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Democrats need Marie Gluesenkamp Perez
An abortion rights defender well-suited to a rural working class district
Marie Gluesenkamp Perez beat a truly gross MAGA Republican last November in a district that Donald Trump won by four in 2020 and by seven in 2016, and that Mitt Romney won by two points in 2012.
That’s very hard to do in a midterm election when your party holds the White House, especially when the president is unpopular. It’s going to be difficult for her to hold the seat if Republicans nominate someone slightly less crazy than Joe Kent next time around, and her loss would make it that much harder for Democrats to recapture the House in 2024. I also think she — and her colleagues Jared Golden and Mary Peltola, among the younger cohort of House Blue Dogs — are important for Democrats’ long-term prospects in the Senate. To an extent, you can take or leave these R+4 House seats, but with the current Senate map, Democrats have to win in Republican-leaning states to get a majority. The current Democratic majority relies on deeply endangered legacy incumbents Sherrod Brown, Jon Tester, and Joe Manchin. Those guys won’t be around forever. And because the average state is a lot whiter, more rural, and less educated than the country as a whole, the party needs to develop new models of what it looks like to be a Democrat in a state that is whiter, more rural, and less educated than the national average.
I don’t think there’s a magic formula for winning in red-leaning states and districts.
But I do feel pretty confident that it’s not just vibes and persona. Vibes count. Persona counts. But you also need to clearly differentiate yourself policy-wise from a normal Democrat. So I don’t think it’s surprising that Gluesenkamp Perez has taken some votes that have made liberals angry, nor do I think it’s problematic that liberals have expressed that anger. Her efforts to differentiate herself work better if people notice.
That said, Slate’s recent article titled “With Democrats Like Marie Gluesenkamp Perez, Who Needs Republicans?” really bothered me for three significant reasons:
The headline suggests that left-wing people should be indifferent as to whether she is defeated by a Republican, which is wrong.
The body of the article is, I think, wrong on the merits about student loan issues.
The subhead of the article is “a Washington congresswoman campaigned on pro-choice and anti-corporate policies. First year on the job, she’s nothing like her backers expected.” This implies, falsely, that she has betrayed her former pro-choice and populist stances.
I think it’s beneficial for both sides of these arguments to debate on the merits. Gluesenkamp Perez voted to block the D.C. criminal code rewrite, for example, which I think is no-brainer politics for her. But it’s genuinely true that she broke with anti-incarceration activists on this topic, and they ought to say so and explain why they think she’s wrong. But telling people she’s not pro-choice when she is because you’re mad about student loans generates confusion.
The case against Marie Gluesenkamp Perez
Here, per Alexander Sammon, is the case against Marie Glusenkamp Perez:
And yet, here is a sampling of the votes she’s helped Republicans with: She was one of just seven Democrats to side with Kevin McCarthy on a resolution condemning the use of elementary school facilities to provide shelter for undocumented immigrants. She voted “present,” rather than “yes,” on a failed effort to expel Republican con man George Santos. She voted with Republicans in favor of the Save Our Gas Stoves Act, a completely ridiculous messaging bill that the L.A. Times editorial board called “pro-fossil-fuel foolishness.” She voted with Republicans to repeal the D.C. criminal code revision, which the D.C. ACLU called an insult to the “name of democracy and common sense.” And she was one of only four Democrats to vote for a National Defense Authorization Act that limited transgender health care and diversity training, banned “critical race theory” for military personnel, and, most jarringly, restricted abortion access for service members.
I find the political calculus behind the Santos vote baffling.
But the thesis of the article was that she positioned herself during the election as an advocate of abortion rights and as an anti-corporate populist.
Now look at her supposed betrayals. There’s one on asylum-seekers. There’s one on gas stoves. There’s one on crime and one on transgender health care. There’s one on DEI training. Whatever you think about these issues, none of this is a betrayal of a pro-choice, anti-corporate populist political identity. It’s totally fair for leftists to say “this is not the kind of champion of criminal justice reform, racial equity, and immigrant rights that I want to see in Congress” because it’s true that she is not those things. That’s the point — she’s carving out a distinctive political identity that she believes is well-suited to her right-of-center district, a political identity that does not include being seen as a strong champion of leftist ideas on those topics.
I want to highlight this point because it seems to me that a lot of progressives have confused themselves.
They envision constructing a populist, working-class political majority but then find themselves morally scandalized by people who take right-wing stands on criminal justice, climate, immigration, or trans issues. It’s everyone’s right to be morally scandalized by whatever issues they choose, but the people on the other side of these topics also have the right to be morally scandalized. If you want class politics, you need some elected officials who sometimes pander to people’s actually existing views on non-economic issues, even if on a second track you try to persuade people to change those views.
So what about abortion? That’s where actual betrayal comes in. She ran as pro-choice but voted for an NDAA that had an anti-choice poison pill provision. Here’s what she said about it in a statement that Sammon unaccountably failed to quote from:
This year’s NDAA was deeply flawed because of the Republican majority weaponizing the legislation to play into their senseless culture wars. I voted against these harmful amendments, and I refuse to play into their game plan.
But, we have an obligation to protect our citizens, our borders, and our brave service members who put their lives on the line to defend our freedoms, which is why I voted for the bill.
