Politics

An emboldened left, Trump acolytes and GOP conspiracy theorists — meet the probable House freshman class


In Michigan, a GOP congressman who complained to Vice President Pence about Trump’s racist attacks on congresswomen of color will be succeeded by a Republican who organized campaign rallies and boat parades to support the president.

Emerging from this year’s competitive primaries are dozens of Republican and Democratic candidates heavily favored to win this November, a probable freshman class likely to upend the dynamics of an already polarized House.

Emboldened liberals who ousted longtime, pragmatic incumbents promise to push the Democratic Party to the left, demanding votes on Medicare-for-all and the Green New Deal environmental plan as they work within the political system.

On the Republican side, a legion of Trump devotees vow to follow his norm-shattering lead even if he loses reelection, casting socialism as the greatest threat to the nation and promising to stop it.

And then there are the conspiracy theorists in the GOP.

In a recent Facebook message, Georgia candidate Marjorie Taylor Greene, a professed QAnon conspiracy believer, posted an image of herself holding a rifle next to photos of three liberal congresswomen, an unprecedented threat that was taken down a day later. Greene is poised to replace Rep. Tom Graves (R), who was conservative but nonetheless worked with Democrats on proposals to overhaul the budget process.

QAnon is the baseless theory that Trump is battling a cabal of “deep state” saboteurs who worship Satan and traffic children for sex. The FBI has labeled the group a domestic terrorist threat.

“Obviously it is reflective of the polarized nation that we have,” said Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.), who heads the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus of moderate lawmakers and expressed serious concerns about the language of some GOP candidates. “We’re still going to have to govern, and you’re not going to be able to govern from the extremes.”

The shift in both parties could make working across the aisle seem like a quaint idea from a bygone era, especially with the most moderate incumbents vulnerable this November.

Looking toward next year, leaders of the Congressional Progressive Caucus are discussing how to organize their increased membership to secure wins from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Democrats are expected to keep the majority in November. At the same time, some Republicans are privately fretting about their own lot, worried that the extremes of their party will drive them into extinction.

“I hope these trends reverse, but I don’t see them reversing without very principled and strong leadership emerging from those who have the responsibility to step forward and say enough is enough,” said former Rep. Charles W. Boustany Jr. (R-La.), who said his former colleagues appear to be “cowed into silence” instead of pushing back on the direction the party is going.

To be clear, the transition in each party is drastically different. For the Democrats, the move leftward is a matter of policy, as they debate how to expand the safety net to ensure that minorities and low-income people receive greater access to health care and other economic support while addressing climate change and racial injustice. The dynamic is similar to the tea party movement’s original bid to push the GOP to embrace conservative principles of smaller government and lower deficits, which the party has largely abandoned under Trump.

Republicans, however, aren’t technically moving right as much as they are becoming more Trump-like and embracing controversial positions. This summer, each primary appeared to be a race to convince voters who was closer to Trump, who supported him first or who loves him most.

Michigan candidate Lisa McClain ran unabashedly as a Trump supporter and has organized events with top Trump ally Corey Lewandowski in a district where Rep. Paul Mitchell (R) decided to retire, in part because of Trump’s rhetoric. A business executive, McClain favors repealing the Affordable Care Act, opposes abortion and supports protection for the Great Lakes.

In Texas, Trump’s former White House physician Ronny L. Jackson has lavished praise on the president while he is poised to succeed former Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry, a conservative who nonetheless broke with Trump on some national security issues. Jackson favors the border wall and term limits while calling for reducing the national debt.

In Alabama, former state representative Barry Moore calls himself “the tip of the spear for President Trump.” Last weekend, Moore posted a meme supporting the teenager facing homicide charges in the deaths of two protesters in Kenosha, Wis. A picture of an armed Kyle Rittenhouse read “fought back”; the second picture, depicting two people on the ground, read “didn’t fight back.”

Moore, who deleted the post, won the primary to succeed Rep. Martha Roby (R-Ala.), who in 2016 withdrew her support for then-candidate Trump when The Washington Post reported on a video of Trump boasting about grabbing women’s genitals.

In Georgia, Greene also has said black people are “slaves” to the Democratic Party and called the election of Muslims to Congress an “Islamic invasion” of the government.

Such comments are bound to cause serious tensions in the lower chamber with Democrats — not to mention Republicans like Reed who try to be peacemakers between both parties. Imagine, for example, Greene on the House floor encountering Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), whom she threatened in her Facebook post, or candidate Cori Bush, the Black Lives Matter activist who defeated Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.) in his primary.

Democrats’ internal divisions are much narrower by comparison, but they too could undergo an ideological shift next year as the number of liberals willing to stand against leadership increases. Pelosi, for example, is losing high-ranking allies in retiring House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey (D-N.Y.) and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), who lost his primary to political newcomer Jamaal Bowman.

The liberal group Justice Democrats backed Bowman and Mondaire Jones, who is poised to replace Lowey and recently argued in an interview that now more than ever Democrats need to pass Medicare-for-all.

“In the midst of a global pandemic that people are comparing to the 1918 Spanish flu . . . it seems urgent to support the only health care policy that would literally insure everybody and prevent that kind of misery that we’ve seen,” Jones said.

With Republicans frequently attacking those views as “socialist,” some Democrats fear that the rise of the left next year could undercut the party’s gains. Pelosi, for example, has not allowed a full House vote on Medicare-for-all or a Green New Deal, surmising that public sentiment isn’t there and such a roll call could be used against her moderates in swing districts.

The contradictory positioning all but ensures internal Democratic battles.

“Remember: The reason we’re in the majority . . . is that the Republicans went too far to the right and began to irritate the American public,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II (D-Mo.), who argued that Pelosi will keep the left in check with what he called her “velvet hammer.” “I think we would make a mistake if we did the same thing, except in another direction.”

Progressive Caucus leader Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), who is organizing the likely incoming liberals, has reached the opposite conclusion — and harbors a different fear. Trump, she likes to say, is both the cause of turmoil and a symptom of a frustrated working class fed up with traditional Republicans and Democrats and looking for a new standard-bearer.

“Whether you like Trump or not, you have to recognize that,” she said, arguing that lofty goals of moderation and bipartisanship miss the mark — and that it’s time for change. “It’s a really different landscape. We have to think about the populism that has swept the country. . . . What are the policies that are going to drive working people?”

If Democrats take over and don’t deliver, only then should they fear a loss of power, she said.

Former congressman Joseph Crowley (D), whose surprise 2018 loss to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) sparked the left’s move to challenge establishment Democrats in primaries, downplayed the rise of the liberal movement. What’s happening, he said, “is a result in no small part of Donald Trump’s election and what it has done to exacerbate that extreme and the need for reaction to the president.”

“That kind of pushes people like . . . myself a little bit to the side, but I do think that the party itself is more represented of moderation,” he said. “I’m not a socialist. I’m not a democratic socialist. I’m a Democrat — cradle to grave. . . . I think that’s more reflective of the Democratic Caucus itself.”

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