Fight club: As Democrats urge Biden to show some moxie, AOC’s ‘vigor’ offers an example

Strategists see a president and Hill leadership tepidly fighting GOP in culture wars

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., has shown the kind of fight Democrats aren't seeing in party leaders. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., has shown the kind of fight Democrats aren't seeing in party leaders. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted July 8, 2022 at 6:00am

ANALYSIS — Washington Democrats seem tired as the dog days of summer begin. All but one, that is.

Their collective fatigue after a spate of mass shootings and several right-turn decisions by the Supreme Court, including the end of federal abortion protections, is understandable. But it won’t help them come November.

More voters would prefer Republicans to run Congress than Democrats, 44.8 percent to 43.2 percent, according to a calculation based on multiple polls compiled by FiveThirtyEight.

To be sure, there are chances ahead for Democrats on Capitol Hill — and President Joe Biden — to catch their collective breath and start showing more vigor. Moderate and progressive Democrats agree on one thing, painting the country as in “crisis” and heading back to the 19th century, with a “rogue” high court and a Republican Party willing to resort to violence under the command of former President Donald Trump.

The paradox for Democrats is Biden does use tough talk.

After the high court ended abortion protections, he verbally lashed what he called “the outrageous behavior of the Supreme Court” and the “realization of an extreme ideology and a tragic error by the Supreme Court.” After 19 elementary school children were shot dead in an Uvalde, Texas school, the president was blunt about AR-15s and similar combat rifles: “What in God’s name do you need an assault weapon for except to kill someone? … Deer aren’t running through the forest with Kevlar vests on, for God’s sake. It’s just sick.”

But his words just don’t seem to resonate, and he does not go there that often. Instead, Biden typically gives a slightly revised version of the same traditional politician’s speech about his administration’s policy achievements. He whispers at the lectern, and veers off into asides, including tales he often does not finish.

So if Biden and other Democrats see the country in such a dire state, why don’t they more often use rhetoric that matches those assessments? Instead, they most often speak in somber and matter-of-fact tones. An exceptional fighting example sticks out among them.

Even without repeating her filibuster-ignoring calls for certain legislation that cannot pass the evenly divided Senate, Democrats in both chambers could look to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York for inspiration.

“Democrats could use more of AOC’s vigor, but she’s unrealistic about the prospects for Senate action. When she talks about Democrats, she is pointing at the president,” said Brad Bannon, a Democratic strategist. “The president was an effective Senate insider, and that has paid dividends during his presidency. He has been less successful using the presidency as a bully pulpit.”

Democratic members return next week return to a political pressure cooker, with new hopes of keeping the Senate — but a crowded tarmac of legislative whims and no clear flight plan. If they hope to keep momentum toward keeping the Senate created by the bipartisan gun bill law and the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, the landmark abortion case, they will need to prioritize what can pass both chambers — then ditch the rest.

‘Tell voters the plan’

But, as importantly, they will need to find a way to convince voters they have unlocked their fighter gene. Ocasio-Cortez is showing plenty of vigor and fight.

In a recent tweet thread, Ocasio-Cortez said one high court seat filled during Donald Trump’s administration “was stolen.” She added about conservative justices who voted to end Roe’s protections: “Several lied to Congress to secure their appointment.”

But the progressive fighter didn’t stop there; she also brought some fight to her party’s own leaders after pointing out the Supreme Court’s low approval rating.

An Economist-YouGov poll released Wednesday put the court’s approval rating at 39 percent, with a Gallup survey finding 25 percent of those polled have confidence in the highest judicial body in the land. In both surveys, the presidency and Congress also scored low marks.

“In a legitimacy crisis, the solution Biden + Dem leaders must offer can’t just be one of voting, but of statute & authority,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted. “Compared to Exec + Leg branch, checks on Court overreach and misconduct are little to none. Leaders must share their plans for Roe AND a rogue court.”

So far, Biden and other party leaders have offered many words but few — if any — plans.

