The Squad Gets Love From the Left—and Anger From Voters
They were hailed as heroes by the left, but back home many constituents weren’t clapping their hands for Squad members; they were scratching their heads.
The passage of President Joe Biden’s $1.75-trillion social welfare spending bill in the House was a much-needed win for Democrats. But for six progressive lawmakers who were willing to block the other half of Biden’s agenda in order to secure the rest of it, the victory was especially sweet.
After the Build Back Better Act passed Friday, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) said the vote to approve the historic package of investments fighting climate change and expanding the social safety net was “why we even run and serve in Congress, to pass legislation like this that impacts people’s everyday lives, to transform our material reality.”
It was the fear of missing that opportunity that drove Ocasio-Cortez and the members of the so-called Squad to vote against a $1.2-trillion Biden-backed infrastructure bill two weeks earlier, even at the risk of denying Democrats and the president a key policy win—and inspiring the ire of voters in liberal districts that could badly use money for infrastructure.
Still, Ocasio-Cortez went so far as to say Thursday night that their stand had “contributed to the pressure and urgency of this vote tonight.”
That may have been more spin than reality, but regardless, the progressive star and the rest of the Squad can now claim real progress toward fulfilling the kinds of lofty promises they campaigned on.
And even though the Build Back Better legislation is far from finished—Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) may prevent it from ever becoming law—progressives can reasonably claim they did everything in their power to make that bill a reality.
In that effort, however, some progressives denied themselves the opportunity to claim credit for another key plank of Biden’s agenda.
The six members of the Squad—Reps. Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar (D-MN), Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), Jamaal Bowman (D-NY), Cori Bush (D-MO), and Ayanna Pressley (D-MA)—all voted against the massive infrastructure bill earlier this month.
While those six lawmakers have been hailed as heroes by progressives for helping to push the Build Back Better bill over the finish line in the House, the blowback for voting against a popular and much-need infrastructure bill has been a lesson in how all politics is local.
Back home, many constituents weren’t clapping their hands for Squad members; they were scratching their heads.
Dwayne Murray, a high school basketball coach in Bowman’s district, likes and supports his congressman after initially opposing him when he successfully unseated the area’s longtime congressman, Eliot Engel, in 2020.
But Murray told The Daily Beast that his initial reaction to the infrastructure vote was “disbelief.” His hometown of Mount Vernon—just outside New York City’s borders—has made national news for its dangerously decrepit wastewater infrastructure. The infrastructure bill, among other things, proposed $55 billion to fund water and sewer improvements.
“I was just completely flabbergasted that knowing what circumstances are with us, that he’d actually vote that way,” said Murray. “It said to me, and apparently a lot of other people, that idealism is more important than deliverables.”
Members of the Squad worked quickly to try to explain that they did not oppose the infrastructure bill, just the strategy behind it.
Bowman, for one, swiftly held a town hall meeting with constituents in his district—proof, Murray said, that he recognized “the four-alarm fire his vote caused.”
The New York congressman told The Daily Beast there was initially some confusion about the vote. “People felt that I voted against lowering prescription drugs. They felt that I voted against childcare. So, you know, the way it was reported and communicated, it was like we voted against the whole thing, like both bills together,” he said.
That led Bowman’s team to launch an “information and engagement campaign” across local media in an attempt to explain his rationale on voting down the bipartisan deal. The congressman says he found the “majority of people were OK with it” after hearing his side of the story.
Rhiannon Navin, a constituent of Bowman’s, told The Daily Beast as much. She supported his ‘no’ vote on the infrastructure bill to preserve the climate change provisions in the broader bill, and said that after town halls, some who were skeptical of the vote said, “I get it.”
Pressley also held a virtual town hall on Nov. 9. And it took one question before she was asked how she could vote against a bill that created jobs in her district.
After a lengthy explanation of all the dynamics that played into her vote, Pressley said it was ultimately about keeping her promises. “I just reject the false choice, I honored my promise that I made to my constituents to hold the line to delay the bipartisan infrastructure bill to keep our leverage in order to pass the Build Back Better Act and I'll continue fighting for every worker and family in my district,” she said.
To the Squad’s supporters, it was painful to watch the lawmakers taking heat for a stand predicated on passing the entirety of Biden’s agenda, and it continues to rankle them that Democratic leadership chose to put pressure on the left, not moderates, who had angled for months to pass the infrastructure bill and leave the Build Back Better Act for later.
“No one likes to be put in the position of voting down something they’d otherwise support,” said one progressive aide. “At the end of the day, who’s willing to vote their conscience? These six members.”
But that vote of conscience has, clearly, come with some real cost for these progressives.
