AOC’s Weird Flex

The New York congresswoman wants to prove that progressives have major sway in Washington when they use hardball tactics. Can she deliver?

On Tuesday, the Squad scored a significant victory. By leading a 24-7 sit-in on the Capitol steps, Congresswoman Cori Bush, a Democrat from Missouri, successfully pressured the White House into extending the federal temporary moratorium on evictions. That showed the Squad is gaining power.

Something else that happened Tuesday was that Nina Turner, the candidate favored by socialists and other critics of the Democratic Party establishment, lost her primary bid to represent Ohio’s 11th  district to Shontel Brown. Brown had made Turner’s disloyalty to President Joe Biden a key campaign issue. That showed the Squad is losing power.

So which is it? Is the Squad on the rise, or in decline?

The answer matters greatly to Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, of New York, the Squad’s unofficial leader, who is trying to tug leftward the Democrats’ planned human infrastructure bill—slated to move through the filibuster-proof budget reconciliation process—by delaying final passage of the bipartisan, traditional infrastructure bill now before the Senate.

“If there is not a reconciliation bill in the House,” she told CNN’s Jake Tapper on August 1st, “and if the Senate does not pass the reconciliation bill, we will uphold our end of the bargain and not pass the bipartisan bill until we get all of these investments.”

Asked by Tapper how many House progressives she spoke for, Ocasio-Cortez said, “I am not the whip of the Progressive Caucus. But what I can tell you is that it’s certainly more than three. And it is in the double digits, absolutely.” The number, she said, was “more than enough” to prevent passage.

That looks to me like a bluff.

If Ocasio-Cortez had the votes, why would she make the threat at all? Speaker Nancy Pelosi has already pledged to delay House passage of the Senate bipartisan bill until reconciliation was done. Just last week, a reporter asked, “You still won’t put that on the Floor until reconciliation has passed the Senate?” and Pelosi responded with a simple, “Yes.” If that’s a hard position by the Speaker, Ocasio-Cortez has won the argument already and doesn’t need to say more.

Ocasio-Cortez’s threat seems a “tell” that the Speaker’s support for the Squad on this point is soft. Ocasio-Cortez has good reason to worry. As I noted last month, Pelosi sometimes uses imprecise phrases that suggest she doesn’t necessarily consider “reconciliation” to mean the bill sent to the president’s desk through the filibuster-proof reconciliation procedure. Rather, she may be using the word to mean the nonbinding precursor to the reconciliation bill—the budget resolution—which is set to pass this month.

For example, Pelosi said the bipartisan infrastructure deal is “something that we would take up once we see what the budget parameters are of the budget bill.” Those parameters will be determined in the resolution. Asked directly at a press conference whether she meant “the budget resolution,” Pelosi ignored the question. Ocasio-Cortez probably caught that ambiguity.

A second reason to judge Ocasio-Cortez’s threat as a mere bluff is her use of the phrase “double-digits.” When someone avoids giving a hard number, it’s usually for a reason. An experienced activist like Ocasio-Cortez is likely familiar with Rules for Radicals author Saul Alinsky’s maxim that “if your organization is small in numbers … conceal the members in the dark but raise a din and clamor that will make the listener believe that your organization numbers many more than it does.”

In the CNN interview, Ocasio-Cortez prefaced her estimate by noting the Congressional Progressive Caucus has 90 members. That means “double-digit” could mean anything between 10 and 90. My guess is the number’s closer to 10.

Well, so what, you might ask. As Ocasio-Cortez emphasized, her posse is “certainly more than three.” She needs only four defections to deny the Democrats a majority in a House currently composed of 220 Democrats and 212 Republicans. Ten members, ninety members, what’s the difference?

But that assumes a party-line vote, and that’s far from certain. Multiple House Republicans may well emulate their Senate counterparts and support the traditional infrastructure bill. The bipartisan House Problem Solvers Caucus includes 29 Republicans, and the caucus’ leaders have endorsed the Senate bill. (Republican Problem Solvers Caucus co-chair Brian Fitzpatrick said recently the bill is “good enough for the majority [italics mine] of our Problem Solvers Caucus,” suggesting not every caucus member will support it.) Ocasio-Cortez can’t know how many Democratic defectors she needs without knowing how many Republicans will cross the aisle.

