What Bernie Sanders Can Teach Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Cut deals. Don’t unnecessarily alienate your party. And get the most you can.

Last week, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, champion of the Green New Deal, suffered the humiliation of an overwhelming defeat dealt by her fellow House Democrats for a spot on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Also last week, Sen. Bernie Sanders led a successful battle to include direct payments for millions of Americans in the pandemic relief.

One socialist shaped one of the biggest pieces of legislation this year. The other socialist was denied the ability to shape environmental legislation for the next two years. What did one do right, and the other do wrong?

Neither socialist is known for their sociability. Sanders once admitted, “I’m not good at backslapping. I’m not good at pleasantries. If you have your birthday I’m not going to call you up to congratulate you so you’ll love me.” Famously crotchety, Sanders, though, doesn’t go as far as Ocasio-Cortez and encourage primary challenges against incumbent Democrats in his chamber.

Sanders is proving more influential than AOC because he grabbed on to a fresh issue with great political potential, while Ocasio-Cortez has spent the post-election period defending her signature positions even though they proved to be political liabilities.

Shortly after Election Day, Ocasio-Cortez pushed the selective data point that “Every single swing-seat House Democrat who endorsed #MedicareForAll won re-election or is on track to win re-election.” That ignores other facts. All of the challengers who endorsed Medicare for All lost their races.  The House Democrats with the five narrowest victories—the ones who get the party up to and over the 218-majority threshold—are not single-payer supporters. Nor are three Democratic challengers who successfully flipped seats. Most strikingly, single-payer supporter Kara Eastman lost the Nebraska 2nd congressional district contest by 4.6 percentage points, while single-payer opponent Joe Biden won it by 6.5 percentage points and snagged an Electoral College vote.

Ocasio-Cortez sought to affix blame on House moderates for running weak social media campaigns. Those moderates countered that the claim was an inaccurate attempt to deflect from the problems caused by her edgy positions such as “Defund the Police” and “Green New Deal,” the latter being particularly nettlesome for Democrats who lost in fossil fuel friendly areas, such as Texas Senate challenger MJ Hegar and Rep. Kendra Horn from Oklahoma’s 5th congressional district.

Sanders hasn’t abandoned any of his signature positions, but since the election, he hasn’t dwelled on them either. Instead, he championed direct payments which attracted bipartisan support in the initial round of pandemic relief. Turns out that sending government checks to most Americans is quite popular.

When direct payments were left out of the bipartisan proposal that jumpstarted negotiations this month, Sanders, along with Republican Sen. Josh Hawley, pledged to hold up consideration of any relief past Christmas unless the checks were included. Senate leaders recognized the issue was politically potent and didn’t want to be blamed for resisting it. Sanders and Hawley asked for $1200 checks for most individuals, then settled for half that, along with a shorter extension of unemployment assistance, in order to keep the centrists happy with the overall price tag.

So, Sanders wasn’t rigid about the particulars. He identified a popular issue. He leveraged his bully pulpit and power given to individual Senators under the chamber’s rules. He worked with members of the other party who agreed with him and members of both parties who didn’t, to reach a compromise.

After nearly 30 years in Congress, Sanders is well practiced at this sort of legislating. He and his supporters have long bragged about being dubbed the “Amendment King” by Rolling Stone, proof that the socialist was also a pragmatist.

Ocasio-Cortez has only two years in Congress but hasn’t yet shown an interest in being the Amendment Queen. Her reaction to the final relief bill, which was part of a heavily loaded omnibus bill, was outrage that such a package was being rushed to vote with only hours to review the details. She voted for it, but not before trashing the process on Twitter: “This isn’t governance. It’s hostage-taking.”

This is the role where Ocasio-Cortez is most comfortable: the outsider who managed to get inside, exposing how awful the system really is.  Such a posture is well suited for a movement politician hoping to upend the status quo, possibly by waging an insurgent campaign for president. But it is not the way to win plum committee assignments and shape legislation.

More importantly, progressives need more wins to refurbish their reputation after the mixed results of the 2020 election. Democratic moderates are far more inclined to distance themselves from progressive agitation. That won’t change so long as the progressive wing is defined by tainted slogans. The way to regain influence is with fresh proposals and to nimbly work the system. Sanders did it. AOC can, too.

Donate Now to the Washington Monthly and your gift will be doubled

Bill Scher

Bill Scher is the host of the history podcast "When America Worked" and the co-host of bipartisan online show and podcast "The DMZ"