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Despite what Paul Ryan said, the new Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania is not a conservative.
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Before voters in Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district cast their ballots, Republicans cast the Democratic candidate, Conor Lamb, as a liberal. A Republican PAC ran an ad calling him a “liberal sheep” who would spend his term “voting the straight liberal party line for Pelosi’s extreme agenda.”
Once the votes were cast, Republicans changed their tune. Suddenly Lamb was, in Paul Ryan’s words, someone who “ran as a pro-life, pro-gun, anti-Nancy Pelosi conservative.” Lamb “ran as a Republican,” said one of Ryan’s colleagues.
What changed? Lamb won, or at least seemed to eke out a narrow victory on election night. Even if the Republican candidate, Rick Saccone, wins the seat once all the votes are counted — something most observers consider unlikely — Lamb performed very well considering that the district went heavily for President Donald Trump in 2016.
Before the election, Republicans wanted voters to think of Lamb as too liberal to support. Afterward, they wanted to buck up Republican morale by saying that he had run to the right.
The new spin is not grounded in reality. Lamb is not a conservative, and not a Republican in the wrong party. He ran against most of the Republican economic agenda, including the recently enacted corporate tax cuts and the reforms to Social Security and Medicare that Ryan has long advocated. (Lamb objects when Ryan, like much of the press, calls these programs, to which senior citizens are entitled by law, “entitlements.”) He’s for tweaking rather than replacing Obamacare.
Many Pennsylvania Democrats, especially in Lamb’s region of the state, have opposed abortion: Former Governor Robert Casey and former U.S. Representatives Frank Mascara and John Murtha are cases in point. But all three are now deceased, and today’s Pennsylvania Democrats aren’t cut from their mold. Lamb says he “believes life begins at conception,” but also thinks abortion should be legal even after the 20th week and disavows the label “pro-life.”
It’s true that Lamb is out of step with progressives on some issues. After the Parkland, Florida, massacre, he said new gun laws weren’t needed. His first campaign ad showed him shooting an AR-15, which many liberals would like to ban. He favors drilling for natural gas and wants to raise the minimum wage to $10 an hour, rather than the $15 an hour other Democrats want. And he did, as Ryan’s post-election remark suggested, distance himself from Pelosi.
Republicans should stop portraying Lamb as a conservative for several reasons. Above all, it’s false. It could also lead congressional Republicans and their allies to underestimate their challenge this year — making it more likely that they won’t meet it. And it allows the terms of political debate to drift leftward.
If someone who wants to keep abortion even late in pregnancy counts as “pro-life” and “conservative,” or even “moderate,” everyone who holds a position to the right of his starts to look like a right-wing extremist. Usually it is Democrats who wish to define mainstream Republican positions that way. That’s because it’s in their interests, and not the interests of Republicans.
But Ryan got one important thing right about Lamb: It is fair to call him “pro-gun.” In today’s Democratic Party it seems to be more acceptable to oppose gun control than to oppose late-term abortions. The party will give candidates more leeway on guns than on abortion in socially conservative parts of the country.
The difference in the Democrats’ treatment of these issues tells you something about their passions, but probably more about how it perceives the general-election risks. Democrats think that being anti-gun is more politically perilous than being pro-choice (or at least that a candidate can more easily muddy the abortion issue by declaring personal opposition).
Liberals have ample reason to savor Lamb’s victory. If they think that the politics of guns are changing in their favor, though, they should also view it as a caution.
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