Democrats and Self-Defeating Moderation


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Representative Kurt Schrader has a particular persona. A veterinarian, farmer, small businessman, and congressman (he is a busy guy) representing Oregon’s 5th congressional district, he is the kind of politician that spent much of his career decrying polarized politics, asking everyone to stop bickering, and claiming that he can bring people together to bring real change to Washington.

Many claim that there is a lot that appeals to voters about this centrist ideal. But in practice, so-called centrism has led Schrader and his ilk primarily to obstruct their own party’s agenda.

Schrader has been more focused on blocking much of President Biden’s agenda than getting anything done. He has sided with Republicans and corporate interests to block Medicare from negotiating lower drug practices, voted against COVID relief bills, opposed raising the minimum wage, and actively worked to derail environmental legislation.  He is one of those all-too-common politicians that seem more interested in complaining about what the party stands for than in standing for anything themselves.

Last week, in one of the most closely watched primaries this election cycle, Schrader faced Jamie McLeod-Skinner, a local activist and lawyer. He talked about appealing to the made-up middle. She talked about lower prescription costs, raising the minimum wage, and combating climate change. He spent $3.3 million dollars in his campaign; PACs poured more than $1 million in his support. She spent $579,000.

She won the election.

The story of a centrist Democrat being defeated in a primary election by a more progressive opponent would be big news in any given election cycle, even if it is getting quite common nowadays. Progressive primary victories are often framed as angry activists trying to move the party to the left. McLeod-Skinner’s victory is a case of rank-and-file democratic primary voters standing up for the Democratic Party’s core agenda when their congressman tried to kill it. This is often the pattern in these races, and we shouldn’t be surprised by it anymore. 

Despite Schrader’s distinction in obstructing the Democratic agenda the whole democratic establishment, starting with President Biden himself, had endorsed him ahead of the primary, and poured consultants, money, and resources to fend off this challenge. The same democratic leaders that had seen a significant part of the policy agenda go up in flames in Congress these past few months in no small part due to Schrader’s opposition were doing their absolute best to help him stay in office.

I am a political pragmatist. I think it is irresponsible for activists and political leaders to make big promises that they cannot deliver or propose sweeping policy changes that are completely out of reach. We must have bold plans and bold choices, but they have to be grounded in what we can actually pass, because ambitious manifestos do little to improve the lives of anyone. Many Democrats, however, tend to confuse political pragmatism with a fear of even trying to get anything done. They have decided that defensive inaction is a wiser strategy than actually fighting for what they believe in. This attitude used to be limited to the realm of centrists like Schrader, always more worried about protecting their corporate donors than getting things done. Unfortunately, it looks like Democratic leaders in Washington have adopted it as the national strategy.

The Schrader primary–or perhaps we should say the Jaime McLeod-Skinner primary–should be a clear reminder to Democratic politicians that even if they are willing to sacrifice the Democratic agenda in the name of centrism, bipartisanship, or pragmatism, their voters most certainly are not. A failure to fight for the Democratic agenda is a disaster for working people, and it is a disaster for the prospects of Democratic incumbents too.    

Moderates scoff at calls for political revolution, remaking the economy, and abolishing the Senate filibuster (despite, you know, being things we should do) as impractical. Having the votes and the majority to pass legislation and change things now and choosing not to act, however, is political malpractice.

The sad tale of Kurt Schrader is not just a warning to DC Democrats about progressive power. It is also a call for Democrats everywhere to fight for their own agenda.