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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s rocky rollout of the Green New Deal, explained

A fact sheet from AOC’s office about the Green New Deal was wrong. It also highlighted the underlying tensions in the Democratic Party.

Democratic Lawmakers Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez And Sen. Ed Markey Unveil Their Green New Deal Resolution
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) speaks as she and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) unveil the Green New Deal resolution.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) barely got to take a victory lap on her Green New Deal resolution last week before a fight broke out over an accompanying set of talking points.

The conflict was rooted in what looks like a mistake on the part of Ocasio-Cortez’s office, which released a fact sheet inconsistent with the actual legislative text of the Green New Deal resolution. In areas where the Green New Deal was purposefully vague to attract a broader base of Democratic support — such as renewable energy sources — Ocasio-Cortez’s fact sheet offered more specific and prescriptive priorities.

One of the talking points included language promising economic security for even those “unwilling to work” — something that caught the ears of conservatives who claim entitlement programs stifle work productivity (there’s not much evidence to this effect). The actual text states more broadly that the Green New Deal would “create millions of good, high-wage jobs and ensure prosperity and economic security for all people of the United States,” without mentioning anyone’s job status.

The confusion opened up the Green New Deal to attacks from prominent conservative lawmakers and pundits like Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham, and others, who used the talking points as fodder to call the proposal idiotic and impractical. It also left both Ocasio-Cortez’s advisers and supporting Democrats flatfooted on live television, forcing them to answer for text they either didn’t know existed or couldn’t support.

Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA), one of the co-sponsors of the Green New Deal, told reporters, “Um ... I’m familiar with the fact sheet. But again, it’s separate from the resolution, all right? The resolution is really what the document is that I was speaking to today, as was Sen. Wyden and Sen. Merkley and all of the House members that were here. That’s the key document. That’s what you should focus on. Focus on the resolution.” His comments were an indication that some of the more moderate Democrats who have signed on to the Green New Deal may have been caught off guard by the language in Ocasio-Cortez’s talking points.

Ocasio-Cortez’s office tried to smooth over the controversy by claiming the fact sheet was both an unfinished and old draft. They also raised concerns about “doctored” documents about the Green New Deal being circulated by Republicans. Rather than slowing attacks, these claims have only fed the conservative outrage.

The Green New Deal is undoubtedly one of the most ambitious and progressive proposals to combat climate change and address economic inequality. The official legislative text includes several contentious proposals like Medicare-for-all and a jobs guarantee, as well as a commitment to seriously address climate change in a variety of ways, from improving construction work to investing in high speed rail. But at its core, it is still a compromise between left-wing activists and more mainstream Democrats, who are eager to work with the rising stars in the Democratic Party.

This flub with Ocasio-Cortez’s talking points puts that partnership off to a rocky start.

Republicans are using the fact sheet to delegitimize the Green New Deal

The Green New Deal was never going to gain conservative support; it is, at its core, a progressive mission statement for tackling the big problems around climate change and expanding the social safety net. For this reason, the actual resolution’s legislative text has come under criticism in its own right. But the fact sheet opened up the Green New Deal to ridicule that could have been warded off.

It said things like the carbon emission goals were set at net zero in 10 years instead of at zero “because we aren’t sure that we’ll be able to fully get rid of farting cows and airplanes that fast” — a point that has since been mocked relentlessly. Even Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE) temporarily changed his Twitter biography to “defender of cow’s right to fart.”

The talking points also alarmed entitlement-wary Republicans with the suggestion that people “unwilling to work” could get benefits. For those who have seen Republicans’ attempts to tie work requirements to everything from food stamps to health care, this should come as no surprise.

Matt Whitlock, a senior adviser to the National Republican Senate Committee — the official campaign arm for Senate Republicans — called the document “utterly nonsensical.” Conservative pundit Ben Shapiro wrote that his “two-year-old son could come up with a better, more realistic proposal than this one. It’s not actually much of a competition.”

The attacks escalated when Robert Hockett, a Cornell University professor, and outside adviser to Ocasio-Cortez, went on Tucker Carlson’s show to defend the Green New Deal, appearing wholly unaware of the fact sheet released by her office.

Carlson asked Hockett: “Why would we ever pay people who are ‘unwilling to work’?”

Hockett responded: “Uh, we never would, right? And AOC has never said anything like that, right?” going on to say the document Carlson was pulling from was “doctored,” and being circulated by Republicans — only to realize later it was real and from Ocasio-Cortez’s office.