“Dem leaders must tell voters the plan,” she wrote. “What’s the actual need? Which specific seats are we focused on? WHAT votes do we need & WHERE (what states + races?) … What is Biden/Congress ACTUALLY willing+able to do at 52/60 seats?”

The president has signaled he would use a bigger Senate majority to either suspend the 60-vote legislative threshold needed to defeat a filibuster or pass a bill aimed at codifying Roe’s abortion rights protections. But some Democrats see a president and congressional leadership with too little fight and too few plans.

“The advance release of the majority opinion in the [abortion] case gave his administration more than a month to plan a reaction to the devastating decision,” said Bannon, the Democratic strategist. “The president’s initial reaction was flat, and pro-choice advocates are still waiting for aggressive executive action to blunt the impact of Roe’s demise.”

Talk, in the era of social media, is simply not as cheap as it once was.

“Talk is cheap except when it comes from the White House. The president would serve the nation well if he turned up the volume on the bully pulpit,” Bannon said, “and vigorously and consistently called out GOP efforts to undermine democracy and corporate price gouging that has hurt hard-working American families.”

Other Democratic strategists see a feckless White House and party leadership struggling to resonate with voters — and, oddly, not phoning their friends for help.

“I am a so called Democratic strategist/ I talk to reporters based on 21 years of working in the senate and I have gotten no help/ no conference calls or tps from this White House,” strategist James Manley tweeted this week, using shorthand for talking points.

That prompted another, Cliff Schecter, to chime in: “I'm supposedly a Dem strategist too--even wrote ads for Biden's election!--nothing here either, Jim,” adding the silence is “consistent w lack of overarching positive/negative message.”

Those are big reasons why former White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki is no longer in her job and Communications Director Kate Bedingfield is leaving her post soon. Notably, the White House statement released Wednesday announcing the latter move did not feature a statement from Biden, whom NBC News last month reported has at times been furious about his communications and press operations.

Front lines

Modern America and its politics are less about speaking softly and carrying a big wonky stick of policy ideas, and more about the flash and brash of social media and reality television.

Democrats frequently appear on cable news or Sunday morning political programs and speak in measured or somber tones. Republicans have their own frequent television haunts, but are mostly all about the fight.

But they lack both a clear message and the vigor to convince voters. The midterms fight is on. Will Democrats fight to win — or to simply feel warm inside about all their most lofty, but not passable, ideas?

Biden delivered a mostly dry and meandering speech Wednesday in Cleveland about the economy and what he says are his presidency’s successes managing it. But he did flash some new attack lines, which might give Democrats some hope that Scranton Joe is ready to go bare knuckles in 2022 and then in 2024, when his press secretary says he “plans” to seek a second term.

He panned congressional Republicans for trying to sink pension reform legislation in 2019.

“I was in the Congress a long time, and the people are still in the Congress — there’s ones who wanted to, but they’re afraid to — afraid to — because the Trumpers would literally take them out,” he said. “Not a joke. That’s how bad it’s gotten. We’ve got to change it. We’ve got to change it.

“And my predecessor had the chance to act, but he didn’t have the commitment to you or the courage to stand up to his own party to get things done, dismissing and ignoring the forgotten people he promised to help,” Biden said, his voice morphing from Cool Joe to Campaign Joe. “Remember how he was going to help working-class folks?

“But tax cut for the wealthiest Americans,” he said, pausing before the money line: “He had no trouble passing that.”

Still, that’s a far cry from the party’s emerging fighter in chief, AOC, who told NBC’s “Meet The Press” late last month this of the high court justices who told senators Roe was settled law: “I believe that lying under oath is an impeachable offense.”

As president, Biden almost certainly will not go that far. But Democrats are clamoring for someone who will join Ocasio-Cortez on the front line.

Editor-at-Large John T. Bennett writes a weekly column for Roll Call, parts of which first appeared in the subscription-only CQ Senate newsletter.