On the night of President Joe Biden’s first State of the Union address, in which the president called for unity against both foreign and domestic threats, why would a fellow Democrat feel compelled to deliver a progressive response?
Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib spoke on behalf of not the Democratic Party but the Working Families Party, in her post-SOTU comments. She was careful not to call it a rebuttal, but whatever you call it it’s a slap at her party’s leader at a time when he is facing multiple crises and the Democrats have the slimmest of margins in the House and Senate.
Her remarks reprised the year-long arguments within the Democratic Party over the aspirations of the progressive agenda versus the inability to marshal the votes in the Senate. The congresswoman, a member of the leftist activist group in the House dubbed “the Squad,” didn’t name names— but she didn’t have to. Everyone knows who she means when she talks about “obstructionist Democrats” and “corporate-backed Democrats.”
Rep. Tlaib called on Biden to use his executive powers “now” to cancel student loan debt and regulate carbon emissions and fix labor rules. She rattled off a wish list that echoed a lot of what Biden had just called for in a Congress where chance of passage is zero, but where hope must be kept alive.
“I am a lifelong Democrat, and I am also part of the Working Families Party,” the congresswoman said. “In the richest country in the world, it shouldn’t be this hard for so many to have a good life.” The Working Families Party is a voice for the multi-racial working class, and if they were in power, “we’d fight to get a minimum wage of at least $15 an hour,” Tlaib added.
At a time when polls show voters think Biden is already too far left, Tlaib’s grabbing a State of the Union platform struck others in the party as self-destructive in the extreme. “Why does any Democrat at this moment think it’s a good idea to attack other Democrats on the night of the President’s State of the Union, it’s insane,” says Matt Bennett, a co-founder of Third Way, a moderate Democratic group.
After Tlaib stepped forward to claim time, Texas Rep. Colin Allred said he would deliver a response for the Black Caucus, and the co-chairs of the Problem Solvers Caucus also put in their bid to assess the evening, but it was Tlaib’s response that exposed old wounds and rankled Democrats.
She spoke at the invitation of the Working Families Party, which promotes progressives and has become a player in New York state politics. It recently saw a silver lining in potential Democratic losses in the upcoming midterms, extolling the resulting “smaller but more progressive Democratic caucus.”
“No Democrat should be allowed to actively cheer for Republican majorities and not be called on it,” says Bennett. With a three-vote margin in the House, caucus purity means handing power to a Republican Party enthralled by the cult of Trump.
Democrats are looking at a potential blowout in November if they can’t reverse voters’ negative impressions of what they’ve accomplished since gaining control of the White House and both chambers of Congress. Progressives are nursing a grudge over the Build Back Better bill. They supported a bipartisan infrastructure bill on the assurance that legislation would follow to address the climate crisis and boost the social safety net.
That didn’t happen, and they blame moderate Democratic senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema—as well as other centrists they call “corporate Democrats”—for supposedly misleading them.
“They have the mistaken theory that standing up to Joe Biden is going to help them get what they want,” says Elaine Kamarck of the Brookings Institution. “All it does is alienate all the Democrats they need to make friends of. It’s a wing of the party that wants to act out their fantasy.”
For Kamarck and her longtime colleague William Galston, this is Back to the Future. Thirty-three years ago, the duo issued a groundbreaking study on “The Politics of Evasion” that forced Democrats to confront a two-decade spell where they won just won presidential election (Jimmy Carter, in 1976). Their analysis helped set the stage for Bill Clinton to find a governing agenda that could win nationally.
Their new study, released last month, is titled, “The New Politics of Evasion: How Ignoring Swing Voters Could Reopen the Door for Donald Trump and Threaten American Democracy.” In it, they present compelling data that demographic changes portending a rise of progressive voters “overlook the sheer number of white non-college voters in key states.” Also, they point out that Hispanics vote more like non-college white voters than a minority group, which is why Democrats are losing ground with this fast growing part of the electorate.
In Wisconsin, one of nine swing states they examined, 56 percent of the electorate is white and non-college, 30 percent is white and college-educated, 6 percent is Black, and 4 percent Hispanic. In 2020, the economic and social crisis created by COVID-19 brought enough of the white non-college voters back into the Democratic fold in key swing states. “But these successes must not blind Democrats to the fact that these voters often have found Republicans’ cultural claims more persuasive than the Democrats’ economic arguments,” they write.
They cite surveys that find only 7 percent of the electorate consider themselves “very liberal,” and only 9 percent identified with the policies associated with Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
“How the hell can they get anything accomplished for the people they serve with 9 percent? They live in a deep, deep blue bubble, and it causes them to do things that achieve the opposite result of what they want,” Kamarck told The Daily Beast. (For example, Majority Whip Jim Clyburn said Democrats lost a dozen seats because of “Defund the Police.”)
“It makes me mad, as you can see,” Kamarck continued. “The problem is we’re known by our extremes. If [Tlaib] wants to run on the Working Families ticket, fine, but she ran as a Democrat.”
In the piece they wrote 33 years ago, the cost of ducking the hard truths was getting a George H.W. Bush or a Bob Dole, says Kamarck. “Now the threat is getting a Donald Trump and the end of democracy.”
For her part, Tlaib didn’t come to Congress to be a team player. She was one of six Democrats—all members of the Squad—who voted last year against the bipartisan infrastructure bill. The only Palestinian-American in Congress, she has made comments about Israel that have not landed well with her colleagues.
Tlaib’s words Tuesday night were not nearly as inflammatory as was her display of disunity to a president beleaguered in part because he stood up for progressive legislation she supported but that he couldn’t deliver, at least not yet.