The Slatest

The Green New Deal Is Now a Litmus Test for the 2020 Field

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez smiles at her Green New Deal co-author Sen. Ed Markey during a Capitol Hill news conference.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal will help sort a crowded 2020 Democratic field. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Sen. Edward Markey, and a number of other progressive Democrats on Thursday formally unveiled their long-awaited framework for a Green New Deal. The proposal took the form of a nonbinding resolution—i.e, not actual legislation—but to call it sweeping is an understatement. It aims to reshape the economy by making the nation carbon-neutral in the next decade, to re-establish the social safety net via universal health care and a federal jobs guarantee, and to rethink the government’s obligation to its citizens by prioritizing historically disadvantaged communities. “We’re here to say that small, incremental policy solutions are not enough,” Ocasio-Cortez declared outside the U.S. Capitol.

Is the proposal perfect? No. Is it complete? Nope. Realistic? Nah. Does it have the votes to pass the Democrat-controlled House, let alone the Republican-led Senate? Nuh-uh. Will Nancy Pelosi even give it an up-or-down vote in the lower chamber? Not anytime soon, from the sounds of it.

Here, though, is one thing it will do: make climate change a major issue in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary. That might not sound like a lot, but it’s truly a breakthrough, considering that global warming got short shrift in the 2016 primary and no shrift in the last general election. Four years ago, the defining fault line ran so neatly between the two parties that it often went without saying: Democrats accepted the science of man-made climate change; Republicans, almost to a man, did not. As a litmus test, it was illuminating. But it also undercut the sense of urgency among liberals. Hillary Clinton had to suffer through the occasional heckling, sure, but she knew that the climate crowd would come around by Election Day given their legitimate fears (since confirmed) about what a climate-science-denying GOP president would do.

There was already going to be far more room for climate debate this time around given the wide-open nature of the Democratic field. But the Green New Deal will now carve out space on the campaign trail for that explicit purpose; Ocasio-Cortez’s ability to capture the attention of liberals and conservatives alike ensures that. The proposal instantly creates the new litmus test for the left, one that will differentiate between those who accept the general reality that man is warming the planet and those who accept the specific consensus that governments need to take urgent, concrete steps to address the crisis. A candidate can pass that test without signing on to the Green New Deal, but they’ll need to get specific about what proposals aren’t feasible or necessary. Similarly, they’re free to get their hands dirty and weigh in on some of the thorny questions the Green New Deal framework doesn’t try to answer, including how best to pay for it. But platitudes will no longer suffice.

The AOC-Markey plan is truly radical relative to the status quo, but this is not a fringe proposal. It already has 64 co-sponsors in the House and another nine in the Senate—including five White House hopefuls: Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Bernie Sanders.

Signing on to the effort is just a start—as the recent backtracking by some of those same people on Medicare for all has made clear. The real test isn’t what candidates want in a perfect world; it’s what they’re willing to fight for in this one. In that regard, the Green New Deal also presents a major opening for any progressive looking to stand out in a field that continues to move left. If no one in the front-runner pack is willing to declare it their top priority, full stop, it would open the door for a lesser-known candidate to enter the picture. The 29-year-old Ocasio-Cortez is too young to run for president, but she’s not too young to play the role of king- or queenmaker among progressives. You can imagine the kind of stump speech she would like to hear. Here she was at Thursday’s big unveiling:

We’re here to say that small, incremental policy solutions are not enough. They can be part of a solution, but they are not the solution unto itself. There is no justice and there is no combating climate change without addressing what has happened to indigenous communities. That means there is no fixing our economy without addressing the racial wealth gap. That means we are not going to transition to renewable energies without also transitioning front-line communities and coal communities into economic opportunity as well. That is what this is about. 

The plan’s political power lies very much in that holistic approach. It’s a cheat code to move past the either/or debate that tends to define the conversation on the left: Do you want to combat income inequality, or do you want to address climate change? The Green New Deal answers, simply, Yes.

For years, the Republican Party has managed to shirk its responsibility to find climate solutions by refusing to concede there is any problem to solve. The Green New Deal flips that dynamic on its head by focusing on what else can be gained by addressing the problem, instead of what might be sacrificed. That alone will make it a conversation Democratic hopefuls are more eager to have—and primary voters more likely to pay attention to.