Jon Tester is What a Red State Democrat Should Sound Like

Less than six months into the Biden administration, Democrats have hit a rough patch. A small contingent of moderate senators is making it difficult to pass legislation. Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema are the main culprits. They believe the filibuster is necessary to protect American democracy (it’s not) and that Democrats need to work across the aisle with Republicans (they don’t). And even though those two take the heat, there are other moderate Dems who who agree with them.

But it sure sounds like Jon Tester isn’t one of them.

Tester is a senator from Montana, which, like Manchin’s West Virginia, is an exceedingly red state. Donald Trump won the state by 20 and 16 percent in 2016 and 2020 respectively. Tester toes that line with moderate sensibilities—he’s even a member of the “ModSquad,” a moderate Democrats PAC (Manchin is, too). When it comes to votes, he skews to the right of virtually every Democratic member of Congress (and some Republicans). Just a few months ago he told constituents he planned to uphold the filibuster. But last night on MSNBC, Tester appeared to change his tune somewhat.

To be clear, Tester didn’t abandon or betray his moderate sensibilities. He made a point of saying repeatedly that he prefers to work with Republicans to pass major legislation. But he also repeated a line he delivered back in March: “I didn’t [come] to Washington, D.C. to do nothing.” He noted that “folks have weaponized the filibuster,” said lawmakers from both parties should support investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection, and that he “doesn’t get” why Republicans are pushing to restrict voting rights. Above all, though, Tester’s main sentiment was simple: there’s critical legislation on the table, and Democrats need to get things done.

That’s exactly what a moderate Democrat from a red state should sound like.

It’s worth preaching caution here. Tester didn’t commit to abolishing the filibuster. He was careful not to call out Republicans specifically, using phrases like “bipartisan” and “folks across the aisle.” And lawmakers of all stripes call out Washington’s gridlock by saying things need to get done. He’s not breaking new ground there.

But Tester is at least passively committing to Democratic legislative goals here. Manchin and Sinema have said some of the right things before only to backtrack or openly come out against the party. To be fair, Tester could be doing the same. His words only matter if he’s able (and actually committed) to moving some of his fellow moderates. It’s all hypothetical until something real comes of it. But it’s miles better than penning a dumb op-ed about defending the filibuster or shelling out some bogus answer about protecting democracy. Exacerbated frustration isn’t an original shtick in D.C., when your fellow moderates are performative self-defeating hacks, gridlock-related exasperation reads as almost genuine.

Will anything come of Tester’s words Wednesday? If you were betting on it, probably best to stick with “no.” But it at least shows there’s a little room to move for moderate Democrats, at least rhetorically. And way less stupid ways for them to express that they don’t really want to get anything done.

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