There was just no way around it, no matter how many times the party had been humiliated in the past. They had to be there, and so separate invitations were addressed to two of the biggest troublemakers Democrats have had to deal with in the last three decades.
Bill Clinton and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez both addressed the second night of the Democratic National Convention Tuesday. Well, to be more accurate, the former president and the current congresswoman both taped remarks for a convention held in self-isolation. Yet even then, a tension between generations and ideologies simmered beneath the surface of reliably partisan programming.
Things could have been different. And for a while, before the pandemic and before Super Tuesday, it looked like they just might. Had the Bernie Sanders revolution not sputtered, Ocasio-Cortez would have enjoyed another triumph against the odds and a historic changing of the guard. But Vermont’s socialist senator came in second, as he did in 2016, and is little more than an afterthought now. On Tuesday night, AOC was as an ally of necessity as Democrats set aside all internal differences in their attempt to keep Donald Trump from a second term.
Ocasio-Cortez and Clinton, who have never appeared on the same physical stage, make quite a pair because, as different as they are, the party doesn’t seem to know what to do with either of them in 2020.
It normally makes sense to give former presidents the best seats and speaking slots. Clinton, like elder statesmen before him, enjoyed those perks at each of the conventions following his time in the White House. But those benefits have come into question in the era of #MeToo and as the nation casts a more critical eye on his questionable extracurricular activities.
“His presence reminds women voters that Democrats once excused and enabled a man credibly accused of multiple instances of sexual misconduct,” wrote Erin Gloria Ryan of Crooked Media, the opinion outlet founded and managed by former members of the Obama administration.
It also normally makes sense for the party to showcase up-and-coming talent in prime time. Ocasio-Cortez, 30, has unquestionable star power. She also draws a reciprocal and negative reaction from the right. Party brass had worried that her presence would give Trump World another chance to cast Joe Biden as a radical. Besides, AOC has caused plenty of trouble in the past, albeit the good kind. She knocked off Rep. Joe Crowley in the 2018 Democratic primary just as the then-56-year-old Queens native was preparing to climb higher in the ranks of House leadership. And she has endorsed other insurgents against incumbent Democratic House members and campaigned passionately for Sanders – and against Biden – in 2020.
Still, progressives bristled at the mere rumor of the party shunning Ocasio-Cortez at convention time. Winnie Wong, a former adviser to the Sanders campaign, publicly shamed the party officials, tweeting that “you want Bill Clinton to speak but maybe not AOC? Okay, dummies.”
In the end, those in charge of the convention never chose one over the other. They looked past the unpresidential things that Clinton did with a White House intern, the sexual harassment claims back in Arkansas, the dissembling about it under oath that led to impeachment and even post-presidency rumors about Clinton and Jeffrey Epstein. He got five minutes. They also overcame internal sour grapes and overlooked strategic concerns about Ocasio-Cortez. She got 60 seconds. The two, who had caused fits for very different reasons, got their tickets punched.
Clinton, who turns 74 today and appeared trim in a slim-fit blue suit in his video, went first with brief remarks about how the current president has failed to combat the coronavirus. Seated in his living room in Chappaqua, N.Y., the former president said that the pandemic is raging unchecked and that his old friend Donald Trump is incapable of rising to the challenge of a global health crisis.
“If you want a president who defines the job as spending hours a day watching TV and zapping people on social media, he’s your man,” Clinton said. “Denying, distracting, and demeaning works great if you’re trying to entertain and inflame. But in a real crisis, it collapses like a house of cards.”
Similar words were uttered on the first day of the convention — and over the last six months of the campaign. They could have been delivered by anyone. But Clinton returned to that well-worn theme Tuesday night. Not directly addressed, but no less emphasized by his presence, was a neoliberalism now falling out of fashion among more radical corners of the party’s left wing.
An old pioneer of the “third way” espoused by the New Democrats, Clinton pushed centrism on trade and welfare reform and, on occasion, tax policy during his time in the White House. He even uttered what would now be considered an anathema during a State of the Union when he declared “the era of big government is over.” If this was not bad enough, according to new norms, Clinton embraced a sort of social conservatism with his Defense of Marriage Act and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policies on gays in the military.
So Clinton was addressing a party that has moved past him and to the left, and he knew it. He did not relitigate any of those old battles, instead offering his support of the comparatively centrist nominee.
Ocasio-Cortez did not take the former president, or any member of the old guard, to task. At least, not directly. She aimed at the current status quo and offered a rebuttal to the old, centrist way of doing things. Charged with endorsing the ceremonial nomination of Sanders, AOC began by praising the “mass people’s movement” that Bernie had led.
Standing in front of American flags and dressed in purple, the author of the Green New Deal and advocate for “Medicare for All” offered something of a eulogy for the Sanders campaign that had strived “to recognize and repair the wounds of racial injustice, colonization, misogyny and homophobia.” She praised it for reimagining “systems of immigration and foreign policy that turn away from the violence and xenophobia of our past.” She commended that now defunct campaign for realizing “the unsustainable brutality of an economy that rewards explosive inequalities of wealth for the few at the expense of long-term stability for the many.” She embraced Biden and his comparative centrism as part of the greater effort to replace Trump.
It was a muted warning from the face of the far left in Congress. For the moment, Ocasio-Cortez has joined with the centrist establishment. But she continues to support primary challengers trying to unseat Democratic incumbents, working all the while to push her party farther left and past the likes of Bill Clinton.