What to make of that lightning bolt that struck the Democratic Party Tuesday night when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez beat incumbent Congressman Joe Crowley in their primary—and I mean crushed him, by 16 percentage points? Most people are going to see it as a left vs. establishment story, and sure, that’s legit.
But I see it in another context, too, one that I fear will be overlooked. It’s a generational story, and a story about how to be in touch with younger Democratic voters, which Democratic leadership did a horrible job of demonstrating this week in its responses to RedHenGate. And those Democratic leaders better be aware of this and change their game accordingly, or they will fail to communicate to their voters that they understand what’s at stake in this election.
First of all, no tears for Crowley. He was, in addition to being a congressman, the head of the Queens County Democratic Party, which is a shell of what it used to be, but still has a long and ignoble history—it helped make then-prosecutor Rudy Giuliani famous in the 1980s by being so operatically corrupt. Since then it’s adapted to the borough’s changing demographics with some scattered success, but basically these old county machines survive by engineering low-interest, low-turnout elections, ensuring that incumbents barely have to campaign.
So Crowley had to campaign. Boo hoo. And the district changed. It takes in big chunks of the Bronx, and it’s now 50 percent Latino (and just 18 percent white). In addition, some of the Queens parts of the district have become home to younger voters, the kind of people priced out of not only Manhattan but now Williamsburg, too. Ocasio-Cortez was more in touch with all of these folks, and she obviously energized voters in a way that’s extremely rare, so good for her. It’s extremely impressive what she’s done.
People are turning to the obvious Eric Cantor parallel, and yeah, fine, I guess. But let me throw two parallels at you that are far more relevant. In 1992 in Brooklyn, Nydia Velazquez, now a congressional veteran, upset longtime incumbent Steve Solarz in a newly drawn, heavily Latino district (although as I remember things, just under 50 percent). Solarz was caught up in the House banking scandal, but it was a similar dynamic: a young and more left-leaning Latina challenger beating an older white establishment guy.
Parallel No. 2, also from Brooklyn, goes back to 1972, when Elizabeth Holtzman beat a man named Emmanuel Cellar. Now, Cellar was literally a 50-year veteran of the House (!) as opposed to Crowley’s “mere” 20, but it was the same kind of thing: Newer, younger voters who’d moved into the brownstone Brooklyn district, voters motivated by more leftish concerns like fierce opposition to the Vietnam War and to Richard Nixon, told the old guy his time was up. (Holtzman would go on to distinguish herself as an anti-Nixon leader.)
So that’s what this is. The rest of the media are going to be all Bernie Bernie Bernie (Ocasio-Cortez was a big Sanders supporter), because that’s what they do. But the fact is that out there around the country, for every Ocasio-Cortez, there are probably two Conor Lambs who are running in purple districts who will never pledge to do away with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, as Ocasio-Cortez did (a position, I should note, that might end up being an electoral gift for Trump and the GOP), and will be very skittish about signing on to Medicare for All. New York’s 14th District is solidly blue either way. For the Democrats to expand the map and win a House majority, they’ll need more Lambs than Ocasio-Cortezes.
That’s why I think the real warning shot here isn’t ideological but generational. Ocasio-Cortez and Lamb have differences in terms of their stances and the way they talk on the trail, but they did share one notable position: Both said they wouldn’t necessarily support Nancy Pelosi for speaker. Ocasio-Cortez had said, in a NewYork1 debate: “I want to see new options. I want to see what we have on the field.”
As it happens, Pelosi seized an opportunity earlier in the week to demonstrate just how shockingly out of touch she is in how she rebuked Maxine Waters for her controversial remarks about the Sarah Huckabee Sanders restaurant matter. Waters went too far, as she sometimes does. So it wasn’t crazy for Pelosi to decide to put a little space between herself and Waters.
But get the language of Pelosi’s tweet: “In the crucial months ahead, we must strive to make America beautiful again. Trump’s daily lack of civility has provoked responses that are predictable but unacceptable. As we go forward, we must conduct elections in a way that achieves unity from sea to shining sea.”
What? Make America beautiful again? From sea to shining sea? What is this, the Children’s Television Workshop? We’re in a death match here—a struggle for the soul of the country that every passing week more and more resembles the 1850s. A stolen Supreme Court seat produces abjectly politicized 5-4 majorities that threaten our way of life as liberals understand it. We have a policy at our border that would have seemed normal in the old Soviet Union. We’re in a crisis. And that is Pelosi’s response? Chuck Schumer’s statement was also timorous and defensive, although at least it avoided the embarrassing, ice cream-and-lollipops language Pelosi used.
Here, instead, is what they might have said: “Sure, Maxine went a little far. But she’s a member of Congress, she has a right to say what she wants. She’s not the problem. The problem is the government of the United States ripping children from their parent’s arms. The problem is a president who throws gasoline on every racial and cultural fire we have in this country; a president who writes tweets that lie and mock and humiliate people as if he were on a playground. Trump is the problem, not Maxine Waters or the proprietor of the Red Hen.”
Democrats need to keep their eyes on the prize here. They are not going to win this fall playing a game of defensive caution. They need young voters and women voters of the sort who carried both Ocasio-Cortez and Lamb to victory. If the spirit of that Pelosi tweet is the spirit that’s getting through to those voters come October, they’re doomed.