California Sen. Dianne Feinstein may feel like she was treated unfairly by young activists who have hammered her for not backing the Green New Deal resolution, but she has plenty of company. In upstate New York, Utah, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania, voters who feel a much greater sense of urgency than their elected officials have been reacting furiously to politicians who say that the attempt to turn the fossil fuel-based economy around in the next 12 years simply isn’t realistic.
Rep. Antonio Delgado, the freshman from New York’s 19th District, was pressed repeatedly by constituents over his half-hearted support for the effort. He doesn’t support the Green New Deal, he told constituents at a town hall on February 16, though he noted that he backed certain aspects of the bill. Delgado said that he’s more interested in solutions that address the issues around climate change that can be solved now and that the bill as written does not sufficiently lay out a path for that kind of approach to the inevitability of climate crisis.
Democrats, especially freshmen in the House, are having to face voters in their districts who find the lack of action on climate change to be a major issue for the new representatives. And those complaints aren’t coming from blue districts — as with Delgado, freshmen Democrats from purple districts are facing resistance from constituents over their hesitancy to endorse progressive programs. Republicans aren’t immune either. On Monday morning, roughly 250 young activists from the Sunrise Movement occupied the office of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., with 35 getting arrested.
The main rhetorical device that Democratic skeptics of the Green New Deal have been employing begins with a confident assertion that they believe in climate science and that the crisis must be taken seriously, and they admire the ambition of the Green New Deal. But, they add, the resolution just can’t pass a Republican Senate or be signed by President Donald Trump.
“That resolution will not pass the Senate, and you can take that back to whoever sent you here,” Feinstein told a group of children from the Bay Area who spoke with her in her office. She added, “I’ve been in the Senate for a quarter of a century, and I know what can pass, and I know what can’t pass.” She was crafting an alternate resolution, she said, which has a “much better chance of passing.” That, of course, is not remotely true. A Senate controlled by McConnell is about as likely to pass a resolution written by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as one penned by Feinstein, even if Feinstein’s is much more moderate and does not push to turn the economy around in 12 years. The current debate is over what Democrats plan to implement if and when they take power — not what Trump will sign tomorrow.
“I am for the call to action,” Delgado told his constituents, listing off a number of priorities, including green jobs and ending fossil fuel subsidies, though he was less clear on what that would precisely look like. Rather, Delgado said that he was interested in policies that presented change in the short term — closing the door, at least for now, on the more long-term goals of the Green New Deal.
“It’s not what we want 15, 20, 30 years from now,” said Delgado. “What can we get done right now?”
Many Democrats, some of whom are vying for the party’s 2020 presidential nomination, are deflecting calls from the party’s base to come out forcefully in favor of policies like Medicare for All, free four-year college, and the Green New Deal, that, while popular, would still require major political battles to get through Congress.
By asserting their support of the broad principles undergirding the policies while rejecting the actual nuts and bolts of the legislation, Democrats are trying to have it both ways: keeping rhetorically in tune with the desires of the base but protecting the interests of the party’s powerful establishment donor class in their actions.
On Sunday night, Ocasio-Cortez responded to Feinstein, saying on Instagram Live and repeating later on Twitter that “Climate delayers are the new climate deniers.”
“I don’t think that working on an issue for 30 years alone is what makes someone qualified to solve an issue,” Ocasio-Cortez said on Instagram. “That said, there are a lot of people that have been doing this work for decades that have proposed ambitious solutions for years and have not been listened to.”
Protesters took McConnell’s office holding up a banner that read “Mitch, Look Us in the Eyes,” while others lined the halls outside his office in the Senate Russell Office Building. The action followed previous protests outside his office in Louisville. Lily Gardner, a 15-year-old high school student in Kentucky, said she was there to ask McConnell to back the Green New Deal and “to look us in the eye and explain to us why the $1.9 million he has taken from the fossil fuel corporations are more important than my future, my community’s lives.”
“I am here urging him to consider the young Kentuckians who have traveled all the way to ask him why,” Gardner said outside his office. “Why are our voices not being listened to? To back the only comprehensive climate solution we have because I am scared. We are all scared and we must be listened to.”
McConnell, meanwhile, was nowhere to be found. The demonstration ended with the young protesters singing “which side are you on?” Shortly after, Capitol Police gave the crowd several warnings before arresting dozens of members of the group and escorting them out of the building.
Rep. Ben McAdams, the new Democratic congressperson from Utah’s 4th District, who unseated incumbent Republican Mia Love in November by a razor-thin margin, told constituents at a town hall on February 19 that while he supported the Green New Deal’s aspirations in principle, he worried that the legislation wouldn’t make it through the House.
