DID 'DEFUND' DELIVER DEMS DEFEAT?: U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez heatedly took issue with claims that the 'defund the police' campaign had hurt Democrats in New York elections and nationally, but South Carolina Congressman James Clyburn, who played a pivotal role in Joe Biden's gaining the nomination for President, said he believed it cost the party at least one U.S. Senate seat and declared, 'Sloganeering kills movements.'

Donald Trump and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have had unusual success—while amassing millions of Twitter followersliving in their own versions of reality undisturbed by facts.

Confronted by election results that were unwelcome to both and especially damaging to Mr. Trump, neither was inclined to, in the words of Robert Frost, "yield with a grace to reason."

Each instead brought to mind lines from movies of the past half-century when the main characters faced a potential crisis.

Mr. Trump, insisting the vote must have been rigged because as Election Night ended, he enjoyed comfortable leads in states that later went to Joe Biden, brought to mind James Caan's character Axel Freed in "The Gambler," who after returning from a hugely successful night in Las Vegas is awakened by his bookmaker pounding on his door, demanding payment for three large college-basketball bets that he lost.

Mr. Caan reacts with disbelief, saying that the last he'd seen of all three games, his teams were way ahead at halftime.

The bookmaker replies, "They don't give out no prizes at the halftime, Axel."

Showing Where She Lives

Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, disclaiming any responsibility she and fellow progressives might bear for disappointing results in the congressional elections by saying that any Representatives who lost bids for re-election in swing districts did so because they declined her advice on strategy and didn't do nearly enough on social media, brought to mind Michael Keaton's character in "The Paper."

As Henry Hackett, the city editor of a tabloid modeled on the Daily News, he interviews for a job at a more-somber newspaper that could only be the New York Times. When his interviewer turns away for a minute, he sneaks a peak at a memo on his desk that gives him a lead on the murder of two businessmen who had some shady investors.

His prospective employer angrily calls that evening to accuse him of stealing the news tip and concludes, "You just blew your chance to cover the world!"

Mr. Keaton's character, matching him in righteous outrage, roars back that he doesn't care, because "I don't bleepin' live in the bleepin' world, I live in bleepin' New York City!"

Mr. Trump set himself up to have early leads get swallowed up by disparaging the mail-ballot process, oblivious to the concerns many people had about visiting polling places in the midst of a pandemic. Not surprisingly, far more Democrats used the mails than Republicans, and since those ballots were generally counted last no matter when they had been received, it allowed Mr. Biden to overcome early deficits as steep as the 600,000-plus by which he trailed the President in Pennsylvania on Election Night. 

Ms. Ocasio-Cortez easily gained re-election, but Democrats appeared to have lost eight House seats, and their hopes of gaining a U.S. Senate majority rested on winning two runoff votes in Georgia in Januarya far-slimmer chance than they'd seemed to have going into the election. Locally, the party appeared to have lost four State Senate seats at a time when it was hoping to gain two and secure a veto-proof majority, and seemed on the verge of losing some ground in the State Assembly when that hadn't seemed possible. 

Deflects From 'Defund's' Role

But in a New York Times interview, she bristled about speculation that the "defund the police movement" and the backlash it triggered had cost Democrats in many toss-up races both here and across the nation, saying that the primary cause was that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had "banned every single firm that is the best in the country at digital advertising."

This wasn't as far-fetched as Mr. Trump's claim that he had been the victim of mail-in fraud in numerous states, without offering any evidence of ballot-tampering. But it presumed that sophisticated digital campaigns would have overcome video of looting and rioting in cities from New York to Seattle and attacks on cops, their vehicles and stationhouses as crowds chanted "burn it down."

Either acknowledging that truth was too painful or she had spent so much of her existence for the past 2 1/2 years on social media that she had morphed into Alex in Wonderland. 

