Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., is pushing for a debate on the substance of her "Green New Deal" resolution after her staff distributed an erroneous fact sheet regarding the proposal, leading to confusion over a plan supported by many of the Democratic Party's leading candidates for president.
Ocasio-Cortez's staff posted online and sent to reporters a list of "frequently asked questions" about the Green New Deal. Those pages included language and policies not included in the resolution itself, such as providing economics security to those "unwilling to work" and ruling out nuclear power as part of the solution to the climate crisis.
More than 70 House Democrats and 12 Senate Democrats have backed Ocasio-Cortez in unveiling the Green New Deal resolution calling for a massive jobs program to stave off climate change, aiming for an enormous investment in "clean, renewable, and zero-emission energy sources" over the next 10 years.
Declared presidential candidates Sens. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., have pledged their support for the resolution text of the Green New Deal, as has expected candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. None of the lawmakers or candidates signed off on the FAQ, which was prepared by Ocasio-Cortez's staff to explain the separate Green New Deal resolution but was accidentally released prematurely with unfinished language.
"An early draft of a FAQ that was clearly unfinished and that doesn't represent the GND resolution got published to the website by mistake," Saikat Chakrabarti, Ocasio-Cortez's chief of staff, tweeted Saturday, two days after the document's release. "Mistakes happen when doing time launches like this coordinating multiple groups and collaborators."
The muddled messaging around the Green New Deal marks an initial stumble for a lawmaker whose profile has risen steadily since she her primary win over former Rep. Joe Crowley, D-N.Y., a pillar of the party establishment who at the time of his loss was the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus.
And the incident underscores both the power and peril of the first-term lawmaker's pull within the party, which is bolstered by her tremendous reach on social media and name recognition.
Ocasio-Cortez has captivated and energized the party's left, pushing Democrats - including those who've previously been more centrist - to align with her proposals and cosponsor the legislation. The broad participation of presidential candidates suggests her policy clout has helped bring previously marginal policy ideas squarely into the party's mainstream, though certainly other figures within the party and changing public attitudes play a role.
But that power also magnifies her missteps, with ramifications for the party as a whole. A typical first-term lawmaker's first major proposal would be unlikely to get broad notice, and it would be unlikely to win over major presidential contenders unless it was closely supervised by party leadership who'd worked for years on effectively presenting such resolutions.
Retracting the erroneous document has not stopped opponents of the party's candidates from trying to tie the contenders to proposals they did not approve, leaving them to repeatedly explain themselves and attempt to clarify what they do and don't support.
One House Democrat, speaking on the condition of anonymity to speak about internal discussions, said he and other liberal members have privately vented frustration over the publication of the FAQ page.
More than a dozen media outlets, particularly in the conservative media, reported on policies in the FAQ page that the co-signers of the Green New Deal resolution have not agreed to support.
CNBC reported that the Green New Deal would offer "economic security" for those "unwilling to work" in its headline, while columnists at Bloomberg News and The Washington Post have criticized the plan based on policies outlined in the FAQ sheet.
Climate activists have tried rallying Democrats to the concept of a Green New Deal to decarbonize the U.S. economy while broadly expanding the government's role in improving the economy and bolstering the social safety net. The plan calls for a 10-year "national mobilization" requiring new electrical and power grids, retrofitting "all existing buildings" in the United States and high-speed rail and public transit.
The Green New Deal resolution calls for the federal government to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions with a "fair and just transition" for all communities and workers, including by creating millions of high-wage jobs, health care and housing for all, a sustainable environment, and enormous infrastructure investments. The proposal would making sweeping changes and expand the government's reach into the economy, and it almost certainly would require tax increases or large-scale deficit spending.
The proposal could not pass the current Congress, where Republicans control the Senate, and would be vetoed by President Donald Trump, but it's an effort to galvanize the left and move the Democratic party toward a commitment to stronger, broader and more direct action to address climate change.
The FAQ sheet went further than the resolution in some places, making choices that the resolution avoids. The FAQ sheet, for instance, says the Green New Deal would "not include creating new nuclear plants," while the resolution does not address that question.
At a news conference unveiling the plan, Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., the resolution's Senate co-sponsor, told E&E News: "The resolution is silent on any individual technology which can move us toward a solution of this problem . . . that is not part of the resolution."
The FAQ page also stated that the United States should guarantee "economic security for all who are unable or unwilling to work." The official resolution calls on economic security for all Americans.
In the fall, the top scientific body studying climate change found that the world had to take "unprecedented" steps to reduce carbon levels, with the globe on pace to warm by 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) over preindustrial levels. Scientists called the report a "deafening, piercing smoke alarm going off in the kitchen."
Stronger natural disasters, including wildfires, have devastated Western U.S. communities, while hurricanes have leveled Atlantic Coast cities and the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico. Internationally, the melting of Himalayan glaciers because of climate change threatens hundreds of millions of people in Asia while coral reefs that support some of the most productive U.S. fisheries are at risk of being destroyed.
The Trump administration has not proposed a comprehensive agenda for addressing climate change. It has dismantled some initiatives supported by the past administration to check the growth of greenhouse gases, and Trump has repeatedly questioned the scientific consensus that global warming is occurring, driven by human activity and poses a threat to human health and well-being.
Trump tweeted criticism of the Green New Deal over the weekend while erroneously suggesting snow in February in Minnesota during the presidential candidacy announcement of Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., diminished the case for combating climate change.
On Twitter, Ocasio-Cortez said people should stop paying attention to the FAQ document, which was later taken down from the congresswoman's website. "Point is, the real one is our submitted resolution," Ocasio-Cortez tweeted, with a link to the resolution itself. She added: "When I talk about the GND, this is what I'm referring to - nothing else."
All but one Democratic senator running for president endorsed the Green New Deal resolution, though none had seen the FAQ that circulated on launch day. A few were asked about the FAQ this weekend.
After one stop in Iowa, asked what he might say to a farmer who was seeing reports that the resolution would stop him from raising cows or using gasoline, Booker said the "narrative" was not something he'd get tangled up in.
"I've endorsed the framework and the resolution, but I don't endorse doing things that are going to hurt the independent family farmer," Booker said. "If anything, I want to let people know that we can have a green future that no way is contrary to a strong economy, but actually creates a stronger economy."
The confusion was compounded by Robert Hockett, a Cornell University professor who acted as an outside adviser to Ocasio-Cortez on the Green New Deal. Hockett told Fox News' Tucker Carlson that the document calling for help to those unwilling to work had been "doctored" and produced by someone other than Ocasio-Cortez.
That was not true, as Hockett thought Carlson was referring to a parody of the Green New Deal circulated by right-wing activists on Twitter.
Republicans have begun to conflate support for the Green New Deal - either the resolution or the concept - as support for the most extreme elements on the FAQ. In a news blast attacking Klobuchar, the RNC said "Midwest dairy farmers won't love the 'war on cows' in the Green New Deal, a plan she endorsed."
Chakrabarti, the congresswoman's chief of staff, wrote on Twitter about the "unwilling to work" provision in the FAQ: "We were essentially thinking about pensions and retirement security. E.g. economic security for a coal miner who has given 40 years of their life to building the energy infra of this country, but who may be not be willing to switch this late in his career."
In an interview, Chakrabarti also stressed that the key was to focus on the larger plan to prevent climate change that poses an existential threat to millions of people around the world.
“The major thing here is we have now over 70 House Democrats and every major presidential candidate now on board calling for a gigantic transformation of our economy,” Chakrabarti said. “People are trying to take the focus away from the big picture to these little typos.”