Amazon announcing it will not put one of its new North America headquarters in New York City is the latest in a bad run of events that raise the possibility that progressives have overplayed their hand. While progressives may be newly energized after electoral success in November’s elections, they don’t have the electoral mandate they believe they do, and they still have to answer how they intend to implement their ambitious agenda with little to show for themselves to date.
This negative news cycle began when Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York, unveiled her Green New Deal proposal, with confusion about what was actually introduced. Wildly ambitious in scope, seeking to shift entirely to zero-emission energy within a decade and provide good-paying jobs to all, it was confusing in part because of the publication of an early draft of an FAQ that didn’t represent what was actually in the proposal. This fueled opponents’ attacks on the program and left lawmakers and the media trying to figure out what had actually been proposed.
In the wake of the botched Green New Deal proposal was California’s new governor, Gavin Newsom, announcing that the state no longer intends to complete high-speed rail between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The project had become too costly to justify. Worse yet, only a hard-to-justify-in-a-vacuum stretch of rail in the Central Valley will be completed, at considerable cost. This was exactly the kind of project that the Green New Deal advocates, and if deep blue, wealthy California can’t make it happen, it’s hard to imagine making the economics and the politics of similar projects work across the country.
Opponents of New York’s deal with Amazon are surely cheering Thursday’s news, but they’re on shaky ground politically, given that the arrival of Amazon has consistently polled well with voters. Support for the Amazon deal has been highest among black and Latino voters, with white voters considerably more mixed, largely over concerns about overcrowding infrastructure and aggravating a housing crisis. It’s not a stretch to argue that the political divide on the Amazon deal mirrors that of New York’s Democratic gubernatorial primary last year, with Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s voters supporting the deal and challenger Cynthia Nixon’s voters more divided on it.
All these news stories cast a shadow over the Democratic presidential primary, where most major declared candidates to date have raced to embrace policy proposals like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal offered up by progressives. It’s debatable whether this will end up being a winning strategy.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, considered a moderate rather than a progressive in today’s Democratic Party, continues to lead all early polling. While skeptics think that’s based on name recognition more than anything else, at a similar early stage of the 2016 Republican presidential primaries Jeb Bush never polled higher than the teens. While it remains to be seen whether Biden’s strong polling will hold up if he enters the race, Democratic voters are saying for now that they’re open to the candidacy of an older moderate white man, and aren’t necessarily looking for a strong progressive.
It’s possible that one day the Democratic Party will be the party of people like Ocasio-Cortez. But a little historical perspective may be in order. Newt Gingrich was first elected to Congress in 1978 and didn’t become Speaker of the House until 16 years later. It was a similar story for Paul Ryan, who was first elected to Congress in 1998. Political revolutions take time, and even if progressives are convinced they’ll win in the end, in 2019 they’re overplaying their hand.
Conor Sen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a portfolio manager for New River Investments in Atlanta and has been a contributor to the Atlantic and Business Insider.