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'They Had One Job and They Blew It': Progressives Fire Back as Centrist Democrats in House Blame Left for Election Failures

"Don't blame myself and others who are fighting for issues that matter to our communities," said Rep. Rashida Tlaib.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) answers reporters' questions during her weekly news conference with House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) at the U.S. Capitol April 30, 2020 in Washington, D.C.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) answers reporters' questions during her weekly news conference with House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) at the U.S. Capitol April 30, 2020 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Reeling in the wake of a poor election performance that will likely leave House Democrats with a significantly smaller majority than expected next year, powerful Democratic leaders and rank-and-file centrist lawmakers used a caucus call Thursday to blame members of the party's left flank and their popular policy proposals for the disappointing outcome—a narrative progressives quickly rejected as an obvious and damaging fiction.

Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.), a former CIA operations officer who is clinging to a 1.2% percentage point advantage over her Republican challenger, led the centrist charge during the heated two-hour call Thursday, attributing losses by moderate members to GOP attack ads tarring them as "socialists" and accusing them of wanting to "defund the police." The ads, according to Spanberger, were made possible by the rhetoric of progressive lawmakers.

"Don't be so quick to blame the progressive members who have been responsible for energizing these groups who will ultimately save the day for the race for the White House."
—Rep. Pramila Jayapal

"We need to not ever use the word 'socialist' or 'socialism' ever again," Spanberger said, arguing that Democrats should watch Republican ads and adjust their messaging accordingly—advice that ignores the GOP's long record of labeling Democrats, including Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and other centrists like Barack Obama, as socialists regardless of how stridently they disavow the label.

House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) delivered a message similar to Spanberger's, warning on the private call that if "we are going to run on Medicare for All, defund the police, socialized medicine, we're not going to win," despite Election Day exit polling showing that 72% of voters favor transitioning to a "government-run healthcare plan."

Progressives during the caucus call—and subsequently on social media—forcefully pushed back against the notion that the Democratic Party's energetic left flank is responsible for losses by centrists who did not run on any of the policy proposals they are now criticizing.

Angered by the attacks on progressive policies during the Thursday call, Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.)—a self-described democratic socialist who, along with other members of "the Squad," easily won reelection Tuesday—reportedly accused her centrist colleagues of "only being interested in appealing to white people in suburbia," neglecting policies that would drive turnout among and disproportionately benefit people of color.

"Don't blame myself and others who are fighting for issues that matter to our communities," said Tlaib.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, also spoke out against the centrist finger-pointing, warning that House Democrats could see even bigger losses in 2022 and 2024 if they don't engage voters motivated by ambitious progressive policy platforms.

"Don't be so quick to blame the progressive members who have been responsible for energizing these groups who will ultimately save the day for the race for the White House," said Jayapal.

Longstanding ideological tensions between House Democrats' dominant moderate faction and the smaller but growing progressive wing are exploding to the surface after the party fell far short of expectations in Tuesday's highly anticipated election, likely losing seats in the chamber after Democratic leaders predicted major gains.

"We need a Democratic Party that stands for something more than just being anti-Trump."
—Alexandra Rojas, Justice Democrats

"Democrats expected to pick up multiple seats in Texas. Instead, it looks like Democrats may lose a seat there," HuffPost's Matt Fuller reported Thursday. "They expected to pick off seats in New York, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, New Jersey, Virginia, even GOP strongholds like Arkansas and Missouri. But it looks like Republicans may have held Democrats off at every turn."

"Look at the toss-up seats on the Cook Political Report," one anonymous Democratic lawmaker told HuffPost. "I'm not sure we won a single fucking one."

Alexandra Rojas, executive director of progressive advocacy group Justice Democrats, said House Democrats have only themselves to blame for the election results after one lawmaker singled out the grassroots progressive organization for criticizing centrist members.

"They had one job and they blew it," Rojas told the Washington Post. "We need a Democratic Party that stands for something more than just being anti-Trump."

Frustrations with House Democrats' abysmal performance—which one unnamed Democratic lawmaker bluntly called a "dumpster fire"—were compounded by the party's worse-than-expected showing in Senate races it hoped to win. Barring Democratic victories in both Senate run-offs in Georgia, Republicans are on track to retain control of the chamber.

In response to the blame being hurled at progressives, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) argued in a series of tweets Friday that moderate House Democrats who lost or are at risk of losing their seats should take a closer look at the shortcomings of their own campaigns instead of baselessly claiming left-wing lawmakers are culpable.

"There are folks running around on TV blaming progressivism for Dem underperformance. I was curious, so I decided to open the hood on struggling campaigns of candidates who are blaming progressives for their problems," said the New York Democrat. "Almost all had awful execution on digital. During a pandemic. Underinvestment across the board."

"Ideology plus messaging are the spicy convos a lot of people jump to but sometimes it's about execution and technical capacity," Ocasio-Cortez continued. "Finger-pointing is not gonna help. There's real, workable, and productive paths here if the party is open to us. After all, I got here by beating a Dem who outspent me 10-1 who I knew had bad polling."

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