House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, born into and raised in a prominent Maryland political family (her father, Tommy D’Allesandro, was a congressman and Baltimore’s mayor), now lives in San Francisco. She and her husband also own a Napa Valley home and winery, which suggests that the speaker probably appreciates the finer regulations of winemaking.
For wine lovers, “AOC” doesn’t stand for newly elected Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, but rather connotes an early 15th century French phrase: “appellation d’origine contrôlée,” or “protected designation of origin.”
Modern AOC legislation dates from 1919 with France’s Law for the Protection of the Place of Origin. AOC designations apply to wine and also a vast array of mostly agricultural products like cheese, butter, meat, and lavender. An AOC “côte du rhône” designation ensures that what’s inside the bottle satisfies rigorous, clearly defined standards for Rhone-region wines. In the United States, similar AOC-type rules distinguish Napa Valley cabs from Oregon pinot noirs. Think of AOC as modern quality control.
Which is precisely what Pelosi’s House Democratic caucus lacks. One of her GOP predecessors, John Boehner, faced similar challenges beginning in 2010 when Tea Party insurgents stormed Congress, increased their numbers, and made coherent legislating practically impossible. Frustrated, Boehner resigned after four years as speaker.
Pelosi now presides over the most diverse, youthful, and energetic freshman Democratic class in congressional history. Her problem is that these young Democratic caucus members have little, if any, enthusiasm for the “old” rules that previously would have kept them mostly submerged and out of public view until they gained more seniority.
Now we see freshmen representatives like Katie Hill serving as vice-chair of the House Oversight Committee, and AOC standing aside Sen. Ed Markey (in the House and Senate a combined 43 years), announcing the Green New Deal. Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib talks Trump impeachment, contrary to Pelosi’s decision to drop it (at least for now). Then there’s Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar, whose anti-Israel comments provoked a bipartisan backlash resulting in passage of an anti-bigotry resolution that overshadowed passage of H.R. 1, the House leadership’s signature 2019 democracy-overhaul legislation.
Speaker Pelosi has been in politics long enough to appreciate the importance of staying “on message.” The Democratic Party’s relentless health-care focus in the 2018 mid-term elections helped return Pelosi to the Speakership with a 235 to 197 Democratic House majority (a virtual flip of the previous 236 to 196 GOP 2018 majority). A clear, compelling, and sustained message will be vital as the 2020 presidential and congressional elections edge closer.
But what’s the Democratic message? Who will be its messenger(s)? What will the party stand for? To borrow from winespeak, this party has lots of single-vintage “varietals” competing for shelf space (and money). Can they all be marketed under the same “Democratic” label?
You can make a great cabernet sauvignon that also includes merlot, petit verdot, and cab franc. But you’ll get into trouble if you blend a pinot noir with a cabernet. (Not to mention an odd-tasting wine). A prominent, global winemaker once poured for me a fantastic wine that he made by blending French pinot noir and American pinot noir grapes. Given strict AOC rules in both countries, he can share bottles with friends but cannot sell it in either jurisdiction.
So what kind of blend can we expect from the Democrats? How will the Democrats reconcile Beto, Biden, Booker, Bernie, and Buttigieg? Will there be room for centrist business-friendly candidates like John Hickenlooper and Howard Shultz?
Shultz has already challenged the “free stuff” crowd (aka the “New Socialists”) on how to fund free college, Medicare for all, guaranteed jobs, and the Green New Deal. How will candidates address lingering racial concerns (Virginia’s governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general), Silicon Valley, and Wall Street? Can Kirsten Gillibrand and Amy Klobuchar survive issues about how they handled internal staffing concerns? Will Elizabeth Warren’s weak campaign launch hurt her?
Branding and message discipline are to politics what AOC is to wine. You can’t just slap any old label on a political candidate these days, because the American public wants more details. If the Democrats try to market a single varietal (e.g., “anybody but Trump”), they are unlikely to get very far. Reconciling their substantive policy positions and resolving the internal contradictions displayed by their growing cast of candidates will require considerable dexterity.
Speaker Pelosi’s AOC problem is an indication of what’s coming next. So sit back, pop a cork or two, raise a glass, and enjoy the show.
Charles Kolb was deputy assistant to the president for domestic policy in the George H.W. Bush White House from 1990-1992. From 1997-2012, he was president of the nonpartisan, business-led think tank, the Committee for Economic Development.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.