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Dean Obeidallah Democrats' 2018 midterm hopes strengthened by decline of liberal 'purity tests'

Why liberals' newfound love of pragmatism over purity is bad news for Trump and the GOP.

 / Updated 
Few Democrats criticized Conor Lamb for his more centrist stances, aiding his campaign in Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional district.Drew Angerer / Getty Images
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The old political cliche “Democrats fall in love, while Republicans fall in line” is nevertheless alive and well when it comes to the Democratic base. Many Democrats, including myself, still do need to be in love to be inspired politically. But what’s changed is that we no longer need a particular candidate to set our hearts a flutter. Rather, Democrats have begun to fall head over heels in love with the goal of defeating Donald Trump and his agenda. And to achieve that, it seems more and more Democrats may be willing to check progressive purity at the door in favor of progressive pragmatism.

How far the party has shifted in just a year. Around this time in 2017, my SiriusXM radio show hosted what felt like a nightly battle between Bernie Sanders supporters and Hillary Clinton fans fighting for the heart and soul of the Democratic party.

Sanders supporters believed that the Democratic party must move to the left — or at least nominate very progressive candidates — in order to not line up with their beliefs and lead Democrats to victory in 2018 (and beyond). And to be certified “pure,” these liberals demanded that candidates come out strongly in favor a list of issues Sanders had championed during his 2016 run for president, issues such as healthcare for all, committing to a $15 minimum wage, rejecting PAC money and passing banking reform, to name just a handful. The sense was that these progressive perfectionists were ready to abandon the Democratic Party completely — or at least stay home during the midterm elections — if this didn’t happen

Flash forward to March 2018, and I’m now hearing some of those very same Bernie purists say that if the candidate has a “D” in front of their name, they will vote for them. Even more interesting: They seem to be sincere about this new strategy, not resentful.

Flash forward to March 2018, and some Bernie purists say that if the candidate has a “D” in front of their name, they will vote for them.

Some of the fruits of this new pragmatism have already appeared. Democrat Conor Lamb, the apparent winner of March 13's special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district, would never have passed the progressive purity tests being espoused a year ago. For example, Lamb didn’t embrace a $15 minimum wage, saying instead it “sounds high based on what I’ve been told by many small-business owners in our area.” He also was “pro-gun” and on board with natural gas fracking, a big no-no for many progressives.

Lamb even ran a campaign commercial pushing back against claims by his GOP opponent Rick Saccone that he was an ally of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. “I've already said on the front page of the newspaper that I don't support Nancy Pelosi,” Lamb said.

Despite all of that, few Democrats criticized Lamb for his more centrist stances. Even progressive groups like MoveOn.org were all in for Lamb. As MoveOn.org spokesperson Karine Jean Pierre explained on my radio show on March 11, the grassroots organization committed its full support and resources to Lamb. Why? Because, as Pierre, explained, there are over 8,000 Moveon.org members in Lamb’s district and they had made it overwhelmingly clear that they approved of Lamb despite some of his moderate views.

Importantly, this pragmatism didn’t start with Lamb. It’s been slowly developing over the past year, as we saw during 2017’s Virginia governor's race. The Virginia Democratic gubernatorial primary last June pitted establishment-backed Lt. Governor Ralph Northam against Bernie Sanders’ pick, Tom Perriello. While Northam was solidly center-left, Perriello was clearly the darling of the progressive wing of the party.

Some of the fruits of this new pragmatism have already appeared. Democrat Conor Lamb would never have passed the progressive purity tests being espoused a year ago.

After Perriello was defeated in the primary, there were concerns that the state’s more left-leaning Democrats might sit out the November election. The fears of myself and others grew when, just days before the election, Northam said that if elected he would ban so-called sanctuary cities in The Old Dominion State.

But on Election Day, the Democrats were there for Northam, propelling him to a nine-point victory — well ahead of polling that showed him and his GOP rival within the margin of error on election eve. In fact, a record 41 percent of Democrats came out to the polls in this off-year election, of which Northam won 97 percent.

Come 2020, I’m sure there will be fierce, passionate battles about over the progressive credentials of the candidates seeking the Democratic presidential nomination. And there should be. But for 2018, it’s looking more and more like Democrats think blocking Trump’s agenda in Congress is more important than finding the perfect person to run in every district. Republicans have experienced firsthand the successes of falling in line. The fact that Democrats may be co-opting this strategy should concern them most of all.

Dean Obeidallah, a lawyer, hosts "The Dean Obeidallah Show" on SiriusXM radio's Progress channel and is a columnist for The Daily Beast.

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