Voices: From AOC to Joe Manchin, the Democratic divide is becoming more severe

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 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Last year, after Glenn Youngkin became the first Republican to win Virginia’s governorship in a decade, Democratic Representative Abigail Spanberger — a moderate who represents the Richmond area — told The New York Times that Joe Biden had lost focus. “Nobody elected him to be FDR,” she said. “They elected him to be normal and stop the chaos.”

But when House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy quoted Spanberger’s line during his faux-filibuster stalling the vote on Build Back Better that month, democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez contradicted her colleague by saying: “I did.”

The two Congresswomen are now at odds again. Spanberger has been pushing for more police funding, and hoped to have the House vote on it on Friday alongside a bill to ban assault weapons. She has criticized slogans like “Defund the Police”, and faces a tough re-election campaign against Yesli Vega, a Latina former police officer. In that context, she negotiated with Joyce Beatty, chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, to propose police accountability measures. But progressives balked, and the police funding vote was postponed.

One of the representatives wary of Spanberger’s priorities was Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, a former chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “I think just the concerns were whether or not it matches people’s priorities and visions for what we should do,” he told your reporter. “And so it wasn’t so much that we were rejecting things outright as much as this wasn’t the time to be trying to have every bill come without the proper review.”

That led to the vote on police funding being delayed until August.

“This is something I would have loved to have brought up two years ago,” Spanberger told reporters. “So I think that this is more likely a slightly later project, because in August, we will be here for maybe one to two days.”

But Michigan Representative Elissa Slotkin of Michigan, who also flipped a district in 2018 and faces a tough re-election, fumed about the delay. “I’m very disappointed,” she told me before the vote on the assault weapons ban. “And that was part of the deal.”

Representative Stephanie Murphy, a moderate Democrat from Florida who is retiring, was also irked: “I’m always frustrated with people who don’t believe in supporting law enforcement,” she said. (Last year, during the infrastructure fight, Murphy called progressives “the Never Enough caucus”.)

Conversely, when I asked Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez about the police bill, she replied with a simple: “I don’t have a comment.”

The fight shows just how rickety the Democratic coalition is. Moderates like Spanberger or Kyrsten Sinema, both of whom flipped once-safe Republican seats, want to show they can still appeal to erstwhile Republican or suburban voters. But progressives like Ocasio-Cortez, who trounced incumbent Democrats in primaries in 2018 and 2020, want their party’s agenda to meet what they see as a critical moment in American politics.

While moderate and conservative Democrats might be frustrated with progressives, progressives are grappling with the fact that they once again have to eat dirt. Last year, they pushed aggressively to pass the Build Back Better package alongside the bipartisan infrastructure bill, only to see the bipartisan bill pass without a hard commitment from Senator Joe Manchin. Manchin then unilaterally killed Build Back Better off after months of excruciating negotiations.

Now, the Democratic left have to swallow their pride and accept an extremely pared-down reconciliation bill: a package negotiated by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Manchin that tackles climate change and health care and even includes lease sales for drilling in Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico. This is the Democrats’ one chance at passing anything related to climate change or drug price negotiations, and they still don’t even have a hard commitment from Sinema.

By virtue of who they represent and which areas they represent, Democrats are far more heterogeneous in their caucus than Republicans. Members of the GOP may be more diverse when it comes to style and approach, but they are all extremely similar in terms of substance and end-goals.

In the coming weeks, as Democrats try to prove they can deliver for both moderates and progressives, expect their divisions to be on full display.

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