The Lies Underpinning the Centrist Pushback Against Ocasio-Cortez

The Washington Post is carrying a story today about a centrist Democrat pushback against Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other progressive Democrats. The piece is replete with the usual bromides we’ve come to expect from such things: handwringing over the “Tea Party of the left,” purported fears about primary challenges to Democrats in tough districts, furrowed-brow quotes from the fraudulent think tank Third Way, and the usual condescending Sorkinisms pretending that progressives merely posture for the cameras while centrists really get things done. The last quote puts the rotting cherry atop the unappetizing sundae:

In the House, moderates like Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.) have been speaking up more about the merits of their approach, which tends to attract smaller audiences on Instagram and Twitter.

“There are a lot of people that suck up a lot of oxygen,” Schrader said. “And then there’s the people that do the work. . . . We’re the ones who actually govern and make things happen. And I think we’re content with that.”

Every last assumption in the article is wrong. So let’s take it apart piece by piece.

1) There is no “Tea Party of the left.”

The modern conservative Tea Party has no remote parallels on the left. The conservative tea party began its existence as a Wall Street trader’s angry rant on Fox News about the horror of being asked to help bail out (mostly minority) homeowners undergoing foreclosure, then quickly morphed into a millionaire-funded group of septuagenarians in tri-corner hats protesting against “socialist healthcare” and big government deficit spending–a principle they immediately forgot as soon as a Republican was back in the White House.

The defining characteristic of the Tea Party isn’t a courageous commitment to a set of principles, but rather the lack thereof. Also central to the conservative Tea Party: big support from dark money sources and a penchant for deeply unpopular legislation. None of these characteristics define the progressive left.

The positions of the progressive left, from the Green New Deal to Medicare for All to 70 percent marginal tax rates on the wealthy, are highly popular, including among independents. It’s not the actual persuadable voters in purple districts who are nervous about these stances: it’s corporate donors. And the reality is that, in a hyperpartisan environment, the political cost of acquiescing to those donors’ demands is higher than the value of receiving their money.

What the centrist wing of the party means when they talk about a “Tea Party of the left” is a group of legislators who won’t take no for an answer when it comes to passing popular priorities the Democratic base has been advocating for well over a decade. And indeed that is true. But that’s a good thing. In no way does it parallel the dark-money interest group flood that drenches a deeply unpopular movement on the right.

2) The progressive left isn’t costing the party seats in tough districts.

The entire moderate wing of the Democratic Party let out a collective gasp when reports came out that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was backing Justice Democrats in its efforts to primary challenge corrupt and and intransigent Democrats. Yesterday saw another kerfuffle in which moderate Democrats took ill-advised votes to empower ICE agents in gun safety legislation, upon which an Ocasio-Cortez spokesperson noted they were “putting themselves on a list.” Ocasio-Cortez herself later clarified on Twitter that that simply meant they would become targets of the GOP and progressive groups, not direct primaries.

Realistically, however, progressives and progressive groups are not targeting and will not target vulnerable Democrats in tough districts for primary challenges. It’s worth noting that the conservative movement largely doesn’t target their own Republican legislators in tough districts, either.

On the left, the most notable and high profile primary challenges to sitting incumbents have all been in deep blue, very safe territory. The most famous of these include the 2006 senate race between Ned Lamont and Joe Lieberman in Connecticut; Tim Canova’s ill-fated Florida challenge to Debbie Wasserman-Schultz in 2016; Kevin De Leon’s insurgent campaign against senator Dianne Feinstein in California; and, of course, Ocasio-Cortez’s own victory against Joe Crowley last year.

There have been many other high-profile Democratic primary battles, like between moderate Ralph Northam and progressive Tom Perriello in Virginia (where, as with Feinstein in California, Democrats have paid the price in recent weeks for picking the centrist against the better judgment of younger, more clued-in progressive voters in the state.) But these are not primaries of Democratic incumbents. By and large, the progressive movement was entirely on board with moderates like Jon Ossoff or Alabama Senate candidate Doug Jones. Few are seriously talking about primary challenging senators Joe Manchin or Jon Tester in West Virginia or Montana, respectively–and for good reason.

