AOC is becoming part of Biden’s inner circle. It’s a risky move

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez could end up with a direct line to the White House – and her progressive supporters will expect her to champion their cause

Max Burns
New York
Wednesday 29 July 2020 18:38 BST
AOC responds to non-apology from Congressman who verbally attacked her

In the year and six months since her upset victory against long-time New York Rep Joe Crowley made her a national celebrity, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s unapologetically progressive voice has captured media and political attention like few freshman legislators in American history. And with presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden riding high in head-to-head polls against Donald Trump, AOC may soon find herself thrust into an even more pivotal role as Democrats’ liberal conscience in the House.

That won’t be a symbolic job. Recent polling shows Democrats making serious gains in their quest to win back the Senate from Republican control. Republican Senate seats in Colorado, Georgia, Iowa, Maine, Montana, North Carolina and Arizona seem likely to fall in a stunning repeat of the 2018 “Blue Wave” that returned the House of Representatives to Democratic speaker Nancy Pelosi.

After years in the wilderness, Democrats could enter 2021 with unified control of America’s government. The pressure to maintain that majority at the expense of Democratic principles will be fierce. Ocasio-Cortez is made for the moment.

It’s no secret that Washington Democrats prioritise recruiting great fundraisers (read: Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer) instead of great policy communicators. That’s a big reason why Democrats are shattering fundraising records even as they struggle to craft a memorable policy message on pressing issues like extending Covid-19 emergency unemployment insurance or Trump’s recent authoritarian violence against pro-democracy protesters in Portland.

Money won’t be much help if Democrats can’t connect with American voters in a way that represents our party’s progressive ideals. Candidate Biden’s new $2 trillion Climate Change and Environmental Justice plan sounds a lot more like AOC than your typical campaign proposal. That isn’t a coincidence. In May, Biden tapped Ocasio-Cortez to lead his campaign’s Climate Task Force, alongside climate crusader and former secretary of state John Kerry.

For Biden, a credible environmental plan was the key to establishing his progressive bona fides with liberal voters still nursing wounds from Bernie Sanders’s bitter defeat in the Democratic primary. Turning to AOC has become a natural instinct for Democrats looking to better understand their base, but it isn’t without risk. In legitimising Biden’s climate plan, Ocasio-Cortez risked being branded a centrist sellout if the plan failed to deliver.

On 15 July, Biden’s climate plan launched to praise from progressive environmental groups and major liberal influencers like Washington governor Jay Inslee. Even former Biden critics acknowledged how far the campaign has come in platforming progressive concerns.

Varshini Prakash, co-founder of the Sunrise Movement, a liberal organisation that endorsed Bernie Sanders against Biden in the primary, sounded a particularly triumphant tone: “It’s no secret that we’ve been critical of Vice President’s Biden’s plans and commitments in the past. Today, he’s responded to many of those criticisms: dramatically increasing the scale and urgency of investments, filling in details on how he’d achieve environmental justice and create good union jobs, and promising immediate action.”

Biden’s victory in calming restless liberals is reassuring evidence that the former VP will identify and elevate promising policy minds in a future presidential administration – even if they’ve been sharp critics, as Ocasio-Cortez has, of other Biden policies and statements. It’s also a victory for AOC, who has leapfrogged far older legislators in the race to offer well-messaged, workable policy ideas to Biden’s inner circle. Though her spotlight moments are strong – none of us will forget her dressing-down of Ted Yoho in a hurry – what she’s doing behind the scenes is even stronger.

If Democrats win the White House in November, Ocasio-Cortez’s perch in the House will become the centre of Democrats’ progressive world. Having proven her policy chops to Biden and his team of political veterans, AOC could enter the new year with a direct line to the White House on issues far beyond just environmental policy.

That new influence won’t come without a cost. More than ever, progressive groups are looking to Ocasio-Cortez as a key validator and amplifier of progressive causes. In a Democratic Washington finally capable of passing meaningful legislation, those groups will expect Ocasio-Cortez to deploy her celebrity in defence of progressive causes – even if it runs afoul of the Biden administration line.

A Democratic victory over Donald Trump in November puts Capitol Hill in a race against complacency, where the threats once imminent under Trumpism will seem less dangerous and more remote. They are not.

Fixing the corrosion of Trumpism with smart, data-driven progressive policy will be key to reversing the past four years of unprecedented American decline. Keeping Washington Democrats from fracturing their patchwork coalition of voters will be a demanding job, but Ocasio-Cortez is already proving capable of outplaying competitors and colleagues alike.

Max Burns is a veteran Democratic strategist and senior contributor at Millennial Politics. He regularly appears on NBC News Now, Fox News, and Bloomberg Radio. Follow him on Twitter @TheMaxBurns

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