Members Only | March 5, 2019 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

How to Hold a Big Tent Together

First, never uncritically accept a right-wing talking point.

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There are two threads I want to stitch together.

One comes from EJ Dionne, the Washington Post columnist. He wrote on Sunday that all the major policy debates happening right now are not between the two parties but within one, the Democratic Party. The challenge, Dionne wrote, is making progress while bringing along new “liberal Republicans” alienated by Donald Trump.

Democrats need to figure out how to make genuine progress on the issues that rightly engage their party’s left — for starters, health care, climate change and rising economic inequality — in ways that allow their new constituency of virtual liberal Republicans to join the effort.

The other thread comes from Daily Beast reporters Sam Stein and Gideon Resnick. They reported this morning on advice by former aides to former President Barack Obama to Democratic presidential hopefuls: Stop spewing all that post-partisan pap.

“I don’t know whether to laugh or cry,” Ben LaBolt, former press secretary for Obama’s 2012 campaign, said. “I think all of the pixie dust in the world couldn’t make that happen. Believe me, we tried it. We said it. We prayed for it. It wasn’t going to happen. It’s not going happen now and it’s not going to happen ever.”

You can see why I want to stitch these together. There’s an inherent tension here.

On the one hand, the Democratic Party needs some Republican voters (also known as liberal Republicans, former Republicans or Never-Trump Republicans) to win majorities large enough to achieve their goals. At the same time, they must calculate how much those goals might alienate the same voters needed to win majorities large enough to achieve them. There is an inherent tension here, but is it a paradox?

It would certainly appear so, given all the attention paid to the “dangers” of Democratic “overreach.” Don’t go too far left, Trump will win! Don’t dive into socialism, Trump will win! Make sure to bring people together or Trump will win! If the Democrats don’t do everything just the way I say they should do it, Trump. Will. Win! On and on and on it goes; there’s no shortage of bad faith or concern trolling. But just because the press pays attention to something doesn’t mean that it matters as it appears to.

The bigger a party, the more tension there will be among and between its factions. That’s just the way it is. But this is a good problem. It means the Democrats are moving forward, leading even, not playing catch up to the Republicans. (It also means, as Dionne pointed out, that real policy debates are occurring among and between competing policy views within the Democratic Party, because, unlike conservatives, liberals thrive on argument.) The trick is finding ways to hold coalitions together.

I don’t have all the answers, obviously, but one thing I can say with certainty is that the truth matters categorically, and it matters a great deal more when it comes to building a coalition. That means, for the Democrats, that they must break the bad habit they have developed over the years of uncritically accepting Republican talking points.

These talking points aren’t necessarily false but they often are, and anyway, the point is to spin reality in favor of the GOP. The press often plays along, as it did when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez “staged a protest” in Nancy Pelosi’s office last year. As I wrote on Nov. 14, “protest” was GOP operative’s word, and the press ran with it.

Those stories were supposed to show deep divisions between the left wing of the Democratic Party and its establishment. (You know, like the Tea Party did to the GOP after 2010.) But it turns out there was no protest, not on Ocasio-Cortez’s part.

Instead, she encouraged people at the sit-in to carry on the fight while counseling them to work with Leader Pelosi to achieve their goals. While the press continues, to this day, to report divisions between the left wing and Pelosi, the House Speaker and Ocasio-Cortez are building a warm and, from what I can tell, enduring partnership.

Key point is that neither Pelosi nor Ocasio-Cortez accepted as true an objectively false Republican talking point. Granted, this was minor, but it’s a model for what the Democrats can do. Take the same thinking and apply it to, say, Heidi Heitkamp’s concern that the Democratic Party risks alienating white working class voters.

Over the weekend, the former Democratic senator from North Dakota warned Democrat presidential candidates about moving too far left, especially on climate change. She said: “I was branded as a Democrat, I was branded as somebody who didn’t care about those jobs. It goes back to Secretary Clinton basically saying we’re going to put a lot of coal miners out of work. That’s frightening to anyone.”

Yes it is! More frightening is Heitkamp’s feckless laundering of a right-wing smear! Yes, Hillary Clinton did say she was going to put coal miners out of work. Here’s what else she said: That even though the country should move toward clean energy, it would be wrong and heartless to leave hard-working coal miners behind. Clinton added:

“We’re going to make it clear that we don’t want to forget those people. Those people labored in those mines for generations, losing their health, often losing their lives to turn on our lights and power our factories. Now we’ve got to move away from coal and all the other fossil fuels, but I don’t want to move away from the people who did the best they could to produce energy that we relied on.”

It isn’t Heitkamp’s fault that North Dakota voters believed falsehoods about Clinton, the Democratic Party and, by extension, her. It is her fault, however, that she did not show the courage needed to tell the truth, and to keep telling the truth, no matter what the cost of truth-telling. (Even after losing, she continues to speak untruthfully.)

Again, I don’t have an immediate answer to the question of how the Democratic Party can move forward while holding on to GOP voters alienated by the president. But the truth matters. These voters surely know that. I believe honest good faith Americans are willing to keep an open mind as long as the party and its leaders tell the truth.

So much of the Republican agenda depends on intellectual dishonesty.

The first job, among big-tent Democrats, is to stop helping them.

—John Stoehr

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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