Freshman New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is the subject of the cover story of this week’s Time magazine. In the piece about AOC, Joel Benenson, a Democratic pollster who polled for President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, is quoted in the story as casting a somewhat skeptical eye about those Democrats who view AOC’s success as a blueprint for the broader party’s future. “America isn’t her district,” Benenson told Time.
That quote intrigued me. I reached out to Benenson to talk about it as well as his broader thoughts on AOC and how she fits into where the Democratic Party is heading. Our conversation, conducted via email and lightly edited for flow, is below.
Cillizza: You said this about AOC: “America isn’t her district.” Can you explain what you meant?
Benenson: First, let me be clear that AOC is an incredible talent and a strong addition to the Democratic majority in the House. I think every member should watch videos of her questioning witnesses in hearings and they would all learn how to force witnesses to answer their questions instead of using all the time to speechify before putting a clear question to witnesses.
What I mean by that comment is that AOC’s district is rated a +29 Democratic district by the Cook Report, which I consider the best analysis of the congressional playing field. This takes nothing away from AOC: she ran a brilliant primary campaign to defeat one of the highest-ranking Democrats in the House. She out-hustled him, out-campaigned him and deserved to win that primary and her district.
The point about “America isn’t her district,” is simply this. Politically we are a far more centrist country than +29 D on a partisan index, and that this whole notion of the Democratic Party being caught in a major rift that is pulling it too far left is hogwash. The party that prevails in “national” elections is typically the party that wins the center – the moderates and/or independents – because neither Democrats or Republicans constitute a majority. The media obsession about whether the Democrats are being pulled too far left isn’t even the right question, when since 2000, Democrats have won the popular vote in four of five presidential elections, when we have won moderates in seven of the nine elections (including midterms) in this century. And that’s because voters in the middle are more aligned with Democrats on economic issues from health care, to minimum wage, to opposing taxes on corporations and the super wealthy, on taking action to combat climate change.
Cillizza: Your quote came in a Time cover story about AOC. Is it a good thing for the broader Democratic Party that she has received so much attention?
Benenson: Absolutely. Look, she is extremely intelligent, she is prepared and she is extremely charismatic. And the fact that she is a thorn in the Republicans’ side and takes them on with a smile (note: see her dancing video) shows a politician who knows who she is and what she’s in Congress to do.
The fact that she doesn’t get rattled shows a political confidence that is greater than her experience in public office and that means she is going to be a force for change and progress within the Democratic Party, but more importantly on behalf of hardworking people who have been left behind or forgotten, who simply want a fair shake and equal shot to get ahead. AOC, like the Democratic Party today, is a strong voice fighting for people who are working hard to get ahead and a strong voice against the corporations and the super wealthy that are currently the top two constituents every day.
Moreover, AOC represents the future. Her energy, her communications style, her positions are largely where the majority of voters in this country want the country to go. The face of the future in the GOP was supposed to be Paul Ryan, the policy wonder of the party, who decided to quit when he was Speaker of the House. Who does that? Only someone who sees the future and knows he’s not it.
Cillizza: Lots of 2020 Democrats – Warren, Sanders, Gillibrand, Booker – have adopted parts of the AOC agenda, most notably the Green New Deal. Is that a mistake vis a vis running against Trump next year?
Benenson: Absolutely not. Here’s why: in 2020 the debate will be more about which candidate and which party believes that the United States must take action to deal with climate change, which is hitting communities hard with horrendous devastation wiping out farms, homes, communities in the Midwest as dams can’t contain the aftermath of a heavy storm.
This isn’t a close call for the American public. A December Wall Street Journal/NBC poll showed 65% of Americans believe some action is need to combat climate change, including 45% who said we need “immediate action,” which is the highest that number has been since they started asking that question in 1999. And in 2017, a year earlier, those calling for immediate action was just 39%.
There is only one party in America right now that denies the science behind climate change, that believes we don’t need to curtail carbon pollution and that is wedded to the fossil fuels instead of jumpstarting new investments in renewable energy such as solar and wind, which Americans want. Work I’ve done over the years shows that people in coal country know those jobs aren’t coming back and so whether its components of the Green New Deal or creating Clean Energy Enterprise Zones to build plants to manufacture windmills and solar panels in some of the rural, economically distressed areas, the future is going to be built by next generation of energy not the old one, and by the party that is committed to creating a better future for American families instead of clinging to the past.
Cillizza: How much danger is there for Democrats to be so closely associated with democratic socialists like Sanders and AOC?
Benenson: I have to scoff at the obsession about all the Democratic struggles with this group or that group. How about this: The party that has the biggest problem in America today is the Republican Party, because they have a problem with a group that is 50% of the electorate: Women. Republicans lost women by 19 points in the national house vote in 2018. If you want to talk about electoral “dangers,” that’s the most prominent one on the horizon and too little attention is being paid to that in the political press today from my vantage point.
The Democratic Party is much larger than any one or two individuals and we have a long way to go until we choose a nominee and the party will be more defined by the man or woman who earns that nomination than any of the other players. But again – I would caution the media to not buy into a Republican narrative that is trying to paint the Democratic nominee into something he or she isn’t. We gained in the midterms in which the trend in our primaries was that where candidates who carved out paths to speak to both progressive voters and moderate voters about their economic lives, about fairness for working people instead of giving massive tax breaks to big corporations that used most of the money to buy back stocks, not invest in their workforce.
Lastly, the Democratic Party won moderate voters in the 2018 midterm vote for the House by 66% to 32%, according to the exit polls. You tell me which party is suffering more by its associations. I say it is the Republican Party and its ties to the extreme conservative right wing and to the giant corporations that control their economic agenda to serve their own interests, not the peoples’ interest.
Cillizza: Finish this sentence: “The best thing AOC can do for the Democratic Party between now and the 2020 election is ________.” Now, explain.
Benenson: “Keep doing what she’s doing.”
Look, I don’t have to love everything AOC does or says, but my advice to her would be the same advice the great ballplayer Ted Williams had for baseball players: “Don’t let anyone monkey with your swing.” When you’re good enough to get to the major leagues, which AOC definitely is, she has so much raw talent and intelligence at 29, she is only going to get better and stronger – so why should she monkey with her swing?
My bet is that if she makes mistakes, and she will like everyone else does, she’ll recognize them, and won’t make them again. I believe she is astute enough to recognize what works and what will help her to achieve her goals. And if she does that, she’s headed for a great career.