against vulnerable moderates in swing districts. That’s almost right: while it is to prevent primary challenges against vulnerable moderates, those vulnerable moderates aren’t in swing districts. They’re in diehard liberal districts, such as Lipinski’s, or the ones now represented by candidates like Ocasio-Cortez and Pressley.
If the progressive resurgence within the Democratic Party continuers, the rift within the party over what will continue to grow. And it’s a fight worth having—problems of climate change, of rampant inequality, of healthcare access, of civil rights, of American empire, and so on are too dire to keep tinkering around the edges and waiting for the market to step in and solve them so the government doesn’t have to. In fact, these problems require a radical reimagining of what the role of government itself is. And an obvious first step to show the party is serious about tackling those challenges is to expand internal democracy—not marginalize it.