Biden courts Ocasio-Cortez – but will he go bold enough to win her support?
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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez hasn’t made an appearance on Joe Biden’s live stream. The New York congresswoman hasn’t cut a video message for the man Democrats will send out to defeat Donald Trump in November, and she hasn’t sent out fundraising emails on his behalf.rogressive favorite
As the party aligned behind Biden last week in a show of unity, with endorsements from Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Barack Obama, Ocasio-Cortez has yet to offer a full-throated endorsement of his presidential bid. While the 30-year-old politician intends to vote for Biden in November, her active support will be harder won.
“Unity isn’t a feeling,” Ocasio-Cortez said in an interview on ABC’s The View this week. “It’s a process and I think that Biden can go further.”
Yet Biden has for more than a year resisted calls to embrace liberal policies like universal healthcare and the Green New Deal. He won anyway.
Now as the presumptive nominee, Biden is considering policy overtures to the left while courting leaders like Ocasio-Cortez, who is popular with young, progressive voters of color – one of the constituencies he is struggling to win over.
Winning the endorsement of Ocasio-Cortez, a freshman member of Congress and the heir apparent to Sanders’ leftwing political movement, could go a long way to unlocking their support.
As a top surrogate for Sanders’ presidential campaign, she drew larger crowds in Iowa than many of his top rivals, including Biden. She has a bigger online presence than Biden and, as a congresswoman representing some of the New York communities hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic, is a prominent voice on a crisis that is reshaping American politics.
Her social media stardom and young followers could be particularly helpful to Biden, as the coronavirus outbreak forces his campaign to pivot to an all-digital strategy. Biden, an old-school, retail politician, has at times struggled to break through online, eclipsed by Trump’s expansive internet operation.
At the same time, Ocasio-Cortez has been demonized on the right, cast as an extremist who wants to turn the US into Venezuela. Her public support may help fuel the Trump campaign’s attacks on Biden as a Sanders-style Democrat in disguise.
“AOC is one of the many young people who were inspired by Senator Sanders,” said Sarah Audelo, executive director of Alliance for Youth Action, referring to Ocasio-Cortez by her nickname. “The power of her endorsement, if she is able to get to the place of endorsing Joe Biden, will be in the story of how she got there – how a Biden presidency is going to move us closer to winning on X, Y and Z issues and how supporting Biden is key to advancing our movement.”
In a January interview with New York Magazine, Ocasio-Cortez said that “in any other country, Joe Biden and I would not be in the same party”.
Now that he is her party’s presumptive nominee, she is wagering her political capital to see how far she can push him.
In interviews last week, she argued that the response to the coronavirus demands sweeping economic reforms that will help the nation recover from the crisis and make it more resilient in the future.
“This pandemic has just exposed us,” Ocasio-Cortez explained on the Daily. “People tell me, ‘I cannot believe I didn’t see this before. I cannot believe I didn’t see this before.’ I’m just thankful that people are seeing it now.”
Ocasio-Cortez believes the crisis has created more room for compromise, contending that the success of party unification efforts – and possibly the outcome of the presidential election – may depend on it.
“It’s not just about this boding well for progressives,” she said. “It’s about us having a goddamn planet to live on in 10 years or in 20 years. It’s about making sure that babies don’t get put in a cage again. It’s about making sure that we end the scourge of mass incarceration.”
As of Friday, Ocasio-Cortez and Biden had yet to speak directly since Biden’s last rival in the primary race, Sanders – a mentor of Ocasio-Cortez – dropped out. But last week Biden’s team reached out to her staff, days after she told the New York Times that she had yet to hear from his campaign. The discussions, she said, revolved around his policy positions on healthcare, immigration and climate change.
These discussions are part of a wider effort by the Biden campaign to engage progressive leaders and organizers.
During a joint livestream this week, when Sanders endorsed Biden, they announced that their teams were developing six policy taskforces to find common solutions on issues involving the economy, healthcare, education, criminal justice, immigration and climate change.
Biden has also recently embraced proposals to cancel student loan debt for certain middle- and low-income borrowers and to lower the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 60 in an effort to expand the federal insurance program. Ocasio-Cortez, however, called Biden’s Medicare proposal “almost insulting” in the New York Times interview and said that Hillary Clinton had proposed lowering it to 50.
Meanwhile, in an online conversation with a women’s networking group, the Wing, Ocasio-Cortez said it was “legitimate” to discuss the recent sexual assault allegation against Biden, which his campaign has denied.
Her role as a leading progressive voice, she explained, was to “push back against everyone”, including her own party.
“That makes people uncomfortable,” she said. “but we’re just not where we need to be right now.”
At the same time, Ocasio-Cortez is strident in her resolve to “rally around” Biden, calling the November presidential election a “matter of life and death” for her constituents, primarily people of color and immigrants.
Though there are some progressives resisting calls for party unity, Democrats appear to have little appetite for the drama and infighting that defined the 2016 primary contest. Fear of a drawn-out nomination battle in 2020 proved unfounded as the primary resolved far sooner and more amicably than most expected.
“This is an existential moment for Americans – not just with this pandemic, but with this presidency,” said Addisu Demissie, who was New Jersey senator Cory Booker’s presidential campaign manager until he ended his run in January. “There’s going to be plenty of time during a Biden presidency – as there was during an Obama presidency – to negotiate within ‘the family’ and figure out how far we want to push things.”
Against this backdrop, many Democrats are cautiously optimistic.
But party leaders are under no illusion that defeating Trump will be easy – he has strong support in battleground states, a campaign operation that is larger and better funded, and the built-in advantages that come with incumbency. Polls suggest the race will be close and won, once again, on the margins.
Whether Ocasio-Cortez and Biden join forces to defeat Trump or instead continue to march separately in the same direction could be instructive for the rest of the progressive movement.
“Right now it’s a balance between pushing the movement forward – fighting for the most progressive agenda possible – and staying focused on the main goal,” said Marisa Franco, director and cofounder of Mijente, a Latinx advocacy group that endorsed Sanders. “Removing Trump from office.”