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Red Dog Reality

The future isn't a unicorn. It's a platypus.
by Liam Kerr
March 11, 2021
Red Dog Reality
President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg meet with a bipartisan group of House members on infrastructure in the Oval Office of the White House March 4, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Oliver Contreras-Pool/Getty Images)

In the spring of 2012, the Indianapolis Colts let go of a wide-receiver named Anthony Gonzalez, who had been a first-round pick just a few years earlier. It was a bad end to a tough relationship and when his rookie deal ran out, the Colts let him walk into free agency. Actually, that’s not quite right: The Colts pushed him out the door and drafted another wideout, T.Y. Hilton, leaving Gonzalez without a spot on the roster.

I thought about Gonzalez when reading Tim Miller’s compelling argument about the Red Dogs: the trade Democrats and Republicans executed in which culturally conservative, working-class whites went to the GOP and Democrats picked up college-educated voters in major metropolitan suburbs. Because while the GOP has certainly picked up working-class whites, they didn’t really trade the college-graduate “Red Dogs” to the Democrats.

Because the idea of a trade suggests that both teams agreed to the swap.

Instead, what happened is that the Republican party let the Red Dogs walk. Or maybe the better analogy is that the Red Dogs were pushed out the door by the GOP which had its eye on another prospect. Kind of like future Congressman Anthony Gonzalez with the Colts.

Stop the Unicorn Talk. Focus on the Platypus.

As Bill Kristol laid out recently, there are compelling long-term discussions about building a new party or reforming the current Republican Party. But both a centrist third party and a pro-democracy GOP are unicorns: It’s easy to picture what they look like, but they’re the stuff of imagination.

The viable path to saving our democracy is more like a platypus: An animal which sounds ridiculous when you describe it—a tiny seal with a duck beak, webbed feet, and a bushy tail?—but is, in fact, quite real.

The path forward isn’t a unicorn versus alicorn debate—primary the Trumpists or start a “common sense” party—but a weird, unsettling platypus-like option: Having Democrats start to woo “future former Republicans.

Mayor Pete Was Serious. And So Was His Appeal.

Pete Buttigieg has the rare ability to create value where others see none. He leveraged the mayoralty of a small midwestern town into a main-event level presidential campaign. And he did it by backing progressive policies—a public option, court-packing, and the $15 minimum wage—with an explicit big-tent approach.

The heart of Buttigieg’s approach was that he preached the message that differences of opinion on one policy or another aren’t cause for a rupture. That the tone of politics need not always be aggressive. That people of different backgrounds can work together, rather than at odds with each other.

Also Buttigieg understood that while he had to build his political brand from scratch out of necessity, that empty white board also gave him an advantage. It allowed him to build a coalition based on addition, rather than subtraction. And that the very act of reaching out would not only bring new voters over but line supporters up behind him.

Buckeye in a Bind

Back to Anthony Gonzalez: The former football player is currently a Republican House member from Ohio’s 16th District. He’s a Republican in a relatively safe district who won his seat in 2018—which was a tough year to be a Republican. Gonzalez beat a Trumpy candidate in the primary by a wide margin and then won the general with 57 percent of the vote.

Gonzalez has improved his position in the district since then. In 2020, Gonzalez ran far ahead of Trump: Trump finished with 57 percent of the vote in the district; Gonzalez finished with 68 percent.

And following the January 6 insurrection, Gonzalez was one of ten House Republicans to stand up for democracy and vote to impeach Trump.

The upshot of which is that last week Donald Trump—who is, by universal acclimation, the leader of the Republican party—endorsed a primary challenger to Gonzalez, calling this candidate (a former White House aide) “a true PATRIOT.”

Meanwhile the former Ohio state GOP chair, now a leading candidate for U.S. Senate, called on Gonzalez to resign.

“He is of the delusional mindset that he can run for reelection again and win a primary,” said one grassroots leader in Gonzalez’s district.

It’s like 2012 Indianapolis, all over again.

What can Gonzalez do? He could try to fight it out inside a Republican party which clearly disdains him simply because of a single vote.

But the better question is, what can Democrats do?

There’s evidence of some party switching among Ohio voters. Gonzalez ran well ahead of Trump last year. And Democrats have effectively left the seat uncontested—the 2020 nominee spent $60,000.

