Convention Big Tents and the Democrats’ Madison Cawthorn Problem

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There’s a lot of hand-wringing this month (and always) about “big-tent” politics in the Democratic Party and whether that means expanding leftward or rightward. But the RNC lineup this week showcases one way in which they are lightyears ahead of the Democratic Party in terms of how they handle this question.

This administration is on its fourth chief of staff, Mark Meadows. Meadows had been the chair of the Freedom Caucus and represented deep-red NC-11 in the House.

Although Democrats have performed extremely well in elections replacing administration appointees (such as with Doug Jones in Alabama), this seat is redder than that one. Everybody has assumed that the winner of the Republican primary will win the seat.

And Lynda Bennett started with the inside track. She received over $500,000 in support from Freedom Caucus–related PACs before the March 3 primary and ultimately received an endorsement from Meadows himself. She won the primary, but not by enough to avoid a runoff.

The runoff was delayed by COVID-19 until June 23, by which point Bennett had not only received more fundraising but also additional endorsements from Ted Cruz, Possible Sexual Abuser Jim Jordan, and Trump himself.

But Bennett…lost. And she lost by a huge margin, nearly 2-to-1. Even a Trump-recorded robocall couldn’t keep Bennett competitive in the district.

But the national news tuned in not because of Bennett, but because of her opponent: Madison Cawthorn.

Cawthorn was still 24 at the time of his runoff win, which means he’ll be one of the youngest members of Congress ever. And at first, the mainstream media breathlessly reported the compelling story he spun about his life without fact-checking it even a little bit.

Now, in the meantime, Cawthorn’s facade has started to crack. He embellished his bio to make it seem like a car accident led to his rejection from the Naval Academy. Instead, he’d already been rejected when the car crash happened, then attending one semester of college and earning mostly Ds.

Cawthorn’s claim of being a “real estate investor” has also been questioned, given that his holding company owns one property, has only one employee (himself), and is named after a white nationalist code word.

On top of everything, Cawthorn posted and then deleted a suspiciously enthusiastic social media post about visiting Hitler’s WWII retreat, referring to him as “the Führer” in the post.

And in the last few days, numerous allegations have surfaced of Cawthorn being sexually inappropriate toward women over the course of the last several years.

All this to say that Cawthorn is clearly from the more extreme end of even today’s Republican Party. This is further supported by the fact that he followed exactly 88 people on Twitter, another white nationalist code, until people called him out on it.

So what has the Republican Party done about this? Well, they’ve booked him for a speaking slot at the convention on Wednesday night. They’ve recognized that Cawthorn’s bio, his image, and even his scandals are red meat for their base.

The more motivated base has won the last 4 presidential elections. So the RNC strategy to cater to their base is a shrewd move.

Indeed, their convention has only a couple people who could plausibly even be called “centrists” in the speaking lineup.

Democratic establishment types may consider this a political misstep. But we don’t even have any data to back that position up. Consider the case of Jamaal Bowman.

Bowman, a former educator who supports the Green New Deal, reparations, M4A, and free college, challenged Eliot Engel, a 16-term incumbent in Westchester. Bowman’s battle was uphill from the start: he first had to deal with the vendor blacklist, which gives the DCCC the power to blacklist any campaign vendor who works with a candidate attempting to primary an incumbent.

Bowman, despite an endorsement from the New York Times, watched as sitting members of Congress all lined up behind Engel in the weeks before the primary, with varying levels of graphic design.

But on primary night, Bowman crushed Engel, ultimately winning by 15 points. He and Cori Bush, along with Mondaire Jones, Richie Torres, and others, are the next wave of young progressives of color building on the work of the Squad, all of whom will be reelected despite some spirited primary challenges.

Here’s the thing: Could you imagine the Democratic Party inviting Bowman to be a featured speaker at the DNC? Even among folks who are plausibly to the left of Bowman, this isn’t even something within the realm of request. We’re still asking for proportional time for the long-serving leftist politicians we have.

Well, Bowman is too new, you might say. But Cawthorn and Bowman’s primaries were on the same day, June 23. Cawthorn is equally new.

Well, Cawthorn is a rare breed, you might say, in that he’s a young Republican face. And it is true that most younger politicians on the national stage are Democrats, but very few of those were invited to speak at the DNC as well.

Well, Bowman was fighting the establishment in his primary, you might say. But so was Cawthorn. Again: Trump recorded a robocall in support of his runoff opponent.

Instead of Bowman, we got John Kasich, who spent his entire speech arguing that the left wing of the Democratic Party was the secondary (or even primary) evil that Joe Biden would defeat.

What is a member of the progressive base supposed to think about a party that doesn’t recognize the Jamaal Bowmans and the Cori Bushes in its ranks at a convention that was hellbent on drifting into the center?

The most charitable answer I can come up with is that the party is scared. Scared to try something new. Scared to give up a suburban base that is already prepared to abandon them once orange man gone. Scared to acknowledge that the game has changed, no matter how clear their surface-level hold on the party may be.

But fear is no way to make policy, or to wage politics.

Is the party really scared of the possibility of losing crossover votes because somebody like Jamaal Bowman gets a 5-minute speaking slot in the middle of a convention?

Maybe. But that would be unreasonable.

The Republicans have catered to the most extreme elements of their base at most times over the last 40 years, and they have 10 of the last 14 Supreme Court appointees to show for it. It’s long past time for Democrats to recognize the electoral value of doing the same.

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