This week, Ocasio-Cortez appeared on MSNBC and declared that supporting a potential primary challenge to Sinema would be “the easiest decision I would ever have to make.” She also personally scolded Sinema, saying, “She is not an ally on civil rights,” and accusing her of “contributing to the threat that we have in stabilizing our democracy.” The New York congresswoman further called the Arizona senator a “profound ally” of corporate interests.
Democratic infighting and disunity (an obvious problem since Biden’s Build Back Better bill crumbled) aside, I’m most interested in the timing of her remarks. It’s not just what she said, it’s when she said it.
AOC made her comments Wednesday night, just hours after news broke that Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer was planning to retire. Let me put this in context. With a 50-50 Senate in which Democrats will need every vote to replace Breyer with an African American woman (as President Joe Biden has promised), AOC attacked one of the 50 Democrats who could scuttle the nomination.
Keep in mind that Democratic control over the Senate could not be any more precarious. In fact, Harvard legal scholar Laurence Tribe has previously argued that a vice president can’t break a tie on a Supreme Court nomination. While it seems highly unlikely his constitutional argument will win the day, the only obstacles between Biden getting his first SCOTUS pick are a) the life and health of 50 Democratic senators—many of whom are in their golden years—and b) the possible defection of Sens. Sinema or Joe Manchin.
When you realize that President Donald Trump won Manchin’s home state of West Virginia by almost 40 percentage points, you start to realize that Manchin might be better off switching parties. Likewise, Sinema has a higher approval rating among Arizona Republicans than Democrats (a party that just voted to censure her). Now, I don’t actually think either will switch parties, although crazier things have happened. But that doesn’t mean Sinema and Manchin couldn’t vote against Biden’s nominee—especially if that nominee hits some bumps en route to confirmation.
But even then, unless progressives like AOC find a way to completely alienate them from the Democratic Party, it seems highly likely that Sinema and Manchin will both support the nominee—as will some Republicans.
As CNN’s Manu Ragu notes, “Manchin has long deferred to presidents’ nominees; Sinema tends to vote for Biden nominees.” Amber Phillips of the Washington Post agrees, writing, “Manchin and Sinema have both supported his lower court picks, including one that is high on Biden’s short list for the high court: Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson.” And Ben Jacobs at New York magazine says both senators “look ready to help the president fulfill his promise from the 2020 presidential primary of putting the first Black woman on the Court.”
It was ill-advised for AOC to attack Sinema (and Manchin) at the exact moment when they are poised to deliver a huge win for their party. Even if it’s unlikely they’ll be angered enough by the attacks from the party’s left-flank that they’d derail the nomination, Supreme Court confirmations are precious. Why chance blowing it?
Rather than seizing this opportunity to cast stones inside their own house, this moment should serve as a reminder to Democrats that they should be thankful for centrists like Sinema and Manchin who—even if they sometimes fall short of the progressive purity test—still represent the party in states that are far from “safe” for Democratic incumbents.
It’s entirely plausible that Sinema could be defeated by a Republican, a scenario made more likely by Democratic infighting. It also seems almost certain that a Republican would replace Manchin if he retires or loses reelection. Given those realities, Democrats should take what they can get (such as a lifetime justice on the high court!) and avoid making perfect the enemy of good.
Now, AOC may not have much appreciation for the political realities of living in a red (or purple) state, coming from a safe New York congressional district. But the rest of the country doesn’t share the political sensibilities of her New York City district. Despite her relatively brief tenure in the lower house, AOC has a huge megaphone, commands media attention, and has a huge social media following. All this is to say, her ability to pressure (and alienate) moderate Democrats in the upper chamber exceeds her congressional seniority. This is a problem for the party.
If Democrats want to achieve grand progressive results (a la FDR and LBJ), they need grand majorities—something that’s highly unlikely for the foreseeable future. It’s unrealistic to think you can always count on having unanimous support from your caucus, so you need a little cushion. This is the cost of doing the business of politics.
They can build a cushion by winning more elections—not by harshly disciplining their narrow majority, which will unintentionally lose seats. As James Carville told Vox, “If we want to pass more liberal policies, we need to elect more Democrats. Period. End of story.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself. And to accomplish this task, Democrats need to get their most famous and important progressive star, AOC, on board.