the city politic

AOC’s Warning for Democrats: ‘We’re in Trouble’

Photo: Mark Peterson/Redux

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez thinks President Biden got played by Senator Joe Manchin — and that the president’s nostalgia for a bygone era of backroom dealmaking could prove disastrous for Democrats in the midterms.

Sitting in her campaign office, she says this matter-of-factly, as if bucking the explicit orders of her party’s leaders — up to and including the president of the United States — is not that big of a deal. But it is.

“As a younger member of Congress, the first vote I ever cast was for Barack Obama, who was called a socialist and all of this stuff. All of this rhetoric that we see today has been the political reality my entire life. And so I never felt a nostalgia for something that never existed in my lifetime,” she told me. “I feel like our politics has fundamentally changed — whether it’s for better or for worse is for people’s determination — but I was never under the illusion that we can bring Manchin along.”

Ocasio-Cortez was one one of only six Democrats (including Representative Jamaal Bowman of the Bronx) — to vote against Biden’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill last November. She reasoned — correctly, it turned out — that severing the infrastructure spending from Biden’s much larger Build Back Better proposal would allow the bigger bill to be killed, in the closely divided Senate, by the defection of two conservative Democratic senators, Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema.

“I have the utmost respect and confidence in the president, but I just felt like we called two different plays on this one,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “I think that there is a sense among more senior members of Congress, who have been around in different political times, that we can get back to this time of buddy-buddy and backslapping and we’ll cut a deal and go into a room with some bourbon and some smoke and you’ll come out and work something out. I think there’s a real nostalgia and belief that that time still exists or that we can get back to that.”

But those days, she says, have been over for a long time. And the fact that Biden and others don’t realize it, she says, could spell disaster in the fall’s elections. With Biden’s low approval numbers and the historic tendency of the president’s party to lose, on average, 26 House seats in the midterms, the Democrats face an uphill battle to keep control of Congress — a situation that requires firing up the party’s progressive base, Ocasio-Cortez said.

“We need to acknowledge that this isn’t just about middle of the road, an increasingly narrow band of independent voters. This is really about the collapse of support among young people, among the Democratic base, who are feeling that they worked overtime to get this president elected and aren’t necessarily being seen,” she said.

Ocasio-Cortez and the other 97 members of the House Progressive Caucus are calling on Biden to issue executive orders to enact environmental protections, lower health-care costs, cancel federal student-loan debts, and expand protections for immigrants.

“If the president does pursue and start to govern decisively using executive action and other tools at his disposal, I think we’re in the game,” she said. “But if we decide to just kind of sit back for the rest of the year and not change people’s lives — yeah, I do think we’re in trouble. So I don’t think that it’s set in stone. I think that we can determine our destiny here.”

Ocasio-Cortez isn’t always at odds with senior Democrats, pointing to a law she got passed with help from Senator Chuck Schumer.

“I worked with some of our organizers out in East Elmhurst, and we created the largest-ever federal funeral-assistance program for COVID-19. And so I was able to author an $8 billion FEMA program. Now, every single person in the United States who loses a loved one due to COVID-19, can get completely reimbursed for funeral expenses and laying their loved ones to rest. That started with community organizers in East Elmhurst. It was picked up by myself and my office, Senator Schumer supported us in that effort, and it to date is the largest funeral-assistance program in history.”

Locally, Ocasio-Cortez is steadily remaking the mainstream of Democratic politics in her own image: younger, more diverse and digital, and more willing to break with tradition.

“We stay organizing all-year-round,” she told followers in a video last December that ticked off a list of bills she had sponsored, constituents she had helped, and community campaigns she had launched or supported in 2021, a nonelection year. She and her staff handed out turkeys, ran a tutoring program for kids, stood with taxi drivers holding a hunger strike, trained tenant organizers, knocked on thousands of doors in support of the Green New Deal, and so on.

The message was pushed out through Ocasio-Cortez’s formidable social-media operation, which has nearly 13 million followers on Twitter and 8.5 million on Instagram.

Ocasio-Cortez began 2022 with more than $6 million on hand in her campaign account; her closest challenger, a Republican, had just over $54,000. “Even though some would argue that it’s not necessary to run a fully fledged campaign, I think, especially the way that I came into office, it’s really important that we do a full-court mobilization, no matter what’s going on,” she said — a reference to her below-the-radar first campaign, which toppled incumbent Joe Crowley in 2018.

Lots of politicians are trying to imitate Ocasio-Cortez’s success — right down to copying the distinctive logo of her first campaign poster — but few, even among progressives, have been willing to do what she has to support a growing number of local and state officials, especially in Latino neighborhoods.

“I think it’s really disgraceful, frankly, the lack of Latino representation. And the thing is that this isn’t just about identity representation, it’s also about issue representation. Frankly, even with the mayor, some of his Latino appointments have been homophobic and have been unrepresentative of the interests of our broader community. Even on the state level, there is an enormous dearth of real representation of people fighting for Latinos,” she told me. “I have endorsed and invested in, I believe, 19 city council candidates that won their races this past cycle. So a lot of the work that I’m investing in is building our bench and also organizing our voters and our communities around the issues that are important to us.”

Through Courage to Change, a political action committee, Ocasio-Cortez supported 15 of the new council’s 51 members who took the Courage to Change pledge, a set of promises to adopt a progressive agenda that include advancing pro-worker policies, supporting environmental justice, refusing donations from real estate, fossil fuel and corporate interests, and championing community-based public-safety strategies.

Ocasio-Cortez has a mixed record on citywide endorsements. She whiffed on the main event by endorsing Maya Wiley for mayor, with primary returns showing that the slice of the electorate she most cares about — working families in communities of color — went in a very different direction by choosing Eric Adams. But she scored a bull’s-eye by backing Brad Lander, the new city comptroller, who has already begun pushing progressive policies like the Green New Deal law that mandates ambitious antipollution standards for city buildings.

In nearly every aspect of politics that matters — re-election itself, fundraising ability, grooming younger politicians, staying in the national spotlight — Ocasio-Cortez is considerably more powerful now than when she exploded onto the scene in 2018. Should that trend continue, imagine what things will look like if Ocasio-Cortez remains in Congress until she reaches the average age of a member of the House: 57 years old.

That would happen in the year 2046. And by then, her seemingly fight-the-power thinking, style, and positions could well be the norm in New York politics. Don’t say you didn’t see it coming.

AOC’s Warning for Democrats: ‘We’re in Trouble’