Hockett’s comments started a second conservative media cycle about an Ocasio-Cortez surrogate supposedly lying on live television. The backlash prompted Ocasio-Cortez’s office to remove the “frequently asked questions” page from the representative’s website, and amend the fact sheet.

Ocasio Cortez’s staff doesn’t have a clear explanation for what happened

There hasn’t been a lot of clarity on exactly how this fact sheet got sent out to numerous media organizations at the same time as the final Green New Deal resolution. Ocasio-Cortez’s office has said there is a fact sheet that was intentionally doctored, and also that an unfinished draft got sent out and posted on their website before it was ready for prime time.

“There are multiple doctored GND resolutions and FAQs floating around,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted this weekend. “There was also a draft version that got uploaded + taken down. There’s also draft versions floating out there.”

But for the most part, Ocasio-Cortez’s office has backed away from Hockett’s assertion that the fact sheet was doctored and sent out by Republicans, saying that it was a mistake. In a string of Saturday tweets, Chakrabarti provided more clarity about the rollout of the Green New Deal and what went wrong with the fact sheet release.

“We did this in collaboration with a bunch of groups and offices over the course of the last month,” Chakrabarti tweeted on Saturday. “As part of that process, there were multiple iterations, brainstorming docs, FAQs, etc. that we shared. Some of these early drafts got leaked.”

Per Chakrabarti’s account, this fact sheet got “leaked” before it was ready; a statement that doesn’t quite match up with the accounts of multiple news organizations who say Ocasio-Cortez’s office sent them the fact sheet along with the final resolution.

Additional confusion came when Chakrabarti and Ocasio-Cortez both alluded to a separate “doctored” fact sheet. The Congress member’s staff hasn’t provided a lot of information around who wrote the talking points — and how much input outside groups had on the document that was released. Her office has not responded to a list of questions from Vox as of publication time.

“There separately IS a doctored FAQ floating around,” Chakrabarti tweeted. “And an early draft of a FAQ that was clearly unfinished and that doesn’t represent the GND resolution go published to the website by mistake (idea was to wait for launch, monitor questions and rewrite that FAQ before publishing).”

But one thing is clear; the rollout has put Green New Deal supporters including 2020 candidates in an uncomfortable position, having to answer questions about whether they’d support things that were never supposed to see the light of day. No matter the circumstances, a messy rollout could complicate support for the resolution in Congress.

What’s in the actual Green New Deal represents a compromise with mainstream Democrats

The Green New Deal is Ocasio-Cortez’s signature issue since she became a member of Congress. The progressive firebrand from New York first made headlines attending a sit-in in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office with climate activists before she was even sworn in.

It is certainly a bold vision for how to deal with climate change, but the resolution’s official legislative text is also a compromise; it’s a version of the proposal that its writers believe can draw in more mainstream Democrats in addition to more left-wing activists. The very fact that Ocasio-Cortez is partnering with Markey says something; Markey was one of the authors of the 2009 cap-and-trade bill that passed the House and failed the Senate.

This is best exemplified by a discrepancy over renewable energy sources between the Green New Deal resolution and the fact sheet.

The appeal of the Green New Deal is in part how vague it is. Right now, the Green New Deal is a broad mission statement that doesn’t outline what specific renewables backers will sign onto — or how much everything will cost. The resolution itself is careful not to pick sides; it’s not choosing certain kinds of renewable energy over others, and it’s not calling for complete elimination of fossil fuels.

The fact sheet, on the other hand, clearly was picking sides. For instance, it made clear nuclear power would not be part of the climate solution, saying the Green New Deal plan “makes new fossil fuel infrastructure or nuclear plants unnecessary.” It panned carbon capture, utilization, and storage technology, and Markey’s 2009 cap-and-trade bill, framing cap and trade as a “tiny part” of the overall plan, and saying “cap and trade assumes the existing market will solve the problem for us, and that’s simply not true.”

That left Markey in a tough position on Thursday, trying to explain that the resolution was making no individual recommendations for how to get off fossil fuels as reporters lobbed questions about how the US could do this without nuclear power.

“There’s no individual prescriptions in the resolution, which is why we think we will be able to get a broad base of support, and then we’ll let the debates begin on the individual solutions,” Markey said gruffly. “We’ve drafted it in a way that can get the support of progressives and moderates inside our caucus.”