OPINION — Sixty-three lawmakers from two House committees will question Robert Mueller on Wednesday. Thirty-seven Democrats and 26 Republicans will each get five minutes to drill the former special counsel over the contents of his 448-page report and the process he put in place to complete his mission.
But the number that is more important today isn’t any of these. It’s 31. That’s the number of congressional districts that voted for both President Donald Trump and a Democrat for the House. While Republicans may justifiably question the definition, these so-called moderate Democrats, who managed to win in Trump territory, were the bellwethers of what was a good election for their party in 2018. They may play the same role in 2020 but not if the current toxic political environment overwhelms their ability to claim middle-of-the-road ideological status again.
And so far, Democratic leaders and “the squad” aren’t making it easy for them.
House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler and Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff will try once again Wednesday to get their impeachment balloon off the ground, pinning their hopes on getting Mueller to read the juiciest language for the cameras. Polls show impeachment isn’t getting the traction progressive Democrats want and the majority of Americans don’t.
Keeping the base happy seems to be paramount these days, but as Democrats reinvestigate the Mueller investigation, they seem to have all but forgotten how their fever dream of impeaching Trump might affect these 31 endangered members whose political fortunes may also determine their own.
So, it seems, have Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other members of the squad, who, as they bask in the media spotlight, have shown open hostility to the “Forgotten 31” and their decidedly different districts. These outspoken freshmen dominate the headlines 24/7, and their media clout continues to drive the party and its presidential candidates to embrace extreme policy positions and over-the-top comments as the party moves further and further left.
And unless something dramatic emerges from the Mueller hearing, the focus Thursday will be back on the squad and their ongoing feud with Trump that is beginning to rival the Hatfields and the McCoys. Democratic leaders and talking heads will find themselves back in the unenviable position of defending everything from anti-Semitic remarks to the squad’s calls for open border policies, “Medicare for All” and a $20 federal minimum wage. And the 31 red-district Democrats will, once again, be left to fend for themselves.
Increasingly, the media and the public see “AOC+three” as the new faces of the Democratic Party, a trend that clearly worries many party leaders who, rightfully, understand that if the Forgotten 31 actually ran on a socialist progressive platform, many can kiss their reelections goodbye.
So, a new Democratic talking point seems to be emerging. The argument goes something like this: “Yes, there is a lot of media attention on the four freshmen who are bringing new energy to the party. And yes, they do represent the views of the party’s most progressive wing.” Here’s the happy talk: “But once the Democrats have a presidential standard bearer, he or she will become the party brand, move to the middle and all will be well.”
According to the Democrats’ new math, four leftists running the media show for more than a year, plus one “ideologically rehabbed” presidential nominee offered up next summer, somehow equals 270 electoral votes in 2020.
Here’s the problem with that logic, especially for the endangered freshmen. First, it may be next spring before the Democratic primary field finally winnows down to a couple of front-runners, which in cable years is something akin to eternity. That means for the next seven or eight months, political conversation is likely to revolve around the squad and their platform and statements, most which reflect the politics of the bluest of blue districts.
During that time, the Democratic presidential field will be expected to toe to what amounts to an extremely ideological line, if the squad has anything to say about it — and they usually do. But these four freshmen live in an elite political bubble where a Democrat can say or do almost anything without general election consequences. That’s not the case when it comes to the 31 red-district Democrats.
On the flip side, among the squad members, New York’s Ocasio-Cortez and Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar won their races last fall with 78 percent of the vote. Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib swamped her opponent with 84 percent, and Ayanna Pressley, with no opposition at all but write-ins, won her Massachusetts seat with 98 percent.
To paraphrase an old joke, when you win by these margins, you don’t have to care — not about what the speaker thinks or what their less politically fortunate colleagues think or whether they’re taking their party over a cliff.
Safe in their bubble
What the squad forgets — or more likely, chooses to ignore — is the fact that most of the country isn’t like New York’s 14th District or Massachusetts’ 7th. Even in what was a good Democratic year, 2018, the exit polls showed that only 27 percent of voters self-identified as liberal. Moderates were at 37 percent, and conservatives at 36 percent. I suspect most of the Forgotten 31 think about those numbers every day.
But that ideological reality doesn’t seem to ever pierce the bubble that the squad, the impeachment enthusiasts and the presidential candidates seem to live in these days. Wednesday’s Mueller hearing is a perfect example as progressives refuse to acknowledge that most of America is growing very tired of their obsession with impeachment.
As for the Democrats’ argument that their eventual nominee will become more centrist after the primaries: If the first debates are any indication, it will take some Olympic-caliber gymnastics, whoever wins, to temper their hard moves to the left even at this early stage.
To the contrary, the longer the process goes on, the more extreme the candidates’ positions become. Moving to the middle isn’t as easy as it’s cracked up to be. Think video and social media. Moreover, the red-district freshmen can look forward to their own seven or eight months of being asked whether support the latest pronouncement by the squad or the increasingly socialist policies of their party’s presidential candidates.
So what’s a red-district Democrat to do? What they want — a less socialist agenda and nominee — and what they can do about it are two entirely different matters. The Forgotten 31 need the leadership behind them and the presidential candidates to remember that winning the House matters too.
David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, and is an election analyst for CBS News.