Hard Lesson

The Democrats’ Only Hope: Give Up Leftism for Lambism

Conor Lamb was plenty liberal—Obamacare, union support, more. But he didn’t check every box or play the identity politics game.

Drew Angerer/Getty

Somewhere in heaven, the late Democrat Henry “Scoop” Jackson is smiling about Conor Lamb’s victory in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District. In a part of the state’s southwestern blue-collar areas, usually viewed as solid Trump country, Lamb won by 627 votes —in an area in which President Trump won over Hillary Clinton by 20 points.

Jackson, a Democratic senator from the state of Washington, had a program like that enunciated by Lamb. He sought the Democratic nomination for president in 1972, but had to drop out, since it was clear the left-liberal candidate, Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota, had all the votes necessary to win. In the November election, McGovern won the electoral college vote of only one state, liberal Massachusetts, and Richard M. Nixon easily won the White House.

Jackson supported New Deal and Fair Deal policies but was a hawk on national security, gaining him the name “Cold War liberal.” He knew, like Lamb, that he could not antagonize the working-class voters. His adviser Ben Wattenberg urged him to become “the voice of the working-men in America, black and white,” who had just resentment against elitists who continually put them down.

Wattenberg urged him to be the only candidate “crying out against the Left/Berserk flank of the party.” Had Jackson won, he clearly would have gained more states than McGovern in the national election. But the left had taken over the party, totally ignoring the kind of people whose votes Democrats used to have. They even threw out the Chicago delegation to their convention, which was heavily made up of trade union leaders, replacing them with middle-class so-called New Democrats.

Conor Lamb instinctively understood that the advice Jackson received was not obsolete and would be the path that made it possible to effectively challenge his Republican opponent, Rick Saccone. Lamb avoided the mistakes many other Democrats made when trying to challenge Donald Trump’s presidency. First, he avoided mentioning or campaigning against Trump, his personality or his programs. Instead, he offered constituents positive programs that would help restore prosperity to the region.

As he put it on his website, “My first priority is to get things moving again. I will work with anyone to protect our people and bring good jobs here.” Lamb stood for infrastructure spending, dealing with the heroin crisis, and job training. He supported Obamacare, arguing “it has provided affordable coverage to more than a million Pennsylvanians who were previously uninsured.” Republicans in Congress, he stated, “spent the past year trying to take health insurance away from people with no plan to replace it.” He condemned Paul Ryan for “coming after Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid,” and for giving tax dollars “to the wealthy and large corporations.”

Perhaps most importantly, he favored trade unions and welcomed the endorsement he received from the AFL-CIO. He promised to make them his ally, and to oppose the “ideological extremists,” a phrase that could mean both the far right and the far left. No wonder that Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America, endorsed Lamb and called him a “God-fearing, union-supporting, gun-owning, job-protecting, pension-defending, Social-Security-believing, healthcare-greeting, sending-drug-dealers-to-jail Democrat.”

Despite his program, the GOP ran campaign ads opposing Lamb as a Nancy Pelosi Democrat, who would vote with her against any sane economic and political programs. After his victory, GOP leaders quickly changed their tune, arguing, as Trump himself did, that Lamb ran as a Republican. As Trump put it, “He said very nice things about me. I kept saying, ‘Is he a Republican? Sounded like a Republican to me.’” Rep. Scott Perry, a Republican from the 4th Congressional District in the state, explained that voters were confused because he was a Democrat who ran “on traditionally Republican programs.”

Voters knew better. Lamb made it clear, time after time, that he would oppose Nancy Pelosi remaining in her position as the party’s leader in the House. He also said he would obey the law on abortion, although he personally opposed it. Moreover, like some on both the left and the right, he favored the Trump trade tariffs, as well as being a gun owner who liked shooting. And, as voters knew, he had been a U.S. Marine.

The truth is that Conor Lamb is, like Scoop Jackson decades ago, a centrist Democrat who opposed some social programs emphasized by the party’s left and avoided playing the game of identity politics, in which much of the Democratic left makes representing so-called oppressed groups, i.e., African-Americans, women, the gay community, transgender people, and other minorities at the center of the issues they emphasize during electoral campaigns.

That is why one can contrast his approach with that of the Democratic Party’s defeated presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton. Having made the mistake of calling all those who voted against her “deplorables” during the campaign, she now doubled down during a visit to India. It was clear from her comments that she either still thinks she was the rightful winner of the 2016 campaign or had won the regions with the right kind of people. Secretary Clinton explained her loss this way:

“If you look at the map of the United States, there’s all that red in the middle, where Trump won. I win the coasts, I win Illinois, Minnesota, places like that. But what the map doesn’t show you is that I won the places that represent two-thirds of America’s gross domestic product. So I won the places that are optimistic, diverse, dynamic, moving forward. And his whole campaign, Make America Great Again, was looking backwards. ‘You didn’t like black people getting rights, you don’t like women getting jobs, you don’t want to see that Indian-American succeeding more than you are. Whatever your problem is, I’m gonna solve it.’”

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Continuing to ridicule the Electoral College vote that put Donald Trump in office, Clinton seems to be arguing that she won the vital sections of America; i.e., the ones that count. The vote, she implies, should be based on those areas America’s GNP comes from. Instead of trying to figure out what made Trump win the votes of dispossessed blue-collar and rural voters, she blames her loss on racism and misogyny.

I would suspect that Clinton also has no idea why Conor Lamb won in an all red-state district, since unlike her, he won by not waging a campaign based on “I’m against Donald Trump” and avoiding identity politics altogether.

As for the left of the Democratic Party, they’re already criticizing Lamb for not having the right “progressive” policies. Bob Moser in Rolling Stone writes that “If Lamb made anything clear in his campaign, it's that he most certainly will vote with Trump on occasion.” Moreover, he was nothing but a “good-old Republican.” Moser goes on to condemn Lamb for not favoring a ban on assault weapons. Not mentioning that Lamb supports the Affordable Care Act, Moser complains that he “pooh-poos single-payer healthcare,” and therefore, he is nothing but a “Trump Democrat.”

If Democrats want to retake the House, they should realize that in areas where Trump won handily, their best chance is to reject the demands of progressives that the entire party go along with their agenda. Certainly, the farthest left candidate can easily win in most areas of California, but they will not be able to in those Midwest states where Clinton neglected to campaign. Democrats should think about returning to their Jacksonian (Scoop, not Andrew) roots and put the fringe far left candidates to the side. If they do not, perhaps they really want to lose the only chance they now have to take back Congress.