The bill also included my amendment to improve the military’s ability to fix its own equipment. When military maintenance technicians aren’t able to fix equipment in the field – whether it’s an engine or a simple generator – because of restrictive contracting terms, it harms our military readiness and is a gut punch to technicians, who want to work with their hands to fix things.
As the legislation moves to the Senate and both chambers work towards compromise, I look forward to voting on a final version of the NDAA – one that fully funds our military and national defense while understanding that threats to our nation originate from our adversaries, not from a woman’s freedom to make decisions about her own reproductive health or from LGBTQ+ Americans.”
You can agree or disagree with that. But in terms of the question “With Democrats Like Marie Gluesenkamp Perez, Who Needs Republicans?” I think there is a very clear answer. If a majority of House members were Marie Gluesenkamp Perez clones, then the anti-abortion provision would not have passed the House. But if there were 60 Senate Republicans and a Republican president, then the anti-abortion provisions would pass both houses of Congress and be signed into law. That’s a huge difference for women serving in the military and their friends and family and others who care about them. It does a huge disservice to them and to everyone else to confuse people about this based on other disagreements with her.
A real student loan fight
Eventually, we get to what I think is the crux of the disagreement.
Sammon writes that this bill of particulars is “pretty bad. But it was Gluesenkamp Perez’s vote with Republicans on student debt, where she was one of just two Democrats to vote for a proposal that would have thrown out the entirety of President Joe Biden’s student debt relief plan—and would have also retroactively reinstated interest payments and reinstated some already forgiven loans—that really stung.”
That’s the axis on which this whole disagreement hinges.
She feels that voting against student loan forgiveness is consistent with a political identity as a pro-choice, anti-corporate populist. Sammon not only disagrees with her on the merits of this topic, but he feels the issue is so significant that it warrants providing a misleading account of her record on abortion rights and suggesting that replacing her with a Republican would be no big deal.
The whole student loan thing has been argued extensively, but just to review a few points:
The idea for student loan forgiveness was hatched during a time of low interest rates, low inflation, and labor market slack.
The median student loan burden in the United States is $0.
The minority of Americans who have student loan debt is richer than the population average.
In Gluesenkamp Perez’s district, only about a quarter of people have college degrees, and some of those people have no debt.
The burden of interest payments on the federal government is rising very rapidly right now in a way that will likely end up crowding out other spending.
Long story short, I think she is correct on the merits of this topic. I acknowledge that the practical politics for the Biden administration are somewhat different because they’ve already committed political capital to promising debt relief, and wriggling out of the promise could be difficult. But Gluesenkamp Perez is unburdened by that, and in my view, positioning herself as the kind of Democrat who will not endorse a fiscally irresponsible giveaway seems wise.
Sammon, by contrast, characterized her opposition to this measure purely in terms of the fact that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is on her side. Thus, opposing a regressive and inflationary measure becomes a sign that she has betrayed her populist principles.
Flip back to the NDAA statement and you’ll see she talks a lot about an amendment she sponsored “to improve the military’s ability to fix its own equipment.” That’s because her signature populist cause is the “right to repair,” which pushes back against efforts by big businesses (mostly car companies, but also manufacturers of farm equipment and other things) to tie the purchase of a durable good to an ongoing stream of services revenue. When buying a car or a fridge or whatever else, we traditionally expect that if it breaks, you can fix it yourself or hire whoever you want to fix it. But a mix of deliberate design choices, intellectual property issues, and contractual provisions have tried to roll that back. This seems like good populist politics to me, and right-to-repair initiatives are routinely opposed by chamber of commerce groups.
Accurate takes matter
It’s not the job of left-wing writers to cheerlead for moderate politicians, or of moderate politicians to try to be liked by left-wing writers. Indeed, in a sense it is productive and useful for moderate politicians to be criticized by left-wing writers because that dramatizes genuine differentiation. If you are the kind of person who agrees with Democrats about some stuff but worries that they are too indulgent of unauthorized immigration, too soft on crime, or too focused on being busybodies about climate-related issues, then Marie Gluesenkamp Perez wants you to know that she takes votes on those topics that Alex Sammon doesn’t agree with.
But I think we’re witnessing the unfortunate normalization of a tactic that’s more akin to campaign messaging than to opinion journalism.
In politics, there can be a huge gap between your real objection to a politician and the objection that you raise in public. Rich businessmen who are highly motivated by tax policy, for example, also know that “Sherrod Brown voted to raise taxes on rich businessmen” is probably not the most effective attack on Brown. They will, instead, run ads against him in 2024 that attempt to highlight in an exaggerated or even dishonest way the extent to which he has backed progressive cultural causes that are unpopular in Ohio.
By the same token, at a time when American women are very understandably worried about the future of abortion rights in this country, accusing a moderate member of Congress of having flip-flopped on the issue is a very potent charge. Abortion is now banned in North Carolina precisely because of this kind of betrayal, so accusing Gluesenkamp Perez of being anti-choice and no better than a Republican is an effective way to punish her over a student loan disagreement.
I am, naturally, more sympathetic to Gluesenkamp Perez than Sammon is, because I agree with her about student loans and in general I’m not as left-wing as he is on a broad range of issues. But I actually am very left-wing on abortion, and it’s just not factually true that she’s abandoned support for abortion rights. And the specific vote she’s taken heat on illustrates the value of having pro-choice moderates win red-leaning districts.