02 Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez  0626
CNN  — 

Less than a week after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s shocking Democratic primary victory over New York’s Rep. Joe Crowley, the party is still grappling with What It All Means. The initial reaction has been a knee-jerk move to the left by a handful of potential 2020 candidates. But is a continuous move leftward sustainable for a party that, at the moment, is shut out of the levers of power in Congress and the White House?

We discussed just that in an email exchange on Monday. Below is the conversation, edited only for flow.

Chris: Six days ago, very few people outside of the Bronx and Queens knew who Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez even was. On Sunday, she was on “Meet the Press” answering questions about whether she is the future of the Democratic Party.

Thinking back, I am struggling to remember anyone who went from unknown to ubiquitous in such a short period of time in the world of politics. (Please correct me if I’m wrong – and I know you will.)

I have SO many questions about what AOC’s win (and, yes, I’m referring to her as AOC occasionally because it’s too long a name to write out over and over) means – both for her and the party. In her interview with Chuck on MTP yesterday, she rejected the idea put forward by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi that this was just a one-off in a single district. “Well, I think that there are a lot of districts in this country that are like New York 14, that have changed a lot in the last 20 years and whose representation has not,” Ocasio-Cortez responded.

Let’s start here: Is she right? Is the Democratic Party out of step with its base?

Harry: It’s so hot out. I can’t believe your mind didn’t jump to ice cream.

But it’s difficult to remember such an overnight sensation. I guess Obama was to an extent in 2004, though even then. …

I guess the definition is what is the base? Ocasio-Cortez was inspired to go into politics because of Bernie Sanders. The thing is that Sanders lost the Democratic primary in 2016. It wasn’t particularly close; in New York 14, Sanders lost as well.

Here’s another thought: There has been a grand total of one incumbent defeated in a primary so far on the Democratic side. Just one. That was Crowley.

If the party was really out of line with the base, wouldn’t we expect to see more incumbents go down to defeat?


Chris: All of my ice cream melted. Sad!

OK, I love this thought. Because I think what we forget – the royal “we,” that is – is that both AOC and Bernie aren’t Democrats! They are Democratic Socialists!

I know they caucus with Democrats and share a lot of the same views. But how much of the Democratic base identifies more closely with the tenets of Democratic Socialism?

This is not, to my mind, a philosophical discussion. It’s a practical one too. If the party base is more in line with Democratic Socialist views than traditional Democratic establishment views, what does that tell us about what sort of candidate has a leg up in 2020?

Harry: Remember that ice cream of the future? Dippin’ Dots?

Anyway, yes, Bernie Sanders is not a Democrat. Ocasio-Cortez has at least won a Democratic primary to be the general election nominee on the Democratic line.

Let’s talk about a few things here. If you look at DW-nominate scores (which put members of Congress on a -1, most liberal, to +1, most conservative, scale) and compare them to the presidential lean of the district, Crowley was a little more moderate than you might expect someone to be from a district that voted for Clinton in as large of numbers in the 2016 general election.

And that’s sort of the point, right? You can have more progressive (or liberal) candidates representing more pro-Democratic areas. Meanwhile, you can have more moderate candidates representing more swing areas.

As for 2020, what does Ocasio-Cortez represent? She is: 1. More liberal than Democrats have been. 2. Younger than Crowley or Clinton. 3. More independent than either (i.e. less in line with the Democratic establishment). 4. She’s a woman in the year of the women. 5. She’s a Latina, and most of the Democratic establishment is white.

I don’t know if that tells us that someone matching these will win in 2020, but it’s something to think about. Right?

Chris: Yes to all those points.

As for what it means for 2020, I am absolutely fixated on how calls to abolish ICE (US Immigration and Customs Enforcement) appear to be catching on after Ocasio-Cortez’s win. (She called for abolishing ICE during the campaign.) New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who’d basically already been running for president, came out in support of getting rid of ICE. So has Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.). And Sen. Kamala Harris (Calif.) is calling for a broad-scale reform of the agency.

That seems to me to be a remarkable thing – especially since ICE is not the agency tasked with separating families at the border. And I think the focus on abolishing ICE creates a BIG opening for Republicans – Trump is already doing this – to cast Democrats as massive liberals who want to get rid of law and order.

Am I wrong?

Harry: I think what you’re seeing are senators who represent the left flank of the party getting pulled even more to the left. Take a look at how often each of the senators you mentioned voted with the party. They’re all 15% of the time or less. These are the liberal/progressive members of the more liberal party.

Sens. Dick Blumenthal (Conn.) and Tammy Duckworth (Ill.) are more toward the center of the party. They are liberal in the large sense. They are calling for reforming ICE.

I think Trump would love to make this discussion about getting rid of ICE, as opposed to reforming it. The discussion that has taken place so far has mostly been about how poorly Trump has been treating children. If abolishing ICE is the answer, then he could argue that Democrats don’t want any border security at all.

One thing that’s interesting to me is I’m not sure Harris or Gillibrand are going to win over the Ocasio-Cortez crowd with this stuff. That comes back to the fact that Ocasio-Cortez doesn’t represent just one thing (e.g. being more progressive). She represents lots of things.

A candidate who represents some of what Ocasio-Cortez does represent while also nodding to the other parts of the party is the one who is likely to be most successful in 2020.

P.S. I’ll note a lot of this conversation has revolved around white liberals and Hispanics. Very little talk (outside of Harris) of what black Democrats think of all of this.

Chris: Speaking of which: I thought this was a TOTALLY illuminating comment from Louisiana Rep. Cedric Richmond aka the head of the Congressional Black Caucus: “Bernie is fighting for his principles on what direction the party should go but we don’t really have anybody doing it on behalf of moderates and other Democrats. It has become a one-sided conversation.”

That was in this TERRIFIC New York Times piece on Democrats’ conundrum about whether to fully embrace the left of the left or try to land somewhere between liberal and moderate on the spectrum. It feels to me that Richmond is 100% right – it IS a one-sided conversation. Trump has radicalized the Democratic base to the point where any sort of talk of compromise with any Republican is seen as heresy within the Democratic base. And anger is the emotion of the day. “If you aren’t angry, you aren’t paying attention” seems to be the Democratic motto these days.

I think anger could well be enough for Democrats in 2018, given what we know about the history of midterm elections for the party in the White House. But will anger and left-of-left liberalism be a recipe for success?

Harry: EXACTLY. African-Americans tend to be more moderate than others within the Democratic Party. They make up about one-fifth to one-fourth of the base, and they tend to vote in blocs. Remember what happened when Bernie was struggling with black voters in the South? That was the end of his campaign.

Looking at that article, you’ll notice talk about stuff like superdelegates. You know who loved superdelegates? G.K. Butterfield, who led the CBC. Black voters tend to be people who have been part of the Democratic Party for a long time. They aren’t “independents” who lean towards the Democratic Party.

Anger should be enough in the midterms, I would think. But there’s definitely a struggle brewing within the party.

Here’s one reason for me to think that someone on the far left can win the nomination in 2020. Parties tend to nominate more moderate candidates the longer they have been out of the White House (think Bill Clinton in 1992). They tend to nominate their more extreme candidates the shorter they have been out of the White House (think Ronald Reagan in 1980).

Of course, winning a primary is different than winning a general election.

That, my friend, will probably have a lot to do with the economy. And for that, I’m watching the yield curve.