In the realm of ordinary politics in extraordinary times, this Politico story about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is causing no little buzz in and around the Intertoobz. Ever since she backed Nancy Pelosi for the speakership in the newly elected Democratic-majority House of Representatives, I’ve been telling people that she has natural political chops that it’s dangerous to underestimate. (Among the members of the Squad, AOC is second only to Ayanna Pressley in this regard.) Now, of course, some of the performative Left have their purity in a knot because she’s demonstrating this again.
The piece frames this as AOC vs. Bernie Sanders, which is unfortunate, and it begins with an anecdote from the wrong campaign in 2018. The real mistake AOC made was opposing Sharice Davids’s campaign in Kansas. She and Sanders lined up behind Brent Welder, a former Sanders staffer, against a gay Native American woman running on a shoestring. One of AOC’s major political talents is that she learns from mistakes and never makes the same one again.
Of the half-dozen incumbent primary challengers Justice Democrats is backing this cycle, Ocasio-Cortez has endorsed just two. Neither was a particularly risky move: Both candidates — Jessica Cisneros in Texas and Marie Newman in Illinois — were taking on conservative Democrats who oppose abortion rights and later earned the support of several prominent national Democrats.
Ocasio-Cortez’s reluctance marks a break with the outsider tactics of the activist left, represented by groups like Justice Democrats. This election cycle, the organization is trying to boot not just conservative Democrats but also some liberal Democrats and to replace them with members who are more left-wing. In other words, to replicate what it pulled off against Rep. Joe Crowley in 2018 by recruiting Ocasio-Cortez.
Framing this as AOC “breaking” with Sanders is an easy narrative trope on which to hang a story, but it slights AOC’s time in Congress itself. For a rookie who not long ago was taking drink orders, AOC has proven herself to be an aggressive and informed questioner in committee hearings. (I hear mixed things about her constituent service, and the wingnut press has been beating its little tin drums about it, but I also hear that it’s gotten better.) And it also elides the fact that, when Sanders was hospitalized with a heart attack, AOC pretty much became the Sanders campaign, and it can be argued that she rescued it completely. She isn’t “breaking” with Bernie. She’s evolving beyond him, as progressive politics must. Her first re-election is critical to this process. For right now, she’s far more interesting than her detractors, left or right, let on.
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