(Bloomberg) -- A quartet of young Democratic women, new to Congress and unafraid to push boundaries, is making an audacious attempt to set their party’s agenda and shape the 2020 presidential campaign.
New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has floated tax rates as high as 70 percent on top incomes to fund a "Green New Deal" and end fossil fuels. Boston’s Ayanna Pressley wants to clear the way for passing legislation without regard for its impact on the deficit. Detroit’s Ilhan Omar secured a House rule change that let her wear a religious head scarf in the chamber. Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib drew rebukes for a profanity-laced call to impeach President Donald Trump.
"Everything we do has some element of transforming the conversation," Ocasio-Cortez said in an interview. "We’re the party of the New Deal and that’s the kind of Democrat that I am, and so I’m of course going to be advocating for those viewpoints."
These women reflect the changing face of a party that’s becoming younger, increasingly diverse, and more progressive. All four are are under 45. Pressley is black, Ocasio-Cortez is of Puerto Rican descent, and Tlaib and Omar are Muslim. They’re active on social media, where they promote causes like Medicare for all and free public college, all aimed at stretching the perception of what’s possible and transforming the national debate.
Their more radical proposals are a long way from taking root, and many Democratic colleagues are concerned that they are defining the party for the broad swath of voters who generally are more conservative. Still, some of the ideas they are championing -- proposals like a “Green New Deal” and expanding Medicare eligibility -- are finding favor in the field of Democrats considering a 2020 presidential run who will have to win the party’s liberal-leaning base that turns out for primaries and caucuses.
“I just hope to do what I can to influence the overall conversation, and do my best to contribute and to introduce new ideas, because that is what the American people are really asking for,” Ocasio-Cortez said.
Omar said moving the national debate is "the core of the reason I ran" for Congress.
‘Shift the Narrative’
"I want to shift the narrative of who belongs in these halls," Omar, a Somali American who grew up in Kenya at a refugee camp, said in an interview. "I also want to shift the narrative around immigrants, refugees, make sure people understand that their hopes, dreams, struggles, aspirations are the same as everyone else’s."
Tlaib said she’s not “at all” deterred by the criticism of her remarks about impeaching Trump, nor are her constituents. “I’m here to work and be their voice. But I love the fact that my residents don’t expect me to be perfect, or that polished politician,” she said. “They wanted somebody real and they have someone.”
The quick prominence of the new lawmakers will pose challenges for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as she seeks to unify her left and centrist flanks around legislation to keep a divided government functioning while also conveying the party’s vision to 2020 voters.
House Democratic leaders are keenly aware of their megaphone and ability to affect the conversation. Ocasio-Cortez, who joined a protest in Pelosi’s office before even being sworn in, now has more followers on Twitter than the speaker of the House.
Tlaib stirred a controversy when was recorded saying "we’re gonna go in and impeach the motherf-----," referring to the president, which flew in the face of attempts by Pelosi to tamp down impeachment talk and gave Republicans an opening for attack. But the California Democrat told MSNBC that while Tlaib’s stance doesn’t reflect the position of House Democrats, her language wasn’t "anything worse than what the president has said."
House Democratic Conference Chairman Hakeem Jeffries, a New Yorker, heaped praise on the new freshman class. "They are definitely a great asset to advancing our agenda," he said.
But some rank-and-file Democrats, veterans and newcomers, are wary of their outspokenness and willingness to break convention. Only a few have publicly criticized them. After Tlaib’s profane call for Trump’s impeachment, Missouri Representative Emanuel Cleaver chided her in a tweet:
“In this new Congress, we must do what is right and not what is easy. So I’ll say what needs to be said: My colleague was flat-out wrong,” Cleaver tweeted.
They’re still only four women in a caucus of 235, which includes many lawmakers in relatively conservative districts who consider their ideas unrealistic and prefer to focus on modest proposals that can become law in a time of divided government. But they have their finger on the pulse of a passionate liberal base, and presidential hopefuls are paying attention.
"She is challenging the status quo. I think that’s fantastic," California Senator Kamala Harris, a potential 2020 candidate, said of Ocasio-Cortez on ABC’s “The View.” Harris rejected the notion that Ocasio-Cortez’s socialist views risk splintering the Democratic Party. "She is introducing bold ideas that should be discussed, and I think it’s good for the party."
Leading contenders like Senator Elizabeth Warren and Beto O’Rourke have signaled support for the concept of a "Green New Deal" involving large investments in renewable energy. Presidential hopeful Julián Castro voiced openness to a higher top rate on the ultra-wealthy to pay for policies such as a climate agenda after Ocasio-Cortez floated the idea.
Other Democrats are keeping their distance from talk of steep tax hikes and rejecting the idea of a single-payer health care system. The Democratic takeover of the House in November’s midterm turned on victories in purple or red districts where the electorate is more conservative than Bronx or Boston.
"It is certainly true that the wealthy pay too little in taxes, but we’re not ready to stipulate that that rate should be set at 70 percent," said Matt Bennett, a spokesman for Third Way, a group seeking to steer the Democratic Party in a more centrist direction. "We think Medicare for All and other ideas at the core of the democratic socialist agenda that Senator Sanders was running on last time are a mistake for Democrats," referring to Bernie Sanders, the 2016 presidential candidate.
"That is not the direction voters in swing districts want," he said.
But that may not apply to core Democratic voters.
A Gallup poll released last week found that the share of Democrats who self-identify as "liberal" has shot up from 25 percent in 1994 to 51 percent in 2018, while moderates and conservatives in the party fell by double-digits. Among Americans overall, those who identify as "liberal" rose from 17 percent to 26 percent over that same period, but self-identified conservatives still rank higher at 35 percent.
"This is the tension that is within the Democratic Party. Do you go strongly progressive or do you stay in that center?" said Donna Edwards, a former Democratic congresswoman who served from 2008 to 2017.
She said Ocasio-Cortez, Omar, Pressley and Tlaib are having "an outsize impact on the conversation" in the party. "It is going to put increased pressure on anyone who wants to be the standard bearer of the party to be able to speak that language. It’s a language that reflects where the base of the party is."
Waleed Shahid, a spokesman for Justice Democrats, an activist group with ties to Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders, said Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer are "growing out of touch with where the center of energy is in party" because they hail from an era when Democrats were "scared of Republicans constantly."
"It’s why a bartender from the Bronx has set the climate for the 2020 election," he said.
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