“It seems expensive,” said McAdams. “I’m not sure it’s feasible.”
In Pennsylvania, freshman Rep. Susan Wild beat the Bernie Sanders-backed local minister Greg Edwards in the Democratic primary, before turning her red Lehigh Valley district blue. She was faced with a similar barrage of questions from constituents dissatisfied by the new representative’s lukewarm take on the Green New Deal during a town hall on February 19. Wild doesn’t support the Green New Deal, at least not yet — she said that she was interested in seeing more details on the proposal before deciding whether to sign on — and that position rankled some supporters who felt that she wasn’t representing their interests. In response to sustained criticism at the event, Wild told the crowd that she was interested in what could be done now — the same dodge used by Delgado.
“What the scientists tell us we must do right now,” said Wild, “let’s do it.”
The environment has long been a top concern of voters in the largely rural 19th, where Delgado unseated incumbent Republican John Faso in the November midterm election with a narrow 50.2 percent to 47.3 percent margin of victory. Delgado’s victory in the overwhelmingly white district was a win for upstate New York’s liberal voters, who sent the state’s first black representative from outside the New York City area to Washington on the back of a campaign that relied on activists and advocates for support — and included a call for the Green New Deal on the campaign trail.
“I am only beholden to you,” Delgado said in a speech to supporters on election night. “No special interests, no outside voices.”
The voters at the town hall, however, were less than convinced, asking the member of Congress whose interests he was representing by not signing onto the legislation. Environmental issues are a bipartisan affair for the 19th; Faso was a member of the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus during his time in office.
Feinstein was confronted by activists from the Sunrise Movement on February 22 about her lack of support for the Green New Deal legislation and responded with a blunt message for the next generation: There’s neither time nor money nor — most importantly — the political will to effect meaningful change over the coming climate catastrophe. Feinstein’s comments provoked outrage on social media after video of the exchange circulated on Friday night.
This is a fight for our generation's survival. Her reaction is why young people desperately want new leadership in Congress. pic.twitter.com/0zAkaxruMI
— Sunrise Movement ? (@sunrisemvmt) February 22, 2019
The issue is becoming a hot-button topic in the party’s presidential primary, too, with candidates being forced to answer for their support — or lack thereof — for the Green New Deal in pressers and stops across early primary states. On the campaign trail on February 15, California Sen. Kamala Harris told reporters that the legislation was “sound” and that she planned to vote in favor of it.
Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar took a different approach when she said on Fox News program “Special Report” with Bret Baier on February 12 that while she supported the principle of the legislation, the actual nuts and bolts of what the law would look like might change her support as that time grew nearer.
“If it got down to the nitty-gritty of an actual legislation, as opposed to, ‘Oh, here’s some goals we have,’ that would be different for me,” said Klobuchar.
Yet not all congressional Democrats are keeping a distance from the legislation. Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, speaking to constituents on February 15, said that the Green New Deal was a way to “get more green for less green” and remarked that he’d like to see Republicans sign onto the plan, if only for its fiscal responsibility.
“One of the things I should be doing is to get Congress to kick the carbon habit,” said Wyden, who spoke at the resolution’s unveiling on Capitol Hill, alongside authors Ocasio-Cortez and Ed Markey.
If the reaction to Delgado’s decision to avoid supporting the Green New Deal in his rural, majority white, purple district is an indication of the mood of the electorate, then Democrats running on a more centrist or right-wing platform in the next election may be in danger.
Akiva Hirsch, who asked Delgado about supporting the Green New Deal during the town hall, told The Intercept that given the severity of the problem of climate change, and the possibility of irreversible catastrophe in only a decade, Delgado’s response was insufficient. Hirsch and a group of friends from Bard College, which is in Delgado’s district, told The Intercept that they were registered voters in the district.
It wasn’t all for Delgado on the Green New Deal, however, as at least one of the town hall attendees expressed support for his rejection of the proposal.
“I’m 100 percent happy that you didn’t sign onto the Green New Deal,” said constituent Hillary Thomas. “I think it’s a publicity piece for the people that are promoting it.”
Thomas told The Intercept that she voted for Delgado’s Republican opponent, John Faso, in last November’s election.
Ocasio-Cortez said that politicians who aren’t proposing ambitious solutions are harming the effort. “If you think a carbon tax alone is going to fix climate change, you’re part of the problem,” she said. We basically need to propose a solution on the scale and of the magnitude of the problem. We have one shot. … To be very frank, people didn’t try. For 30 or 40 years, they wrung their hands and said it’s too complex. And now people are dying.”