How AOC could lose leverage if she challenges Chuck Schumer in 2022

Mere threat of AOC's primary challenge is already yielding bushels of wins for the progressive movement

Griffin Connolly
Thursday 04 February 2021 22:31 GMT
Democrats pressure Biden to cancel $50,000 in student loan debt by executive action

Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez hasn’t announced whether she’ll mount a primary challenge against Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer when he’s up for re-election in 2022 – and maybe she doesn’t have to.

The mere threat of that challenge is already yielding bushels of wins for the progressive movement, with Ms Ocasio-Cortez (and her progressive allies more broadly) flexing their ideological muscles by proxy through Mr Schumer, by rank the most powerful senator in Washington.

The majority leader, 70, who has represented New York in DC since eight years before Ms Ocasio-Cortez was born, has in many respects happily embraced Ms Ocasio-Cortez and members of her growing “Squad” since before they even arrived in Congress in 2019, adopting the causes they champion as his own.

For a recent example, just take a peek at the list of lawmakers Mr Schumer led at a press conference outside the Capitol on Thursday urging the Biden administration to cancel $50,000 of student debt:

  • Senator Elizabeth Warren
  • Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley
  • Congresswoman Ilhan Omar
  • Congressman Mondaire Jones
  • Congresswoman Alma Adams

Mr Schumer and Ms Warren met with the president for 45 minutes last week to push their student debt cancellation programme, which Mr Biden could execute unilaterally with “the flick of a pen”, Mr Schumer said.

“We have met with the president, we are pushing the president and his people, and we are very hopeful … We are not going to let up until we accomplish it.”

The progressive wing of the Democratic party – led by Ms Warren and fellow 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders – has been clamouring for years to cancel student debt. But it wasn’t until September of last year that Mr Schumer ushered that conversation into the Democratic party mainstream when he tweeted out one simple hashtag: #CancelStudentDebt.

“It’s important to remember that student debt cancellation was not even on the agenda before 2018,” a senior aide to one progressive House member told The Independent.

“Whether it’s out of the goodness of his heart or because he’s afraid of a primary, progressives certainly welcome the majority leader of the Senate getting behind progressive policy solutions,” the aide said.

Mr Schumer’s embrace of his party’s most progressive voices extends beyond their policy positions.

The fourth-term New York senator, for years a guardian of his chamber’s norms and traditions promoting bipartisan cooperation, has increasingly signalled his intent to abandon those norms if Republicans stand in the way of his agenda.

Earlier this year, Mr Schumer refused to bend to the demands of his Republican counterpart, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, that the Senate Democratic majority promise not to scrap the Senate’s traditional 60-vote threshold for legislation.

And instead of working with the GOP minority to strike a bipartisan compromise deal on another massive round of Covid relief, Mr Schumer is sidestepping the GOP via the so-called “budget reconciliation” process that will allow him to pass Mr Biden’s $1.9trn Covid-aid package on a party-line basis.

“America needs bold change. We need immediate bold change,” Mr Schumer said in an interview with MSNBC last month. “We have Covid, the worst health care crisis in 100 years since the Spanish pandemic flu, the worst economic crisis since the New Deal. So we have to act quickly.”

In many ways, Ms Ocasio-Cortez, dangling the boulder of a 2022 primary over Mr Schumer’s head, has more power over both the tactical and ideological direction of the Senate Democratic caucus than she would as one of the lowest-ranking Senate Democrats in 2023 after toppling Mr Schumer in a 2022 primary. (That outcome, by the way – an Ocasio-Cortez victory – is not guaranteed.)

The ascendant congresswoman, still only 31, has been remarkably frank when discussing her internal deliberations on the next steps in her career. She appears genuinely conflicted about the best way to harness her voice and base of supporters to push the progressive movement forward.

“I’m still very much in a place where I’m trying to decide what is the most effective thing I can do to help our Congress, our [political] process, and our country actually address the issues of climate change, health care, wage inequality, etc.,” she told the Washington-based publication Punchbowl in an interview last month.

Ms Ocasio-Cortez has hinted in previous interviews that she at times suffers from extreme disillusionment within the Democratic party framework. Asked shortly after the 2020 elections if she would continue running for re-election in New York’s 14th District, she could not say.

“I genuinely don’t know. I don’t even know if I want to be in politics,” she told The New York Times at the time.

“You know, for real, in the first six months of my term, I didn’t even know if I was going to run for re-election this year.”

While Mr Schumer and his allies have exercised the political shrewdness to reach out and work with progressive organisations both in New York and beyond, it is not fair to attribute those efforts to naked political calculation.

The fact is Mr Schumer is personable, likeable. A Brooklynite with a wry sense of humour and endearingly self-deprecating mannerisms, the majority leader has dug a channel of dialogue with Ms Ocasico-Cortez, rather than demonising her for the chatter surrounding her potential primary challenge against him.

“He and I have an open relationship, we speak to each other regularly,” the congresswoman has admitted.

But talk is cheap.

With Democrats now in control of both chambers of Congress and the presidency, though, the next two years will be the real test of whether Mr Schumer follows the progressive path he has paved.

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