But Democrats in safe states and districts who vote far too conservatively for their liberal constituents should be made to fear a primary challenge. It costs the party nothing in battleground districts, and it helps win over a broad range of disaffected voters who feel that foo many of the party’s candidates do not reflect their interests. If nothing else, it helps keep them on their toes: for the better part of a year,  Feinstein started acting like a progressive, recanting her lifetime support for the death penalty. Of course, after she won she went back to her usual ways by dissing young climate change activists and their hopes for curbing climate change in the next decade–but that only demonstrates the value of primary challenges in safe seats.  The more voter accountability, the better.

3) Centrists don’t actually get things done.

Probably the most annoying, frequently repeated shibboleth in the Post article is the notion that centrists make for more effective legislators than progressives. This is not the case by any quantifiable metric. In fact, centrist involvement has historically proved catastrophic for Democratic priorities. The most recent notable case was when Max Baucus was allowed to dither with the Affordable Care Act for months in search of bipartisan and business group support. That dilatory measure was not only counterproductive, it cost Senator Ted Kennedy his chance to vote on the landmark legislation. Meanwhile, Joe Lieberman (who, it must be noted, was endorsed by almost the entire Democratic establishment in his own primary battle against Ned Lamont) singlehandedly killed the initiative to allow the Medicare age to be reduced to the age of 50. It was not the progressives who harmed the Affordable Care Act in its march to passage; it was the centrists.

Time and time again, the Third Way wing pretends that by being conciliatory enough with Republicans, Democrats can get votes from across the aisle to pass necessary legislation. This is a fantasy, a pipe dream far more far fetched than any progressive wish list. Progressives start with the understanding that Republicans will automatically blockade anything decent, then figure out what will be legislatively required to accomplish the necessary goals. It is worse than useless to start by trying to figure out what kind of compromise a bipartisan majority will accept. In fact, weakened platforms and confused messaging, which result from such an approach, end up doing more harm than good. As I argued yesterday at The American Prospect:

It’s not that progressives don’t understand the legislative constraints Feinstein always foregrounds. They know the Green New Deal framework can’t pass the Senate under the current system. They’re not stupid.

What progressives are doing is laying down the marker that if this system won’t allow the Green New Deal to be enacted, they will change the system until it does—whatever it takes. If that means eliminating the filibuster? So be it. Need to add states to the union? Go for it. Term limits for justices or packing courts? Sign them up.

This might seem like fantastical thinking, but it actually carries a greater dose of realism about both the current political situation and about the opposition in the Republican Party…

Any “solution” that would realistically get the vote of even a single Republican senator wouldn’t come close to doing what the moment actually requires. Which means that progressives don’t care what the center-left thinks it might be able to pass, because that’s ultimately irrelevant. Progressives are saying what is necessary, and then determining just how far they’ll need to go to get there. And not just to deal with climate change, but also radical inequality, the destruction of the middle class, and much more besides.

The one exception to this rule is budget negotiations. But even there, as well, the Trump Administration has made it clear that every battle will be fought to the hilt, including with government shutdowns. Which means that the steelier and hard-edged Democratic negotiators are, the better equipped they are to deal with an opponent whose strategy is to bluff big on every hand.

In the end, all of these arguments–from the “we-get-things-done” canard to the “they’re-sabotaging-our-electoral-efforts” lie to the “Tea-Party-of-the-left” yarn–are tired and lacking in credibility.

There is a reason that almost every major presidential candidate in the Democratic field is running as a progressive. They’re not stupid, and neither are their pollsters. They can see what both the Democratic base and the persuadable General Election voters want. And it’s not what the centrists are selling.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.