Why wouldn’t the Democratic Party welcome him with open arms? Why wouldn’t they actively pursue him and let him have the ideological freedom you need in an Ohio district? Why wouldn’t they view him as a chance to add another Joe Manchin-type to their national majority? To paraphrase Matt Yglesias, if Republicans are a threat to democracy, then Democrats should act like it.

For Gonzalez, the math looks obvious: If he runs as a Republican, he would have to win more than 50 percent of Trump-worshipping primary voters. If he runs as a conservative Democrat, he would have to flip about 10 percent of Republican voters in the general election.

Neither task is easy. But one is significantly harder than the other.

And Gonzalez has a track record of adjusting to shifting terrain. As his NFL career was winding down, he applied to Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. Months after leaving football, he was off to greener pastures earning his MBA in Palo Alto.

Picking Your Team

In his Red Dogs piece, Tim Miller described what Democrats were getting from their “new teammates,” I’d like to offer a few enticements to the summarily dismissed free agents who are the Red Dogs.

(1) Breathe. You’re escaping a poisonous locker room with an aging, increasingly dyspeptic team.

  • Democrats won in 2020 because Biden ignored Twitter and didn’t allow the online left to run the party. If you’re currently on Trump’s Most Wanted list, a party led by the No Twitter guy should sound pretty good.
  • In elevating Buttigieg, nominating Biden, and basing their agenda around “what can Manchin vote for?” Democrats have shown they are more interested in attracting voters than in shrinking the party.

(2) Remember policy? There was a time when the two parties split over earnest policy disagreements. There was, in a time long ago in a universe far away, a Grand Bargain in the offing. Trump accelerated us into an era where politics is almost entirely about affect, personality, and cultural grievance.

  • Seriously, remember foreign policy? Biden does a lot of things Red Dogs might support. He is a product and a veteran of the Cold War and historians would have a devil of a time distinguishing his worldview from, say, George H.W. Bush’s.
  • “Infrastructure Week” became a running joke during the Trump presidency, a sort of winking acknowledgement that Trump would never focus on policy, particularly the kind that improves your lives and doesn’t drive Fox coverage. Biden actually wants to do infrastructure! And he has previously, overseeing the recovery program enacted in 2009 widely credited with playing a key role in restarting the post-Great Recession recovery.
  • And then there’s the Constitution, which Trump treated like one of his casinos: praise it, plunder it, then completely disregard it. Red Dogs like Gonzalez who respect the Constitution want a president who feels the same way.

(3) Progressives already think you’re here.

  • Worried that there aren’t any ‘Conservative Democrats’ anymore? Don’t be! Check out Twitter (just quickly, then go right back to ignoring it): the Online Left is already worried about conservative Democrats infiltrating the party. You’ll fit in fine.

(4) Know your value.

  • Joe Manchin is the most powerful senator in Washington. He’s the Democrat most Republicans would love to, and secretly at one point thought they might, get. And he’s the Democrat most Democrats are terrified of losing. He is lavished with attention and detested by the fringe of his own party.
  • That’s you, in the mirror! You’re the voters Republicans (or the ones who pay attention to wins and losses, anyway) are desperate to keep, and the ones Democrats (who pay attention to wins and losses) are intent on converting.
  • That makes you incredibly valuable. If one of the two major parties doesn’t recognize that, you should probably join the other one.

Red Rover, Red Rover, Come on Over

Here’s the thing. In a normal, functioning two-party system, both parties would be fighting over a candidate like Anthony Gonzalez, trying to outbid each other with inducements. Instead, Republicans have abandoned truth, lost their minds, and are now trying to kick proven winners like Gonzalez out.

Democrats should take advantage of this stupidity and make an all-out effort to bring these marginal Republicans onboard.

Constitution-minded Republicans swapping parties to run as conservative Democrats may sound like a small, politically awkward, and far-fetched path to saving our democracy.

But for Democrats in ‘Safe Republican’ districts and candidates like Anthony Gonzalez, it’s the best available move on the board.

Liam Kerr

Liam Kerr is a co-founder of The Welcome Party, which engages independent voters and advocates for a big-tent Democratic party, and @TheWelcomePAC, which supports centrist Democrats who can win over swing voters. Follow him @LiamKerr.