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Progressive Democrats seek to purge the term 'moderate'

The Hill logo The Hill 9/29/2021 Hanna Trudo
Progressive Democrats seek to purge the term 'moderate' © Greg Nash Progressive Democrats seek to purge the term 'moderate'

Progressives are imploring fellow Democrats to stop using the term "moderate" to describe some lawmakers in their party, arguing it inaccurately labels those holding up President Biden's agenda as merely staking out a middle-ground approach.

The rhetorical pressure campaign is escalating over what liberals see as Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema's (D-Ariz.) lack of cooperation with their favored approach to passing social and physical infrastructure legislation simultaneously.

That reluctance has prompted some on the left to cast the duo as intraparty obstructionists with a right-of-center posture on many top priorities. One House Democrat went so far as to say the term is causing "grave harm" to the discourse.

"Referring to the small handful of conservative Democrats working to block the president's agenda as 'moderates' does grave harm to the English language and unfairly maligns my colleagues who are actually moderate yet by and large understand the stakes of this historic moment," first-term Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.) told The Hill on Tuesday.

"Moderates and progressives are united in our commitment to passing President Biden's agenda and delivering for the American people," he said. "Anyone trying to obstruct that agenda is, at best, behaving like a Republican."

Liberal lawmakers and activists are becoming more unified in their attempt to redefine the language on their terms, hoping that the public will see the outliers as more on the conservative side of the party, rather than in the middle of it.

The language debate underscores growing tensions between progressives and centrists on Capitol Hill, with Biden attempting to appeal to both sides.

Anger over the terminology comes after months of negotiations on whether Democrats will ultimately pass both bills together and provide the party with a major victory heading into a midterm election year.

In the Senate, Manchin and Sinema have said Biden's $3.5 trillion budget package, which would take effect over a decade, is too high, while a group of 10 Democratic senators support House progressives' demands that reconciliation must pass alongside a bipartisan infrastructure bill.

Biden met with both Manchin and Sinema on Tuesday.

Progressives, meanwhile, refused to waver on their long-standing pledge to "hold the line," as Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) put it, after Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) vowed to move forward with a Thursday vote. Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) encouraged House caucus members to vote down the bill in a tweet.

While the debate over who could practically tank Biden's agenda is ongoing, progressives are turning up the fire by comparing their most centrist colleagues to Republicans.

And although those who consider the term "moderate" to miss the mark, few have decided on a replacement word for Democrats who lean to the right on the ideological spectrum.

Many prefer the phrase "corporate Democrats" - which holds a broadly negative connotation across the party - to reflect the decision among some to accept campaign donations from corporations and other traditional funding avenues.

On Monday, Sinema drew ire from progressives after a report in The New York Times showcased her plans to accept money from a series of organizations working against Biden's budget plan.

"I don't consider these people moderates," said progressive strategist Jonathan Tasini. "I consider them corporatist mouthpieces."

Others like to say "right-wing Democrats," in contrast to the "left-wing Democrats" descriptor commonly used for progressives in Congress.

"What has happened is that there are a few people - I don't like to call them 'moderates,' they're a conservative fringe of the Democratic Party. They think we're still living in the 1990s," said Jeff Weaver, who served as Sanders's campaign manager for his 2016 presidential bid.

"The party has moved drastically away from them, not just in the Congress but among rank-and-file Democrats. They're acting like this is the 1990s, and it's not," he said.

The Democratic debate about descriptors is not entirely new.

In the past, many Democrats have rejected being called "liberals" for its negative use by the GOP during the Obama administration. The term caught on even more so in the Trump era, when Republicans often referred to members of the opposing party by that nickname, with slogans like "own the libs" and "liberal tears" being popularized on the right.

The word moderate is also taboo among many activists who consider it effectively a catch-all for Democrats who may not ascribe to a uniform left-wing ideology filled with purity tests. Sanders, a democratic socialist, does not use the term.

It has, however, taken on a more prominent place in the mainstream media landscape.

Last month, progressive MSNBC talk show host Mehdi Hasan showed the dictionary definition during an on-air segment and rebutted certain House members' adherence to it. He later followed up in a Twitter thread, calling the term "heavily loaded and very ideological."

"I think what makes sense is to describe the Democrats with respect to their own party," said Ezra Levin, founder of the activist group Indivisible. "Are they progressive Democrats, are they centrist Democrats, are they conservative Democrats? If you're looking at Democrats who are on the right wing of their party, it's bizarre to call them moderates or centrists."

"We're just looking for some consistency here," he said.

The attempted shift has enthused some Democrats more than others.

Observing the friction, some centrists have condemned progressives for engaging in what they say amounts to a weightless critique over jargon at a critical time. One of the strongest criticisms comes from Third Way, a leading Democratic think tank that helped outline the vision of a modern moderate movement within the party.

"This is absurd name-policing," said Matt Bennett, a co-founder of the group. "There's a huge range of viewpoints among people who call themselves 'moderates' or 'progressives' or 'Democrats.' The Progressive Caucus doesn't get to decide who is entitled to use those descriptors."

Bennett's position is rooted in recent success. Biden saw the benefits of centrism during some of the most trying times in the Democratic presidential primary, when advisers insisted that he maintain a moderate style even when the majority of his rivals moved leftward.

In doing so, he occupied the center lane to himself, ultimately proving that general election voters in swing states were indeed seeking policy solutions that fell in the middle, rather than to the left.

"When major leaders on the left have done or said things that were pretty conservative, like voting to immunize the gun industry or against comprehensive immigration reform, we didn't say they had forfeited the right to call themselves progressives," Bennett said. "That's not our call, and this isn't theirs."

Niall Stanage contributed.

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