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Is Ocasio-Cortez a Progressive Paladin or Partisan Poison?

Her platform might appeal to lunch-bucket voters, but her more radical positions could prove a liability for the Democratic Party.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive in the Bronx, when the young leftist candidate for a U.S. House seat took on the New York Democratic establishment—and won. Indeed, the David-beats-Goliath election result sent shockwaves across the country; to progressives across America, it seemed that the revolutionary moment was finally at hand.

We’re talking, of course, about the victory of Leo Isacson in a special House election on February 17, 1948. Isacson was the candidate of the American Labor Party, a congregation of socialists and, yes, more than a few communists. In that year, the ALP was led by Henry Wallace, vice president under FDR until he was tossed off the ticket in 1944, replaced by Harry Truman—soon to be President Truman. Now, through the ALP, Wallace was planning a third-party bid for the White House. So when Isacson won the Bronx balloting in February, many saw it as a sign that Wallace and the ALP had a bright future in the upcoming November elections.

Alas for the ALP, it didn’t happen; the lefties had enthusiasm, but not numbers. In the presidential election, Wallace failed to win a single electoral vote. Moreover, down the ballot, in the Bronx, Isacson—being too far to the left even for a liberal district—was defeated by a Democrat. Having been in the House for less than a year, Isacson never held elective office again.

Seven decades later, it’s a near certainty that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez will have a longer political career than her short-timed Bronxite predecessor. And yet it’s far from clear that her left-wing movement will have much of a future, at least on the national level.

Let’s start with Ocasio-Cortez herself. Without a doubt, she is engagingly telegenic and also, crucially, disarmingly natural. In her viral campaign video, she does something that this author has never seen before in a political spot: she puts on her makeup in front of a bathroom mirror, just like any woman. And then, to fill out her portrait as a real person, we see her changing from flats to high heels as she readies for the workday. 

As she likes to say, she’s “a girl from the Bronx.” Okay, where she mostly grew up was in leafy Westchester County, and yet that diversity in her background might have contributed to her broadminded approach to the niceties of politics. Thus when the conservative Glenn Beck tweeted some guardedly nice words about her, she tweeted positively in response: “Thank you, @glennbeck. We may disagree, but I sincerely appreciate the good faith.” So we can see: Ocasio-Cortez is coming across as the opposite of a strident ideologue.

And yet, pleasant as she might be, Ocasio-Cortez is an ideologue. She is, after all, a proud member of the Democratic Socialists Of America. To be sure, some parts of her campaign platform are attractive to lunch-bucket voters; as she says in that same campaign video, “The rent gets higher, health care covers less, and our income stays the same.” That’s a message that could resonate not only with her soon-to-be constituents in the Bronx and Queens, but could also ring bells in Trumpier places, from Buffalo to Quakertown to Albuquerque. 

In other words, if Ocasio-Cortez and her allies could stick to that lunch-bucket message on wages, rents, tuitions, and healthcare costs, that could herald a true revival for Democrats, helping them make deep inroads into red states. After all, the New Deal was more than a little bit social-democratic, and that message played well across the nation. And more recently, avowed social democrats have done well in Europe; indeed, even today in the U.S., the millennial generation’s support for socialism is riding high.

On the other hand, the specter of Venezuela, and its 43,000 percent inflation rate, looms over any left-wing economic message; proponents of collectivism will have to explain how they can implement their agenda and avoid Venezuela-ification.

Yet the even larger problem for Ocasio-Cortez-type leftists is the cultural—or perhaps one should say, multicultural—baggage they are carrying. 

A look at Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign issues page reveals, for example, her strong support for gun control and, at the same time, to be honest about it, crime de-control. And elsewhere, she has made facile comparisons between Hamas in the Gaza Strip and anti-police protestors and striking teachers in Missouri and in West Virginia. 

Perhaps most profoundly, Ocasio-Cortez has called for open borders, or, as she puts it, “abolish ICE”—that is, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency charged with protecting the border. (Some might wish to argue that one could abolish ICE while still somehow protecting the border, but that doesn’t seem to be an argument that anyone on the left is trying to make.)

Once upon a time, democratic socialists believed in border security; after all, it’s hard enough to build socialism in one country, let alone trying to build it for the whole world. In fact, as recently as 2015, Bernie Sanders defended not only border security, but also national sovereignty. Asked about expanded immigration, Sanders flipped the question into a critique of open-borders libertarianism: “That’s a Koch brothers proposal…which says essentially there is no United States.”

Yet it’s a sign of the shifting lefty zeitgeist that Sanders doesn’t talk like that anymore. These days, and especially since Ocasio-Cortez’s primary victory, the new progressive line is to call for melting ICE. Hence the June 29 headline in Politico: “2020 Dems join anti-ICE stampede.” 

The day after that, June 30, saw the string of anti-ICE protests, filling up downtowns across the country, adding new momentum to the open-borders movement. And the day after that saw the victory of the leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador as the next president of Mexico. He has declared that migration is “a human right we will defend”; those are, obviously, words and sentiments that will reverberate north of the border.

As for migration, last year Gallup calculated that around the world, some 710 million people would like to emigrate from their current abode, and of those, 147 million wish to move to the U.S. And we might presume that if there was no chance of being apprehended while entering an ICE-less America, that 147 million number would rise substantially.

Perhaps with such possibilities in mind, the American people are a good deal more interested in border security than the mainstream media would have us believe. Indeed, much of the restrictionist agenda is actually quite popular; for instance, according to a new Harvard/Harris poll, 64 percent of Americans think that people who come here illegally should be sent home. Moreover, 69 percent of Americans say that ICE should not be abolished—and even 59 percent of Democrats. 

Unsurprisingly, such daunting poll numbers are helping professional Democrats cool down from the hot flushes of primary-election passion. In Axios, the buzzy Beltway blat, Mike Allen wrote, “Top Democrats tell me they’re worried that a sudden wave of ambitious party members calling for the abolition of ICE…will make the party look weak on security, a key issue for many swing voters.” 

Indeed, President Trump is already on the hunt. As he tweeted on July 1, “The Liberal Left, also known as the Democrats, want to get rid of ICE, who do a fantastic job, and want Open Borders. Crime would be rampant and uncontrollable!” And the White House’s official Twitter account has fired off more tweets. So how many more such tweets, and other kinds of blasts, is the President capable of? One might ask that question of the National Football League, another Trump punching bag that that’s been punched into submission. 

In other words, ICE could be an up-from-nowhere issue that affects the 2018 midterm elections. It’s happened before: back in the 2002 midterms, the Bush 43 Republicans seized on an obscure issue—whether or not employees of the newly created Department of Homeland Security should be unionized—and made it the central issue. And as result of that adroit political opportunism, the GOP scored an upset victory.

So could Republicans do it again this year? Could they take a once-fringe issue and put it front and center? Could they do a jujitsu on the energy coming out of Ocasio-Cortez’s victory, using that energy against Democrats in middle-of-the-road districts and states? Painting every Democrat with the “abolish ICE” brush? 

As far as this observer can tell, the Trumpified GOP is going to try. Republicans do, after all, want to win.

James P. Pinkerton is an author and contributing editor at TAC. He served as a White House policy aide to both Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.