The fight over Amazon is the fight for the future of the Democratic Party

Posted at 3:17 PM, Feb 14, 2019
and last updated 2019-02-15 06:37:07-05

It was Democrats who brought Amazon to New York City, and it was Democrats who chased it away.

The retail giant’s decision Thursday to bail out of its plans for a headquarters in Queens immediately set the two wings of the party against each other, with freshman New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren declaring victory — while jilted New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo took direct aim at politicians who he felt “put their own narrow political interests above their community.”

It was one more reminder that the political ground is shifting and swelling under the feet of Democratic politicians, as the now-senior Democrats who worked from the middle and with corporations — starting with Bill Clinton and continuing through Barack Obama — faces a new wave that actively works to contain business.

They’re all Democrats, but they see things very, very differently. Their fights will continue playing out through the Democratic primary and into the 2020 presidential campaign.

The tension can be seen not only in the smacking New York Democrats received after wooing Amazon, but also in the skepticism among party elders like Nancy Pelosi toward the expansive Green New Deal proposal, also pushed by Ocasio-Cortez — and now broadly endorsed by most of the party’s presidential contenders.

This round started with the powerful Democratic governor and mayor of New York who put aside their rivalry to welcome Amazon to the city.

Cuomo, an old guard Democrat, was smarting on Thursday.

“A small group politicians put their own narrow political interests above their community … the state’s economic future and the best interests of the people of this state,” he said in a statement, promising to hold accountable the New York State Senate, which is controlled by his fellow Democrats, some of whom had turned on the deal.

Mayor Bill DeBlasio, the other top New York Democrat who will be most associated with the Amazon mess, is more progressive and he was more interested in blaming Amazon.

“You have to be tough to make it in New York City,” he said in a statement. “We gave Amazon the opportunity to be a good neighbor and do business in the greatest city in the world. Instead of working with the community, Amazon threw away that opportunity.”

A lot of this is surely local politics. New York is not exactly an economically depressed area. Housing costs and congestion there are already both in the stratosphere. The breadth of opposition that presented itself in New York was clearly not as widely shared in Northern Virginia, where the state has already passed into law a generous incentive package for the other half of Amazon’s HQ2. Similarly, the company has been welcomed in Nashville, where it had plans for expansion. It will now focus on those areas.

What’s clear, however, is that national Democrats and party leaders have not exactly kept pace with all, or maybe even most, of their constituents in urban areas, where jobs are plentiful — but fewer and fewer people feel they’re able to get ahead.

It was a campaign of younger politicians and activists who sent the Internet giant packing, and the lesson may very well be that a new crop of progressives is hostile to the idea that government should be working with corporate America to make jobs.

Ocasio-Cortez, who represents the Bronx and Queens, was crowing at Amazon’s decision, hailing it as a major victory for the real people of New York.

“Anything is possible: today was the day a group of dedicated, everyday New Yorkers & their neighbors defeated Amazon’s corporate greed, its worker exploitation, and the power of the richest man in the world.”

The complaints made by Ocasio-Cortez and others centered around the incentives — up to $1.5 billion — New York’s power elite promised Amazon to bring the Internet giant in, exchanging those tax credits for the promise of 25,000 jobs with wages averaging 150,000.

That was a bad deal for locals, who feared that they would be priced out of the neighborhood, and the ascendant progressive elected leaders and activists on their side who said the money would be better spent directly by the government on the subway or teachers.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts is running for president on a platform of corporate accountability and called the tax incentives “bribes.”

“How long will we allow giant corporations to hold our democracy hostage?” she asked on Twitter after Amazon’s announcement.

This type of fight could end up being the core question Democrats face in the coming presidential cycle.

In New York, it was whether to spend the state’s money on Amazon’s jobs. At the national level, it’s visible in the Green New Deal, a list of aspirations a lot of Democrats might agree with. Recently issued as a legislative manifesto by Ocasio-Cortez, it’s taken over the Democratic conversation and turned into a sort of litmus test and is dragging the party left heading into 2020.

The proposal includes a promise of jobs guaranteed by the federal government, rather than deploying taxpayer dollars to attract the likes of Amazon.

On health care, the party seems to agree most Americans should have access to a Medicare-style health plan. But there is real disagreement over whether that should be the only option, and what role the private sector should play.

We’ve seen hints of this brewing for years. Barack Obama was willing to accept an imperfect health care system that lacked a public option of any kind, in service of crafting a plan that could pass.

Hillary Clinton in 2016 didn’t exactly take Bernie Sanders’ proposals for free college seriously, only to have to fend him off on her way to the nomination.

Yet old Democrats remain focused on Bill Clinton’s “art of the possible,” even when confronted with the unbounded idealism of this new group, which has no time for 25,000 Amazon jobs.

It’s that type of attitude that led Howard Schultz out of the party and onto his quixotic maybe-campaign as a centrist.

Political parties that succeed have space for multiple points of view. It’s the power of the party as an organization that can bring groups together at the ballot box that led Michael Bloomberg, himself a corporate billionaire thinking about a presidential run, out of the independent lane and into the party just as it lurches to the left.

That’s opened a new front for President Donald Trump and Republicans have been only too happy to paint Democrats in terms of the ideals of the Green New Deal and Medicare for all plans and argue they are moving out of the mainstream of American politics.

Don’t be surprised if they do the same with this Amazon development.