Last week, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., caused a stir when her attempt at performative dissent with her “Tax the Rich'' dress at the ritzy Met Gala backfired and invited accusations of selling out.
This week, she’s caused another round of controversy on the left with her surprising decision to vote “present” — or take no official position — on a bill providing $1 billion in new funding for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system.
Both of these were symbolic acts. But while last week’s debate about the dress was mostly culture-war fodder that told us nothing new or consequential about Ocasio-Cortez’s politics, this vote — which left the congresswoman crying on the House floor — was revelatory, suggesting that she may be leaning more toward the insider track for rising within American political life than might’ve been previously assumed.
She not only didn't vote to fund Iron Dome, she also appeared to have no position at all, except one of emotional distress.
Ocasio-Cortez’s vote was also a tactical mess, a worst-of-both-worlds solution to what appeared to be a dilemma about the future of her political identity. Politics necessarily requires painful decisions and compromises, and signs suggest she was conflicted about her decision. But if she was trying to preserve the possibility of challenging Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer in a 2022 primary, a last-minute switch of her vote on funding Iron Dome from “no” to “present” while in tears will not convince any fiercely pro-Israel voter or the American Israeli Public Action Committee that she’s a settlement stan. She not only didn't vote to fund Iron Dome, she also appeared to have no position at all, except one of emotional distress.
On the flip side, Ocasio-Cortez’s act opens up the possibility of a substantial rift between her and the left-wing "squad" — a group she’s often seen as the de facto leader of — on one of the most high-profile issues for the left.
Progressives in the House had already scored a minor victory ahead of Thursday’s vote. They successfully lobbied for the Iron Dome funding to be stripped from a package for an emergency spending bill earlier this week, arguing that the U.S. should not be providing unconditional aid to Israel’s military and security apparatus while it commits human rights abuses against Palestinians. But when the Iron Dome funding got put up as its own stand-alone bill, Ocasio-Cortez’s voting took an unexpected turn.
In the debate surrounding the vote, members of the squad such as Reps. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., and Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., slammed the idea of greenlighting the Iron Dome funding in light of Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinians, and called for consistency on America’s human rights stands. Most of the squad and a handful of other progressives (and one Republican) voted against the bill.
But after tearfully huddling on the House floor with some Democratic lawmakers, Ocasio-Cortez switched her “no” vote to “present” at the last second, which means that rather than voting against the bill, she declined to take a position on it. Her vote switch was of no material consequence — the House passed the bill 402 to 9. But her breaking from the rest of the squad actually matters quite a bit.
Ocasio-Cortez's attempt at explaining it has not made a great deal of sense. In an exceptionally long statement released Friday, Ocasio-Cortez explains that she opposed "the substance of" the bill and the rushed process for bringing it to a vote. She also described a length why she was emotional during the vote: "I wept at the complete lack of care for the human beings that are impacted by these decisions, I wept at an institution choosing a path of maximum voltality and minimum consideration for its own political convenience." The issue is that she never actually explains why she changed her vote from "no" to "present." If the concern about process is supposed to explain why she voted the way she did, why would she be less inclined to vote against a rushed version of a bill she substantively opposed?
The implied argument, perhaps, is that the pretext for her change was the tense debate about the bill. As is often the case, the squad’s criticism of Israeli policy and objection to unconditional aid for Israel were met with strident accusations of antisemitism, this time from Democratic Rep. Ted Deutch of Florida, who objected to Tlaib’s description of Israel as an apartheid state. “To falsely characterize the state of Israel is consistent with those who advocate for the dismantling of the one Jewish state in the world,” he said. “When there is no place on the map for one Jewish state, that’s antisemitism, and I reject that.”
Accusations of antisemitism for daring to depart from the pro-Israel policy consensus in American foreign policy are commonplace on the Hill, and most of the time they’re made in bad faith. Deutch's accusation is no exception —Tlaib is not questioning the right of Israel to exist, she's demanding that Israel treat Palestinians as if they have a right to exist as demanded by international human rights law and democratic norms.
But it’s possible Ocasio-Cortez felt particularly concerned about the capacity for antisemitism accusation to stick to her in light of the fact that the Iron Dome is a defensive missile system that works by intercepting incoming rockets from Gaza. That’s in contrast to, say, the guided missiles that the Biden administration sold to Israel this summer, or other military aid to Israel she’s voted against. But again: the squad’s argument is not that Israel doesn’t deserve to defend itself — it’s that the U.S. should demand that Israel respect human rights while doing so if the U.S. is going to shower the country with aid.
As some reporters have speculated, Ocasio-Cortez’s switch could signal concerns about her long-term reputation and that she has her eye on higher office. There are ongoing questions about whether she will try to launch a primary challenge against Schumer for his position in 2022, and she may be increasingly cognizant of the pro-Israel constituencies and lobbying power she’ll be up against should she actually pursue that run. If she ever runs for a position like governor or president, her track record on Israel will be closely scrutinized and could be used as a wedge issue against her.
One can easily imagine Schumer using footage of Ocasio-Cortez upset after the vote as an attack ad about how she frets and indulges in indecision while he stands firmly by Israel.
But if any of that was on her mind when she switched her vote, she did not do herself any real favors. Voting “present,” especially while crying, carries the political costs and optics of a “no” while also broadcasting indecision on an issue she’s expected to have clear positions on.
One can easily imagine Schumer using footage of Ocasio-Cortez upset after the vote as an attack ad about how she frets and indulges in indecision while he stands firmly by Israel. Even if Ocasio-Cortez voted yes, pro-Israel supporters will obviously choose any establishment candidate with traditional views on Israel over her — it will be impossible for her to shake the brand of radicalism.
All the while, Ocasio-Cortez is failing to articulate clear principles and help lead a movement on behalf of Palestinian rights that gained momentum this summer when even mainstream Democrats expressed concern over Israel’s brutal policies toward Palestinians in Gaza.
We may be seeing Ocasio-Cortez in the midst of a political identity crisis. She has long distinguished herself as a strategic gadfly, attempting to agitate the Democrats while supporting them on measures she finds defensible on the merits or necessary. Sometimes she garners praise, other times she elicits fury — but she’s always appeared sure-footed. This time, she seems to have slipped into a political no man’s land, and it’s not clear where she’s trying to go.