Speaker Joseph Shekarchi has replaced Rep. Charlene Lima with Rep. Raymond Hull as Deputy Speaker, details of which Lima gave to the Globe in a tell-all interview that came out the day before it happened.
Lima’s explanation is that she’s a victim of “cancel culture” because she expressed her views, though the article lays out a litany of ways she’s been a pretty bad Democrat, and certainly an unreliable vote for the leadership she’s ostensibly supposed to be part of. Throughout the article, she seems to be at peace with all that.
It’s a pretty straightforward case for Lima’s removal though: she’s annoyed enough members of the caucus that she won’t be part of the leadership team. This is how a party works; indeed, this is how a party should work. Lose the confidence of your co-partisans, and you don’t get to be one of their leaders anymore. Certainly, you can’t annoy the guy who appoints you if you don’t have a base of supporters willing to go to bat for you.
This being part and parcel for managing a party, of course, didn’t stop Rhode Island Republicans from suggesting that this showed disfunction in the RI Democratic Party. The RIGOP account tweeted an anemic “Dems in Disarray” hashtag, but the Freedom Center and former House 21 candidate Marie Hopkins went with the more poetic “eating their own” framing.
Sometimes, less important than the actual facts is the narrative we tell about those facts, and to me, that’s what makes the GOP reactions more interesting that the Democratic reactions (which were mostly just expressions of schadenfreude).
The narrative the GOP wants to tell themselves (and us) here is that this is evidence of a growing extremism within the Democratic Party, the ousting of someone with unorthodox views from an increasingly ideologically stringent party. Hopkins even refers to the RI Democratic Party as “historically conservative” and calls for “real” Democrats to align with the Republicans.
This, of course, is unmoored from reality. While there are certainly conservative tendencies in the RI Democratic Party, they tend to go hand-in-hand with other liberal tendencies. For instance, the social conservatism of Catholic Democrats usually was paired with strong support for the welfare state and unionism; a number of such politicians persist. On the flip side, as liberal Republicans fled the GOP at the same time the New Democrats were coming along, they tended to pair social liberalism with a neoliberal approach to economic policy; these are the sorts of Democrats that will vote to protect abortion and also keep taxes low on the rich. Finally, you have folks who are entirely of the Blue Dog mindset, favoring both neoliberal economics and conservative social policy, who might be the most gettable, but are aligned with the Democrats in RI for reasons purely of political power.
A quick glance at the Democratic Party and the Lima situation might suggest the idea that they’re a mess, filled with incompatible strains of thought and political positions, but that misinterprets strength as weakness. The Party retains its ability to be all things to all people. Virtually all political activity in RI is organized under its banner. Even ostensibly “oppositional” groups like the RI Political Cooperative or the Providence DSA find it necessary to run as Democrats.
If Lima had the base of support within the House to lead a faction out of the Democrats and into cooperation with the Republicans, she wouldn’t be in this situation. But she doesn’t. We see this all the time with progressive factions and members who have caused trouble for leadership, and this is exactly what’s playing out here. An individual is going up against the weight of the Party, and losing.
Indeed, Republicans probably should be asking themselves why do Democratic politicians like Lima not defect or what it would take to get them to defect? The answer might be more illuminating on where they should focus their energies rather than spinning comforting yarns about Democratic infighting.