Paul Ryan and Donald Trump are running scared. After the Republican candidate who ran with the ardent backing of the Republican Speaker of the House and the Republican president lost a special election for a Pennsylvania congressional seat in a district that was so Republican-friendly that Donald Trump won it by 20 points and the former GOP congressman regularly ran without opposition, the men who define the Republican Party as it now exists had to explain their loss.
So they announced that the Democrat who beat them was, more or less, a Republican. Ryan claimed that the victor in Tuesday’s special election, Conor Lamb, ran as a “conservative.” Trump claimed that Lamb leaned so far to the right that, the president mused, “Is he a Republican? He sounds like a Republican to me.”
This is the carefully crafted spin that politicians peddle after they have suffered a setback.
Lamb’s narrow victory, which could still be challenged with a recount demand, unsettled top Republicans for good reason. It suggests, as the 2018 midterm-election season takes off, that Democrats could win almost anywhere. According to the Cook Political Report, there are 118 Republican-held seats in the US House that are less Republican-friendly than Pennsylvania’s District 18. This vulnerability explains why Ryan and Trump want pundits and pols to imagine that Lamb embraced their policies and simply ran with a “D” after his name. They want that to be the “lesson” that pundits and pols take away from Tuesday’s election result.
The real lesson, the one that Democrats need to recognize, is precisely the opposite. Lamb isn’t exactly a progressive Democrat. But Ryan’s being absurd when he tries to identify the Pennsylvanian as a conservative. Lamb campaigned as a sharp critic of corporate influence on American politics, someone who criticized Trump’s tax policies and aggressively defended the Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid programs that Ryan seeks to dismantle. Alex Lawson, the executive director of Social Security Works, says: “Lamb’s victory is a repudiation of Donald Trump and Paul Ryan’s plans to gut the American people’s earned benefits.”
There’s no question that Lamb adopted cautious language—and cautious stances—on several issues of consequence. Even as he supported abortion rights, the Democrat described himself as “personally pro-life.” Though he backed background checks for gun purchases and was explicitly opposed by the National Rifle Association, Lamb’s response to gun-violence issues was disappointingly tepid. The same goes for his vapid statements on immigration. And Lamb’s digs at House Democratic minority leader Nancy Pelosi were political gimmickry at its most drab.
But on the essential issue of labor rights, Lamb ran a far more militant campaign than most prominent Democrats have in recent decades. The candidate sought labor endorsements, as Democrats usually do, and he called his Republican rival out for taking anti-labor positions. But Lamb went much further than that. Instead of treating organized labor as a special-interest group, he embraced unions like the Pennsylvania-based United Steelworkers as a vital piece of the infrastructure for a healthy civil society.
On the short list of priorities that he made the focus of his campaign, Lamb listed “Unions” and declared: “I support unions, and I’m proud to be endorsed by the AFL-CIO. I believe that all workers have the right to organize and bargain collectively for better wages, benefits and working conditions. And I know that when unions do the work, it gets done on time and on budget. Union members in our district can count on me to be the most effective ally they have in fighting to protect their rights, support prevailing wages and Project Labor Agreements, and defeat the ideological extremists who want to put unions out of existence.”
Go search the websites of prominent Democrats for similar sentiments. Rarely, if ever, will you find this sort of explicit pro-labor message. Listen to the speeches of Democratic winners (and losers) in recent races for lines like these from Lamb’s election-night address:
Side by side with us at each step of the way were the men and women in organized labor.
Organized labor built Western Pennsylvania. Let me tell you something: Tonight, they have reasserted their right to have a major part in our future. These unions have fought for decades for wages, benefits, working conditions, basic dignity, and social justice. Thank you! Thank you!
You have brought me into your ranks to fight with you. Let me tell you something else: I am proud to be right there with you.
National media outlets have had a hard time wrapping their heads around the reality of what Americans think about unions and labor rights. They have, for the most part, failed to communicate the significance of Conor Lamb’s bold embrace of a labor movement that has been the target of a brutal assault by billionaire donors like the Koch brothers and political tools like Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.
Lamb put organized labor at the center of his campaign. That was smart politics. As AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka explained: “Conor Lamb won this race because he proudly stood with unions, shared our agenda and spoke out for our members.” That is the lesson Democrats should take from this special election. And it’s not just a lesson about western Pennsylvania or the embattled Great Lakes states.
Americans like unions. The Gallup polling organization has for 80 years asked voters: “Do you approve or disapprove of labor unions?” The current approval rating, 61 percent, rivals the high rates of 50 years ago—when leaders of both major parties pledged their allegiance to organized labor.
Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, perhaps because unions were so popular, even Republicans were supportive of them. There was an understanding that former Republican President Dwight Eisenhower was on to something when he explained: “Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. Among them are H. L. Hunt [a wealthy political donor of the era], a few other Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or business man from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.”
Ronald Reagan, a former president of the Screen Actors Guild, ran for governor of California in 1966 as a foe of Republican assaults on labor rights. “Reagan recalled with pride his years as a labor-union president,” Time magazine reported at the time. “As a result of that experience, he has taken a strong pro-labor position on right-to-work laws.” Several years earlier, Richard Nixon was an outspoken opponent of an attempt to undermine labor rights in California and make it a so-called right-to-work state.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Republicans turned hard against labor, and too many top Democrats imagined that unions were a thing of the past.
That was always false, and it remains so to this day.
At precisely the point when strong unions are needed to address mounting inequality and injustice, Republicans like Ryan and Walker have positioned their party on the side of the virulently anti-labor extremism of the Koch brothers. Unfortunately, too many Democrats have continued to mount only lukewarm defenses of unions. That’s a mistake that has cost the party politically.
Americans of all backgrounds have experienced jarring economic and social shifts— globalization, a digital revolution, a revolution in automation and robotics—that are making them feel insecure about their future. Just as unions addressed the insecurities of the past, they are needed to address the insecurities of our own time.
Conor Lamb recognized this reality, made common cause with the labor movement, and won. His fellow Democrats would be wise to do the same.