A brash batch of freshmen Democrats including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., captured the hearts and imagination of the Democratic Party’s activist wing with an agenda combating climate change and income inequality and beyond. But the influence and attention they are quickly amassing, as well as high-profile stumbles along the way, are creating tensions with party leaders — which exploded in full public view this week.
After a drumbeat of bipartisan criticism toward Omar over comments she made about the influence of pro-Israel lobbyist groups that were seen as anti-Semitic, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and the rest of the House Democratic leadership team issued a remarkable rebuke on Monday, calling her “use of anti-Semitic tropes and prejudicial accusations about Israel’s supporters… deeply offensive.”
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“We condemn these remarks and we call upon Congresswoman Omar to immediately apologize for these hurtful comments,” a statement said.
Omar, who has made a number of controversial comments, “unequivocally” apologized, while reaffirming the “problematic role” of lobbyists. She had initially sparked the controversy by saying Republican anger at her criticism of Israel was “all about the Benjamins baby.”
But the incident is the latest sign of growing tensions between a tight-knit group of female freshmen and the party brass.
Ocasio-Cortez’s launch of the Green New Deal last Thursday turned a once-fringe idea pushed by hard-left activist groups like Justice Democrats into a mainstream party policy. Top 2020 Democrats like Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J., Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Kamala Harris, D-Calif, signed on to the non-binding resolution and trumpeted their support for the enormous government overhaul of the nation’s economy, transportation and energy usage.
But the far-reaching proposal, formalized in the resolution, hit turbulence as reporters either discovered, or were given by Ocasio-Cortez’s office, two FAQs that included radical ideas such as phasing out air travel and giving economic security to those “unwilling” to work.
After an Ocasio-Cortez policy adviser appeared on Fox News’ “Tucker Carlson Tonight” saying the document was a fake (remarks retweeted by Ocasio-Cortez), her team backtracked. Over the weekend, Saikat Chakrabarti, Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff, admitted that the FAQ was genuine — just not ready for public consumption.
“An early draft of a FAQ that was clearly unfinished and that doesn’t represent the GND [Green New Deal] resolution got published to the website by mistake,” Chakrabarti tweeted. “But what’s in the resolution is the GND.”
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One version was published on Ocasio-Cortez’s website before being taken down, while another version was published by NPR.
But the gaffe not only opened up Ocasio-Cortez to mockery but also the 2020 candidates who signed onto the proposal — even if they didn’t sign onto the FAQs. President Trump said at a rally Monday that it “sounds like a high school term paper that got a low mark.”
But while Republicans mocked the Green New Deal, other Democrats were also compelled to push back. Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, was asked about the FAQ’s goal of replacing planes with trains, and was not impressed.
“That would be pretty hard for Hawaii,” she laughed.
Last Wednesday ahead of the release, Pelosi appeared to dismiss the plan.
“It will be one of several or maybe many suggestions that we receive,” Pelosi told Politico last week. “The green dream or whatever they call it, nobody knows what it is, but they’re for it right?”
Pelosi took a more conciliatory tone on Thursday, saying: “Quite frankly, I haven’t seen it, but I do know it’s enthusiastic and we welcome all the enthusiasm that is out there.”
Meanwhile, one House Democrat told The Washington Post that he and other liberal members have privately expressed their frustration over the botched rollout.
It marks the latest in a series of headline-grabbing moments from the new class of Democrats. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., on the day she was sworn in, said of Trump that “we’re going to impeach the motherf—er.” Last week, Omar appeared to call for the full defunding of the Department of Homeland Security over the Trump administration’s immigration policies, promising “#Not1Dollar for DHS” — although she later clarified that she wants no further increase of funding for DHS, rather than a cut.
Foreshadowing a possible Democratic battle going forward, Ocasio-Cortez was the sole Democrat last month to vote against a Democratic bill to re-open the government, citing funding for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Ocasio-Cortez and a number of other Democrats have called for ICE to be abolished.
Strategist Brad Bannon told Fox News that the new wave of energetic, more radical Democrats shows the shift in the electorate from baby boomers to millennials.
“With all her flaws, Ocasio-Cortez is good for the Democratic Party, because she reflects the growing power of millennials in politics, and the tension between her and Pelosi is good for the party,” he said.
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He said, however, that the recent stumbles hurt the party, and that he expects more senior Democrats to try and rein in lawmakers like Ocasio-Cortez.
“I think they will try and rein her in, yes, is the short answer. And basically, I think what they’re telling her and her friends is that it’s fine to raise these issues but you have to be careful how you do it,” he said. “If you’re going to introduce a Green New Deal, make sure you’ve dotted the ‘i’s and crossed ‘t’s before you do it.”
But he didn’t doubt Pelosi’s power to use the energy that the freshmen bring to her advantage: “Pelosi is a master legislative tactician and the thing about Pelosi is she knows how to use and channel energy of younger members. I think she looks set to do that.”
Other strategists warned that, with 2020 Democrats under pressure to go along with these policies, it could drag the party into unelectable territory next year.
“If we’re going to be competitive in 2020, the Democrats need a message that is more reflective of the mainstream of the country,” Doug Schoen, a Fox News contributor and former adviser to President Bill Clinton, said.
He went on to say that items like the Green New Deal are “at best aspirational, rather than necessarily prescriptive.”
“It raises doubt in people’s minds about the seriousness and practicality of the Democratic Party,” he said. “Further, some of the anti-Israel and frankly anti-Semitic comments raise doubt about the entire commitment of the Democratic Party to Israel and the sort of traditional values, that approach [to] politics we longtime Democrats have come to expect from our party.”
That stance saw some agreement from moderate Democrats. Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., head of the Problem Solvers Caucus, told The Washington Post that the Democratic Party “has to be open and recognize that.”
“And if we don’t and insist that everyone takes a hard line view on everything, (a) I don’t think that’s going to attract votes in the next election, and (b) it puts our majority at risk,” he said.
Democratic leaders and centrists are likely to face more pressure to act against the left-wing newcomers going forward — particularly as Republicans sense an opening. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, with the slightest of grins, told reporters Tuesday that he was planning on bringing the Green New Deal to a vote in the Senate: “Give everybody an opportunity to go on record and see how they feel about the Green New Deal.”
Meanwhile, House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., said on Fox News’ “America’s Newsroom” that House Democrats should remove Omar from the Foreign Affairs Committee given her inflammatory remarks on Israel.
“That’s something Nancy Pelosi should do immediately,” he said.