The Republican Freedom Caucus Could Learn From AOC

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The verdict is in: Three months into her term, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez isn’t the forerunner of an emerging House Freedom Caucus of the left, no matter how many people have speculated that would be the case

Conservatives are quite correct to dislike, or at least oppose, AOC. Her policy preferences aren’t just different from theirs; she is an honest-to-goodness leftist, which sets her apart from most mainstream liberal Democrats in Congress.

Her approach however isn’t remotely similar to the one House Freedom Caucus members took with their fellow Republicans. She treats mainstream liberals as allies with whom she will often disagree, not as the enemy. She wastes zero time and effort trying to differentiate herself from the rest of her party ( she doesn’t go around trying to prove that she’s the True Socialist). Yes, in part that’s because there are real policy differences between her and many Democrats, while the Freedom Caucus conservatives have very few real differences with mainstream conservative Republicans, and therefore have to invent ways to prove they are the only True Conservatives. But I suspect she has adopted this collaborative tack mostly because policy change is more important to her than acting out.

In other words, she offers an entirely different model of dissent from a party’s ideological mainstream, and strong conservatives could do a lot worse than watch and emulate her. She has already shown quite a bit of skill at using her seat in the House to advocate for substantive change. The HFC never seemed to get the knack of that, much to the detriment of conservative and Republican goals.

There were at least two examples of her approach just this week. The first one is AOC’s strong support for the Democratic bill to fix the Affordable Care Act, as HuffPost’s Matt Fuller reports. She is, of course, for single-payer health care. But she didn’t let that get in the way of pragmatism — both to marginally improve (from her point of view) the health care system, and also to work with mainstream liberals even though she disagrees with them on the best long-term arrangements. 

Ocasio-Cortez said she understood prioritizing fixes to the Affordable Care Act. “Because we have a Republican Senate, a Republican president, and so the things that we have the ability to pass right now are pretty narrow,” she said, though she added she wanted hearings on Medicare for All and didn’t think single-payer solutions had been given enough attention from the Democratic caucus yet.

The second example was her support of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s strategy of requiring Democrats to vote “present” when Majority Leader Mitch McConnell brought the Green New Deal to the floor. McConnell wanted to force a tough vote for Democrats, including the several Democratic senators running for president. Schumer’s strategy was to duck the vote. Had AOC and other Green New Deal supporters made the vote into a progressive litmus test, they likely would have successfully pressured many senators to go along — splitting the caucus, and hurting those who didn’t want to vote either way. Instead, as with health care, she combined pragmatic support for a political strategy with a positive path forward, calling for hearings and eventually a mark-up for the idea she and others had proposed.

Granted, some of this is easier when the other party holds the White House and none of the out-party’s policy preferences are going anywhere anyway. But so far at least, she’s been an excellent example of how a policy outlier can still be an effective member of the House and how a strong pragmatic streak can advance even relatively extreme policy views.

That’s very different from how the radical conservatives consistently made the lives of Speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan miserable — and the way they managed to produce worse policy outcomes for conservatives than they would have had they been more willing to work with their party. The most obvious example was appropriations. Because the radicals would not vote for conservative bills that had a lot of government spending in them, Republicans had no choice but to work with House Democrats on government funding, which produced compromises that were even farther from the House Freedom Caucus’s preferences. They put making their point ahead of actual policy gains, with predictable consequences. 

AOC has also used hearings productively, so much so that some conservatives have made a point of accusing her of being a puppet who only reads prepared remarks (and yes, it’s worth noting exactly which politicians get accused of not being able to speak without prepared remarks, and how several of those so accused seem perfectly capable of going on TV and speaking for themselves). All members of Congress have staff to prep them for hearings, including prewritten questions. Indeed, hiring the right staff and delivering the questions well are real political skills, and indicate a choice of how to use her own, and her staff’s, time and energy. What’s important is that she’s used her hearing opportunities substantively, to advocate for her policy preferences and not for playing gotcha with witnesses. 

Still, she’s made several mistakes. But, overall, she’s shown a remarkable willingness to retreat strategically. Recall that early on she foolishly gave lip service to taking down Speaker Nancy Pelosi, but wound up not only (sensibly) supporting the speaker, but also using the episode to fight for things she cared about. That’s nothing like the House Freedom Caucus revolts against Republican leadership — or for that matter, the futile Democratic die-hards who organized and continued the fight against the speaker and just made themselves look bad. 

I’ve said many times that the problem isn’t how conservative Republicans are, but how they approach institutions, how they fail to respect democratic norms, and how they seem obsessed with constantly proving their ideological bona fides rather than actually trying to get anything done. There have been a handful of Republicans who have been good counterexamples — former Senator Jeff Flake, former Senator Tom Coburn. But the person they really should think about emulating is Ocasio-Cortez. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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