Against the Grain

The Ghosting of the Democratic Centrists

The story of the Democrats’ freshman congressional class is the rise of its moderates. But only the left-wing rabble-rousers are getting any attention.

Rep. Joe Cunningham
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
March 24, 2019, 6 a.m.

Some narratives get repeated so often that they become accepted wisdom. That’s the case when it comes to describing the ideological makeup of the recently elected 116th Congress. Labeling the new wave of freshman Democrats as emblematic of ascendant progressivism has become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, with news outlets offering disproportionate attention to a small number of outspoken left-wing members.

In assessing the hostility to Israel from two freshman Democrats, many political reporters reflected on the “generational divide” among Democrats on Capitol Hill. Time magazine put Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York on its cover this week, declaring she’s the symbol of a new generation in the Democratic Party. “Her adulthood was defined by financial crisis, debt & climate change. No wonder she and her peers are moving left,” reporter Charlotte Alter wrote about her story.

But when you look at the generational makeup of the freshman Democratic class, the youngest members are actually among the most moderate of the entire caucus. Reps. Max Rose (32 years old), Conor Lamb (34), Xochitl Torres Small (34), Jared Golden (36), and Joe Cunningham (36) are all in that camp. Six more freshmen in the under-40 crowd represent districts that President Trump carried—and their early careers have been defined by their pragmatic approach to legislating. All told, the 11 millennial moderates greatly outnumber the three true-blue progressives (Ocasio-Cortez, Rep. Ilhan Omar, and Rep. Joe Neguse).

The 29-year-old Ocasio-Cortez gets more attention than her party’s own leadership. Rep. Abby Finkenauer of Iowa, a 30-year-old who won a seat crucial to the party’s House majority, is a virtual unknown on Capitol Hill.

Include the 40-year-old Democrats, and you’ve got the moderate chair of the Blue Dog Coalition (Rep. Stephanie Murphy of Florida), one of the few freshmen who voted against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Rep. Anthony Brindisi of New York), and a former Marine Corps officer who has made a mission of electing like-minded moderates (Rep. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts).

Meanwhile, the senior end of the party’s spectrum includes the liberal lions. The three oldest Democrats—Reps. Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas, Alcee Hastings of Florida, and Grace Napolitano of California—routinely rank among the most progressive members. Financial Services Chairwoman Maxine Waters, the sixth-oldest Democrat in the House, is a liberal foil for the president. Among the 19 Democratic representatives older than 75, only Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and (perhaps) Rep. Donna Shalala of Florida would be considered in the party’s moderate wing.

What gives?

To be sure, polls show younger Democratic voters are a notch more liberal than their older counterparts. So Ocasio-Cortez provides an all-too-convenient portrait of those generational stereotypes.

In addition, the freshman class is historically diverse, even if many of its nonwhite members aren’t down-the-line progressives. It’s easy to conflate diversity with ideology. Torres Small, the granddaughter of Mexican immigrants and a member of the New Democrat Coalition, has taken votes with Republicans on gun control and immigration. “I’m not trying to be the loudest. I’m interested in finding solutions,” she told USA Today last month.

Unfortunately, in the age of Trump, the media are typically drawn to the loudest and craziest voices, regardless of their power. We too often equate social-media influence with actual influence, disproportionately covering members with a knack for controversy—and artificially raising the stature of what otherwise might be obscure backbenchers.

It’s all a self-perpetuating loop, empowering the extremes even as most Americans identify in the middle. Republicans witnessed this firsthand during the 2016 presidential campaign, with Trump’s celebrity alone being used as justification for news networks to offer him nearly $2 billion in free coverage. That played a big role in stunting the lesser-known candidates’ ability to build support.

Now Democrats are facing their own celebrity-fueled reckoning, with more-radical voices being promoted at the expense of the more-accomplished leaders. Ocasio-Cortez holds favorability ratings akin to those of Sen. Ted Cruz, yet she’s lionized like Penelope Cruz. If only someone like Joe Cunningham could get parodied on Saturday Night Live. Maybe that would be the ticket to relevance in today’s Washington.

For more from Josh Kraushaar, subscribe to the “Against the Grain” podcast on iTunes or Stitcher.

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