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Monday, May 20, 2019
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Column: The center is sexier than you think

Enough about the Freedom Caucus. Enough about the Democratic Socialists of America. They’re flamboyant players in our political debate, but they’re extremes: More politicians — and most Americans — occupy the expansive territory in between. That’s where the pivotal races in 2018 are being fought. And if Democrats take back the House, it’s where any legislation with a prayer of getting through Congress will be hammered out.

The story of the 2018 midterms isn’t Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York’s 14th District. That narrative is eclipsed by less cinematic triumphs of less progressive Democrats who are winning the primaries in the swing districts that might actually turn from red to blue. They’re the stars of their party’s mission to erect a barricade against the worst of Donald Trump.

Without doubt, Ocasio-Cortez’s ouster of Rep. Joe Crowley in the Democratic primary delivered an important message about entrenched politicians disconnected from their constituents. But when she gets to Congress, she won’t be replacing a Republican. She’ll be a new Democrat in a seat the party wasn’t going to lose. And she’ll almost surely be outnumbered by Democratic newcomers who waged more moderate campaigns.

"The real story out of these Democratic primaries isn’t left or right — it’s women," Dave Wasserman, who analyzes House races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, told me. When he looks specifically at the Democratic primary victors in swing districts, he doesn’t see many politicians like Ocasio-Cortez. "They’re mainstream Democratic candidates," he said. "They’re more running against Republicans and against the tax and health care bills than they are running to reshape the Democratic Party."

"No one runs to the Mall in Washington with a sign that says, ‘Work Together,’ " said Rep. Josh Gottheimer, a first-term New Jersey Democrat who wrested his seat from a Republican in 2016. "It’s not what’s talked about on cable TV and tweeted about." But, he added, it’s where the real action is.

"You have to win in Conor Lamb’s district," he stressed. When Lamb, a Pennsylvania Democrat, triumphed in a special House election there last March, snatching a seat that had been in Republican hands, he did so with a moderate aura and an opposition to single-payer health care.

It’s doubtful that Medicare for All or the abolition of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency would garner majority support in a House controlled by Democrats, a crucial contingent of whom would be more like Lamb than like Ocasio-Cortez.

"That type of agenda doesn’t sit well outside of the districts of the people who are advocating it," said Rep. Tom Reed, a New York Republican who, along with Gottheimer, leads the Problem Solvers Caucus, a House group of 24 Republicans and 24 Democrats who meet weekly to identify areas of bipartisan agreement such as infrastructure investment and improvements to the Affordable Care Act. If the outcome of the midterms is a House with a narrow majority — a scenario that looks probable — these centrists could wield significant power, and those issues would have more traction than progressives’ favorite causes would.

"Nancy Pelosi and those who have to keep the caucus together are very clear on what they can and can’t do," Third Way’s Lanae Erickson Hatalsky told me. "They’ll primarily be focused on their oversight role and stopping Trump." Beyond that, she said, there might be an opportunity to pass bills that protect the Dreamers, mandate more transparency in campaign donations and encourage apprenticeship programs in addition to college. All of that sounds plenty enticing to me, because it’s better than the present. And stopping Trump? That sounds positively dreamy.

© 2018 New York Times

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