WSJ Opinion: The Myth of Moderate Democrats

Joe Biden and Conor Lamb show a different face in Pennsylvania than in Washington.

By William McGurn (Wall Street Journal)

Oct. 19, 2020 6:58 pm ET

Remember when Rep. Conor Lamb was the poster boy for how Democrats could prevail in Trump districts? Joe Biden sure does. Only two weeks out from the election, Messrs. Lamb and Biden are both working overtime to persuade Pennsylvania voters they are the moderates they claim to be.

It worked for Mr. Lamb 2½ years ago, when he narrowly flipped Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District from red to blue in a special election—and then went on to win the general election in a more favorably redrawn 17th District. A former Marine officer and federal prosecutor, Mr. Lamb successfully presented himself as a faithful son of western Pennsylvania focused on kitchen-table issues. He even promised to vote against Nancy Pelosi for speaker of the House if elected, which he did.

This year is a different story. Mr. Lamb now has a record. He’s also up against a formidable Republican opponent in Sean Parnell, an Army Ranger combat vet who was awarded a Purple Heart and two Bronze Stars for his service in Afghanistan.

In August, the New York Times ran a piece headlined “How Biden Could Learn from Conor Lamb’s Victory in Trump Country.” There’s truth in that. But just as Mr. Biden is trying to put a moderate face on the Bernie Sanders/Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez platform he has embraced, Mr. Lamb has to defend himself against charges that he has moved left since taking his seat in Congress.

One year ago, well before the first votes in the Iowa caucuses had been cast, journalist Salena Zito—a co-author of “The Great Revolt: Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics”—predicted the Lamb-Parnell matchup would prove a “bellwether” race with national implications. “Democratic presidential candidates cannot win Pennsylvania without western Pennsylvanian support,” she wrote, “and they cannot win the presidency without Pennsylvania.”

The district, she points out, is a mix of left-leaning upper-middle-class suburbs such as Mt. Lebanon, with Beaver County’s union families and rural Butler County voters thrown in. The last poll, taken by On Message for the Parnell campaign, had Mr. Lamb up 45% to 44%. More recently Mr. Parnell announced he’d outraised Mr. Lamb for the second straight quarter.

Mr. Parnell calls his rival “Pelosi’s little Lamb.” During his televised appearance at the Republican convention in August, he also said the Democratic Party had “turned against” the people it used to represent, like his lifelong union Democrat grandfather. “I watched as Joe Biden spit venom at an auto worker who dared to question Joe’s intention to dismantle the Second Amendment and take your guns,” Mr. Parnell said.

Mr. Biden and Mr. Lamb are trying to have it both ways. Mr. Biden, for example, is running on policies that would make his administration far more progressive than Barack Obama’s—while insisting to Pennsylvania voters he’s a moderate.

Mr. Lamb faces a similar test. In his 2018 campaigns he pointedly avoided bashing President Trump, but once he landed in Washington he voted to impeach. Now he’s trying to appeal to seniors and suburbanites by presenting Mr. Parnell and the GOP as threatening ObamaCare and Social Security.

In an ad Mr. Parnell rattles off votes or positions he says give the lie to Mr. Lamb’s claim to be a moderate. These include Mr. Lamb’s vote against the Born Alive Act, his vote to block withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords, and the “F” rating he was given by the National Rifle Association. Still, the biggest issue is fracking.

Messrs. Lamb and Biden are both desperate to prove their moderate bona fides on fracking, which provides thousands of jobs in western Pennsylvania. After several contradictory statements, Mr. Biden now says categorically he opposes a ban on fracking and would ban only new oil-and-gas permits on federal lands. But that’s a minority view in his own party, with his running mate Kamala Harris on record as favoring a full ban.


When Rep. Ocasio-Cortez introduced a bill to ban fracking in February, Mr. Lamb complained. It seems to have worked. When Democrats announced their unity platform in July, there was no mention of a fracking ban. Even so, Mr. Biden and Mr. Lamb belong to a party whose goal—sometimes delayed but never reconsidered—remains to eliminate fossil fuels.

The question Pennsylvania voters have to ask themselves is this: Will Mr. Lamb and Mr. Biden’s opposition to a ban be enough to stop one—or will it merely postpone the inevitable? This is tied to the larger question whether the word “moderate” means anything in today’s Democratic Party.

Certainly Mr. Lamb is not where Ms. Ocasio-Cortez is, but neither is he quite the independent-minded moderate he’d like voters in the 17th District to believe. He remains favored to win re-election, and Mr. Biden may well carry the state. But Mr. Parnell’s showing so far suggests it wouldn’t be wise to bet the house on either.