As the Democratic National Convention kicks off, election season is finally heating up again—which means it’s time for corporate media to get back to flogging their “move to the center” horse when covering Democrats.
This week’s edition comes from New York Times reporter Reid J. Epstein, in an article headlined, “How Biden Could Learn From Conor Lamb’s Victory in Trump Country” (8/16/20). Lamb won his long-shot House race in a 2018 special election, in a district in southwestern Pennsylvania that went for Trump in 2016 by around 20 points.
The New York Times (8/16/20) urges Joe Biden to follow the path of Pennsylvania Rep. Conor Lamb by “seeking to distance himself from his party’s left-leaning brand.”
So, according to the Times, how exactly could Biden learn from Lamb? Epstein explains:
Mr. Lamb’s victory showed Democrats how to prevail in Republican territory during the Trump era: focus on kitchen-table issues; inspire defections from college-educated suburban voters — especially women — who had been core Republican voters for decades; and offer conservative-leaning voters a sober, reassuring alternative to a chaotic president.
It’s a rather vague assessment. What “kitchen-table” positions ought one to take? How did Lamb inspire suburban defections? What does “sober and reassuring” look like, or mean?
Lamb himself offers another vague and confusing articulation of strategy:
“There are a lot of people who voted for me in 2018, not so much for reasons of policy or party, but just reasons of change,” Mr. Lamb said from atop a picnic table during an outdoor interview this past week in a park near his home in Mt. Lebanon, a suburb. “People were unsatisfied with how things were going, and I promised that I would do my job differently than the guy you had before me. And I think that’s what Vice President Biden is basically doing.”
What is change for people “unsatisfied with how things are going” if not policy change? In fact, Epstein seems to say as much just two paragraphs later, writing that after Lamb’s election, many Democrats in 2018 midterm races found “the answer to defeating Trump-aligned candidates” in copying his game plan:
[They] focused narrowly on policies affecting voters’ lives, like protecting provisions in the Affordable Care Act and casting Republicans as a party pandering to corporations and the very rich, attacking the 2017 tax cut that Republican Party leaders had intended to use as the tent pole achievement for their midterm campaigns.
But such policies affecting voters’ lives clearly don’t extend to those that actually improve their lives, as opposed to just clawing back to where things were pre-Trump—which was the place that got us to Trump. One thing Epstein is never vague about is that Lamb sought “to distance himself from his party’s left-leaning brand,” allowing only Biden to stump for him, despite many offers from national Democrats.
After quoting Lamb on the importance of focusing on jobs, Epstein offers perhaps the article’s clearest assessment of what Biden ought to do:
When Mr. Biden’s presidential campaign began, he ran on a platform that was far less flashy than his top rivals, progressives like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. He wasn’t for a single-payer healthcare system or adding extra Supreme Court justices or funding an array of new federal programs with a wealth tax on millionaires.
Instead Mr. Biden’s platform looked a lot like what Mr. Lamb ran on in 2018: protecting Social Security, Medicare and healthcare while opposing tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy. And even though he’s adopted an array of more liberal-leaning positions since becoming the presumptive nominee, Mr. Biden is still viewed as a politician most concerned with working-class Americans.
“Even though” he’s taken liberal positions, he’s still viewed as “concerned with working-class Americans.” If you’re puzzling over how Medicare for All and a wealth tax don’t show concern for the working class, it becomes clear in the next paragraph:
“People say the same thing about Conor and Joe,’’ said Rep. Mike Doyle, a Democrat whose district abuts Mr. Lamb’s. “Here in western PA, someone will say he’s a regular guy. That was a Trump plus-20 district, and he won it because he stuck to the things the people in Western Pennsylvania really care about, and because people thought he was an average guy. He’s a regular guy. He’s one of them, and Joe’s one of them.”
In other words, being concerned with working-class Americans, to the New York Times and corporate Democrats, means portraying yourself as “an average guy,” not offering policies that will actually help the working class. (See “Joe Biden, Aesthetic Populist,” Extra!, 4/13.)
Throughout the primary, Sanders—one of the lead ambassadors of the party’s left-leaning brand, with his “flashy” Medicare for All plan and other programs to help working people—consistently polled better than Biden among working-class voters. In a recent survey (Morning Consult/Politico, 3/27–29/20), people making less than $50,000 a year had the highest support for Medicare for All (58% support, 27% oppose); those making between $50,000 and $100,000 came in second, still with a wide margin of support (53% to 40%).
Epstein closes with this quote from Lamb:
Although everyone knows he’s a Democrat, he really understands western Pennsylvania…. I couldn’t think of anybody on a national stage that kind of speaks the language of western Pennsylvania better than him. And I think he helped us draw attention to the fact that I was kind of a Democrat of the old school, and someone that people can trust to fight for them.
It brings us full-circle back to the “average guy” strategy. It’s not entirely clear which Democratic Party “old school” Lamb is referring to, but it sounds suspiciously like the one that willingly placated racist Southern Democrats for years, the one that’s not keen on the rise of outspoken, progressive women of color like The Squad, or candidates like Bernie Sanders—politicians who actually “fight for” pro–working class policies.
The upshot, according to the Times, is that Lamb won by running to the center, offering vague promises of maintaining the status quo on healthcare, Social Security and Medicare, and talking about jobs—and so this is all Biden should do, too.
The Times (and Lamb) presented a somewhat different picture of his campaign in 2018. Epstein’s colleague Trip Gabriel (3/11/18) wrote just before the election that if Lamb won, unions would be the deciding factor, having “gone all in” for Lamb. Lamb’s opponent supported right-to-work legislation and refused to fill out the AFL-CIO’s candidate questionnaire. Gabriel notably didn’t spell out Lamb’s appeals to the unions, though he did name “his moderate views on social issues like guns” and his insistence that “he is not running against Trump” as explanatory factors in Lamb’s rise. Gabriel also acknowledged at the end of the article that strong anti-Trump fervor among “progressive voters” in the Pittsburgh suburbs were “one reason” Lamb seemed “poised to exceed expectations.”
Those suburban voters are an important missing piece of Epstein’s puzzle, since they aren’t seeking out candidates who are “not running against Trump.” And other reports (HuffPost, 3/13/18; The Nation, 3/15/18) noted Lamb’s heavy courting of unions, which he featured prominently on his website and in stump speeches, and which included support for many concrete union priorities, such as an infrastructure bill and funding for coal miners’ pensions.
In other words, it wasn’t just change they were voting for, it was specific support for their unions’ demands—something Biden certainly doesn’t have a strong history of. (See, for instance, trade deals; for more, see Guardian, 5/2/19; Extra!, 4/13.) But that lesson wasn’t one Epstein seemed interested in, content to let Biden pass with his insipid speech to “blue-collar union workers”:
I don’t know all of you personally, but I know you…. I know this state. I know this region. I know what it’s made up of. I know the values that underpin all of what you believe in — family, community, again, not leaving anybody behind.
Attentive readers might also have noticed a word glaringly absent from Epstein’s article: white. 94% of voters in Lamb’s race were white, which means that the working class observers of Lamb’s race are referring to is a white working class—hardly representative of the working class as a whole in this country, which is more than 40% people of color (and nearly half female).
As FAIR (11/13/18) has pointed out before, this erasure of people of color and women from the working class is rampant in corporate media, and it conveniently serves to frame the answer to winning over the “working class” as moving rightward, rather than the more obvious and straightforward strategy of addressing the economic needs of this entire diverse class—through policies like Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, a $15 minimum wage, and support for childcare and public education, as well as supporting unionization and workers’ pensions.