That won’t matter if the Speaker declines to put the bill on the floor. But the final strange element in Ocasio-Cortez’s statement is that it undermines Pelosi’s position.

Wherever Ocasio-Cortez’s “double-digits” falls on the double-digit spectrum, it’s less—probably far less—than a majority of the 220-member House Democratic caucus. House moderates are in much greater danger of losing their seats in 2022 than any Squad member, and several are demanding that the Senate bipartisan bill get a House floor vote as soon as possible. Some are even threatening to oppose the budget resolution, without which a multi-trillion partisan reconciliation bill can’t be drafted, let alone passed.

Pelosi has a history of sensitivity to the concerns of the most electorally vulnerable members of her caucus, and that doesn’t describe the Squad. So what would compel Pelosi to stick with the demand to delay the Senate bipartisan bill if it risks the resolution and most of her own caucus doesn’t even share that position?

Pelosi’s operating principle has always been, in her words, “You get the votes, and you take the vote. Because you never know what can happen.” If, after the Senate passes the bipartisan infrastructure bill, Pelosi counts the votes—both Republicans and Democrats—and realizes she has a majority, even without the Squad, she will have every incentive to take that vote. What will AOC do? Tank the reconciliation bill? Give up trillions? Highly doubtful.

The argument for delay hinges on mistrust: that the House shouldn’t trust the Senate’s Democratic moderates to follow through on passing a reconciliation bill if they pocket a bipartisan infrastructure bill first. Otherwise, the order in which these bills pass is irrelevant. If House moderates are pressuring Pelosi that they need a quick, stand-alone vote on the Senate’s bipartisan bill, AOC and other progressives will need to counter with a convincing case that Democrats will fare better in the midterms by securing the reconciliation bill ahead of time.

But Ocasio-Cortez would be in a stronger position to make that case if Nina Turner had won her primary election. Ocasio-Cortez stumped for Turner in the homestretch, but she couldn’t get her over the finish line in a deeply Democratic district. And that’s not the only electoral defeat that the left has suffered. As The New York Times chronicled, establishment Democrats have also this year defeated progressives in the Virginia gubernatorial primary, the New York City mayoral primary (in AOC’s backyard), and the Louisiana 2nd district special election. Back in 2018, Ocasio-Cortez’s shocking upset obscured the fact that most of her ideological brethren lost. And of course, Joe Biden is president, not Bernie Sanders.

The left has had electoral successes too, but it’s isolated in a few deep-blue districts. You can still count the Squad using just your fingers. Ocasio-Cortez’s struggles to expand Squad membership through electoral victories compromises her ability to be a spokesperson for the Democratic base.

But Ocasio-Cortez did join Bush on the steps of the Capitol, and shared in Bush’s success in compelling Biden to extend the eviction moratorium. The Squad is certainly capable of wielding power. It can identify issues with moral urgency, deploy activist strategies that draw media attention, and focus progressive energy to exert maximum outside pressure on the political system. So even though Biden admitted he wasn’t really persuaded that the Supreme Court would uphold an extended moratorium, he directed the Centers for Disease Control to issue a moratorium extension.

Still, Bush, Ocasio-Cortez and their Squad allies didn’t score a legislative success. House moderates were reluctant to pass legislation extending the moratorium before the sit-in, and that didn’t change after the sit-in. (Pelosi gave up on passing the bill and joined the Squad in pressuring Biden.)

Rallying the progressive grassroots can shame a reluctant Biden into taking executive action, as happened earlier this year when progressive outcry prompted Biden to raise the cap on refugees. But public shaming doesn’t do nearly as much to navigate the delicate backroom negotiating process inside the House chamber, as we saw when supporters of a $15 minimum wage lost eight Senate Democrats and failed to get it into the pandemic relief bill. When it comes to passing its preferred legislation, the Squad still has a lot to prove.

Ocasio-Cortez appears eager to prove progressives can put a bigger stamp on legislation if they use hardball tactics, and you can’t blame her for trying. But as it stands, she isn’t swinging a big bat.

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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"