In Ocasio-Cortez’s district, the New York Times found that even supporters didn’t approve of her vote, even if they understood her reasons for taking it. “Right mindset, but wrong execution,” one 27-year old constituent told the paper of his representative’s vote.
Three days after the vote, Tlaib saw a state senator, Shri Thanedar, announce he was considering a primary challenge. Thanedar told The Daily Beast that he would have voted for the infrastructure bill and claimed “people are really shocked and surprised by the ‘no’ vote.”
During his visit to a General Motors plant on Wednesday to promote the infrastructure law, Biden gave a shout out to Tlaib, who represents the part of Detroit where the factory is located. But unlike several members of the Michigan delegation, she didn’t get a ride there on Air Force One. Only ‘yes’ votes were invited to fly with Biden, according to a White House official.
Progressive aides and operatives close to the Squad admit their votes against the infrastructure bill will not help them.
“It has been really hard for them,” a top progressive aide on Capitol Hill said of the Squad. “They’re going to be in a tough spot when the Department of Transportation announces a project in their district anytime in the next 10 years… They did a very brave thing knowing that they will have to live with the political consequences of taking this vote.”
Max Berger, a strategist who formerly worked to elect Squad members at the outside group Justice Democrats, told The Daily Beast, “It’s a tough vote, it does not look great.”
But progressives like Berger see that tough vote as a vindication of why the Squad was sent to Congress in the first place: to do difficult things in service of achieving real progressive wins that they campaigned on.
They failed, at least in the short term, but if there were more progressives willing to vote ‘no’ that night, things might have gone differently. “I don’t think this is a cause for recalibration of the overall strategy,” said Berger. “It shows we need more people like this in Congress.”
Fulfilling that goal continues to be an active project for groups like Justice Democrats, which is targeting four incumbent Democrats in 2022 with challenges from the left. But there’s a tension in casting the infrastructure vote as exhibit A for electing more Squad members.
And progressives acknowledge that.
Their stand might have been praised as a fierce fight for the left’s values. But politically, those who took it will be lucky if many of their constituents forget about it. And there’s a real risk many could remember it as a reason to think twice about supporting them.
Either way, progressive advocates seem satisfied that the worst case will be avoided. “If we’re ever going to get to a politics that’s more than taking a poll of what’s popular and reflecting it back to people, we have to have politicians willing to take hard votes and communicate why,” said Leah Greenberg, co-founder of the progressive group Indivisible.
It’s also the case that along with the blowback Squad members received, there was also understanding and even appreciation for their votes.
The Democratic Mayor of St. Louis, Tishaura Jones, attended the infrastructure bill signing at the White House, with the legislation slated to deliver $9 billion to Missouri in repairs for roads and bridges, public transit fixes, water quality improvements and expanded broadband access.
But even then, Jones’ office said the mayor understood the decision of local congresswoman Cori Bush to vote down the bill.
“St. Louis still needs federal action on issues that matter to families,” Jones’ public information officer, Nick Dunne, told The Daily Beast.
In Massachusetts, state Rep. Steve Owens (D) said he completely respects and understands congresswoman Pressley’s decision to vote against the infrastructure deal for the sake of Build Back Better. “The constituents that I talk to feel similarly, and she has our support in the district,” he said.
The vote clearly showcased the Squad’s commitment to one another. Bowman said, leading up to the infrastructure vote, the group decided to travel together to the House floor to cast their votes in order to “come in together in both political and physical solidarity.”
That plan was, in part, a reaction to a high-profile vote in May to approve more funding for the U.S. Capitol Police. Members of the group “felt like we were being pushed around… So this time, we just wanted to be together,” Bowman said. On that vote, Bush, Omar and Pressley voted against the bill, while Bowman, Ocasio-Cortez and Tlaib voted present.
“There are times where even the six of us don’t vote the same way, right. But when we are, especially with something that’s high-profile, you know, we want to get each other’s backs,” Bowman added.
This year has been a big turning point in the cohesion of the Squad as a group, said an aide familiar with their dynamic. Part of the reason why is the closeness of staffers, who regularly communicate with each other both online and outside the House floor during votes.
“There’s a lot of community in this,” said the aide, who observed that the Squad is increasingly “taking similar positions less popular” within the broader Democratic caucus.
These members surely recognize that Democrats are facing a stark reality in the 2022 midterms—and they are banking on the confidence that their constituents elected them for votes like this.
“Every single vote that we take comes with a positive and a negative reaction from our constituents, and this vote is similar,” Omar told The Daily Beast.
“I feel pretty confident that my district understands the reasoning behind it and believes that I am here to make sure that my promises to them are kept,” she added.