Couples Therapy for the Democratic Party: How Conor Lamb and AOC Working Together Could Benefit All of America

As published in Grid Daily, November 11, 2020 at

Not one day into President-Elect Biden’s tenure, and the tenuous cease-fire between progressives and moderates in the Democratic Party has burst into open target practice in the pages of The New York Times.  While Nancy Pelosi is a powerful figure and a bogeywoman for the Right, thanks to her policy positions and San Francisco origins, she seems unable to contain this public squabbling or, more importantly, to bring the two parties to agreement.  While she and the House leadership resort to five-hour yelling matches over the phone, might I suggest a bit of couple’s therapy from an outsider, especially for Conor Lamb, a moderate Democrat representing district in suburban Pittsburgh, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, famously a progressive Democrat representing the New York borough of Queens.

You see, bringing together progressives and moderates isn’t as hard as it looks.  The Republicans for years managed to keep their infighting mostly behind doors. Trumpers and Never-Trumpers focused on winning key policy fights that furthered both their agendas, like the dramatic conveyer belt of federal judgeships. It’s just a matter of focusing on what you each bring to the table, what you have in common, and most importantly, not giving your opponents more ammunition than they already have.  Focus on compromise solutions that respect both sides and make them both feel invested and successful. You’ll find not just a happier relationship, but a better America.  Welcome to Couple’s Therapy – The House of Representatives Edition.

AOC, as she rightfully pointed out, has mastered the modern art of campaigning.  She started from scratch, won an upset victory against a powerful incumbent, and built a powerful national financial and activist base.  In a reelection race that could hardly be viewed as competitive, she raised nearly $20 million in the 2019-2020 cycle, according to federal filings. She regularly captures headlines and sets trends.  She is intelligent, savvy, and the best advocate not just to fill the shoes of Senator Bernie Sanders, but to craft her own.  She’s a marketer as much as a policymaker, and she should be respected for all these achievements.

Mr. Lamb is a successful example of the “other side” of a new Democratic generation.  He could be mistaken for a young Joe Biden, and not just for his Pennsylvania roots. His moderate positions represent his district carefully. He’s gone from narrowly winning a special election to a third victory just this fall against a textbook opponent. His district is very much like the majority-white, rough-and-tumble areas Biden had to do well in to come out ahead. He ran a very different race, with a very different message, than AOC, butmanaged to win.

So where’s the problem?  Both these people, and many others like them, live in the same house—the big tent of the Democrats. Both seem to have forgotten that compromise and collaboration is the key to success in any relationship. They’re hurting each other and their own party. While we can laud their individual contributions and successes, when you live in the same house you impact each other.  Sometimes, that impact is positive: AOC’s fundraising and organizing tactics could well help neophytes win, regardless if their voters are progressive or not.  Mr. Lamb’s innate understanding of how to bridge urban and rural voters through messaging would do well to help the dozens of candidates who don’t have the benefit of Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s deep-blue, urban district.  But that impact can also be negative.

Whether these are good policies or not, the big-ticket issues of the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, and others like them are not the national, unifying turnout-drivers Ms. Ocasio-Cortez claims.  Yes, in districts receptive to those messages, they can drive certain voters to the polls in greater numbers and lead to victory.  But there are not enough of those voters in every district.  The math just isn’t there. An aggressive marketing of policies that have differing impacts on non-receptive districts will have a negative impact on voters who should be known as much for the groceries they buy as the way they vote.

AOC does have skills that could be useful to dozens of candidates. However, she has wrapped those skills in an unabashed progressive brand that would be polarizing in other locations.  A Texas Democrat has always been closer to a Massachusetts Republican than a Manhattan one, but national parties only win when individual members remember they’re part of a singular, bigger brand than themselves. The words they say have an impact on others.  In marketing, we can “gate” messaging and use hyperlocal tactics so that different demographics receive what they want. A national party, and national figures like AOC, make that much more difficult.

Like it or not, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez has used her effective marketing machine to become the new-generation bogeywoman for the Right. Her message is now a national one, not a New York one. We can bemoan this fact and the questionable, sometimes-unethical, and occasionally-racist tactics of the “Trump camp,” but we cannot question their existence or effectiveness. More than 70 million people voted for Trump’s re-election. Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s bet that she can turn out more people on the other side to win using the most progressive policies isn’t just an unwise risk, it’s bad for America.

We’ve spent the last 20 years with one side “betting” their slice of the pie is enough to get them elected with free reign to enact policies under the guise of a non-existent mandate. There’s no such thing as a mandate in a close election. There is, however, bitter resentment from the losing side when winners take this approach. Trump’s candidacy became his presidency thanks to the anger millions felt at being “left behind” by Obama. Obama’s candidacy became his presidency when millions felt like a Republican Wall Street had done the same to them. We cannot keep repeating this cycle of “I win, you lose, watch and see how I can do what I want.” It just divides America.  Ironically, Lamb and Ocasio-Cortez hold the keys to breaking this cycle.

We are better as a country when we come together to bring others along on our policy journeys. When we find compromise that generates investment, dissipates anger, and engenders respect, and even when the compromise is not what everyone wanted.  If Conor Lamb and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stop their public sniping, and instead work together to find compromises they can both invest in, they might find voters who didn’t support them in their districts can see a home in the Democratic party of 2022 and 2024.

We can do better than just rely on bigger turnout. We can win over other voters. Working together and compromise are how to expand your base by winning people over from the other side. This benefits your party and America. Compromise and couples therapy might be just what the doctor ordered for this country, and not just our leaders.