Ocasio-Cortez and the Democrats Don't Need Radical Tactics

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who is expected to be elected to the House in November, is floating a proposal for a new “progressive caucus” that could use threats to vote as a bloc to extract concessions from the Democrats. Is this a sign that she and other very liberal Democrats will soon mirror the radical conservatives of the House Freedom Caucus? 

Probably not.

To begin with, organizing a new group that will pledge to vote together as a bloc and then actually go through with it is easier said than done. The Freedom Caucus split off from another conservative Republican group in the House because they were frustrated when they couldn’t get their way; it’s not at all clear that there are 30, or even a dozen, Democrats similarly dissatisfied with the current Congressional Progressive Caucus. 

Indeed, there’s nothing at all inherently radical about organizing a group of like-minded members of the House to push the chamber, or their party, in one direction or another. What’s wrong with the House Freedom Caucus is its radical tactics, which reject compromise and attempt to get by threats what it can’t achieve by normal bargaining. What’s more, there’s a history of Freedom Caucus members simply using their group not to move policy in their direction, but to force votes that differentiate them from mainstream conservatives. 

So: Should Democrats win a House majority, they’re probably going to move a minimum-wage bill. If Ocasio-Cortez’s group works to push for a high figure (say, $15 an hour) and for the House leadership to be aggressive in attempting to get that figure passed into law? That’s a healthy infusion of energy into the Democratic caucus. If, however, her group was to vote down a $14 minimum wage when the votes aren’t there for $15, or vote against some future debt-limit increase unless a $15 wage was attached despite not having the votes in the Senate? That’s a dangerous, and likely self-damaging, path. 

It’s not always easy to distinguish which is which, especially for outsiders. Perfectly normal and reasonable negotiating may involve brinkmanship and threats that, if carried out, would be irresponsible. What really matters is what happens at the end of the day: Can the factional group cut the best deal possible, or is it more interested in proving its pure status (as progressives, or conservatives, or anything else) regardless of policy outcomes? 

It’s quite possible, too, that Ocasio-Cortez will wind up discovering that allying herself with a large, established group may be a better idea than forming a new, smaller bloc. From the outside, it can look so easy: If the Democrats wind up with a 10-vote majority, and she can find 20 members who can make demands, then the leadership will have no choice but to fold. Except it’s not so easy. A more liberal bill might not retain the votes of Democratic moderates. It might be doomed in the Senate, whether Democrats have the majority there or not. It might be the difference between a presidential signature and a veto. But the truth is that members on the ideological extremes can never dictate to the rest of the House, and certainly not to the entire government, no matter how determined they are.

Again: That doesn’t mean organizing a new group is necessarily a bad idea. Plenty of members of the House from the ideological extremes have wound up with quite a bit of influence — not because they make effective demands, but because they work hard to build coalitions and find policy solutions that can win the votes of others. Sometimes they have outsized influence simply because they outwork and out-innovate their colleagues. And either a small or a large caucus organization can help with that.

If you don’t like liberal policy energy, it’s reasonable to be worried about what will happen if there’s a Democratic House next year. But so far at least, I’m not seeing the kinds of anti-collaborative rhetoric that make me worried about dysfunction and chaos. 

1. Casey Burgat and Charles Hunt at the Monkey Cage on diminished House capacity and the Peter Strzok hearing. One caveat: The authors argue that “Congress” wants circuses, but the charts appear to say that it’s really congressional Republicans. 

2. Tom Jacobs at Pacific Standard interviews Theda Skocpol about where the Democrats’ enthusiasm is coming from and what it means for 2018.

3. Steve Vladeck on what treason actually is.

4. Jonathan Chait is correct that at this point President Donald Trump’s fanboy attitude toward Vladimir Putin and Russia is a break with his party

5. “Trump’s view is unmoored from reality in several ways”: Politico’s Thomas Rid explains what Trump gets wrong about the server he’s always going on about, including in his Helsinki news conference. 

7. Anne Stevenson-Yang at Bloomberg Opinion on China and Trump’s trade war.

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.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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