Ms. Ocasio-Cortez may live in Bleepin' New York City, but her remarks suggested that her Bronx apartment offers no greater glimpse into the concerns of residents of mainly white neighborhoods here and in other parts of the state than many of those people get regarding the lives of black and Latino residents.

A veteran leader of a uniformed union, speaking conditioned on anonymity, said Nov. 9, "There are a lot of people, many of them young, who are not liberal or progressive. My feeling is the Democratic Partymy party since I was youngby implication supported the defund-the-police movement while also pushing for gun control. And it hurt them." 

Talking of the protesters who massed outside police station-houses and in some cases burned NYPD vehicles, he continued, "You know the people chanting 'burn it down'? If you're sitting in a house and watching that on TV, you're thinking, I hope they don't come down my block and burn it. If you have a toehold in the system, if you're the antithesis of what James Baldwin called the most-dangerous man to societythe man with nothing to loseyou worry about things like that."

'Alienates Blue-Collar Guys'

And, in a reference to the recent magazine piece in which Ms. Ocasio-Cortez was photographed in several designer suits and shoes and spoke of the importance of expressing herself through her fashion choices, he added, "I think AOC posing on the cover of Vanity Fair in a thousand-dollar suit [yet] decrying wealth, that sends a mixed message. That suit didn't come from Kohl's. She alienates blue-collar union members. Union members who are represented by ineffectual ideologues, they're all in for her because she's promising them free stuff."

The last part of his assessment amounted to a caricature of Ms. Ocasio-Cortez and those who admire her. Their feelings stem less from her glamour or even the political positions she has taken than her quick emergence as a leading figure in the Democratic Party and the steely toughness she has projected, most notably in reaming out U.S. Rep. Ted Yoho on the floor of the House last July for calling her "a f------ bitch" during a chance encounter on the steps of the Capitol three days earlier. (The Florida Congressman denied making the remark, but was confirmed to have done so by a reporter from The Hill who witnessed the exchange.)

That doesn't mean those sentiments about the wisdom of defending "defund the police" were confined to white labor leaders of a certain age. James Clyburn, the South Carolina Congressman who as much as any individual was responsible for Joe Biden reviving his flagging candidacy nine months ago and winning first the Democratic nomination and ultimately the election, made clear his anger at the damage he believed had been done by that slogan during interviews on the Sunday morning talk shows Nov. 8 and an interview with an Axios reporter that aired on HBO the following night.

Speaking of the candidate he had backed to knock off Sen. Lindsey Graham, a golf partner of Mr. Trump, Mr. Clyburn told Axios, "That phrase, defund the police, cost Jaime Harrison tremendously. Stop sloganeering. Sloganeering kills people. Sloganeering destroys movements."

A Losing Argument

When his interviewer pointed out that many of those supporting the concept didn't literally want police departments to lose all their funding but rather to make needed reforms, Representative Clyburn responded that in politics, "The moment you start explaining what you mean, you're losing the argument." 

During the Times interview, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez contended that it shouldn't be off limits to "agitate racial resentment" by talking about police brutality and supporting what she called "the Movement for Black Lives." She also claimed that the Democratic Party establishment had been "extremely hostile to anything that even smells progressive," despite how well Medicare for All and the Green New Deal had been polling.

That argument overlooked the fact that Elizabeth Warren's reign as the late-summer front-runner for the Democratic nomination 14 months ago came crashing down when she couldn't finesse her way past concerns about Medicare for All's impact on unionized workers who were receiving better covering than it would provide, and that it was Mr. Biden rather than the two candidates most-closely associated with those proposalsherself and Bernie Sanderswho wound up easily securing the party's nomination through a string of primary wins after a halting start. There are few Democrats who would argue in light of the results in the down-ballot races that any other candidate the party could have put forward would have defeated Mr. Trump.

Ed Ott, a longtime City University of New York Professor of Labor Studies who also served as executive director of the AFL-CIO New York City Central Labor Council, said Ms. Ocasio-Cortez's analysis of the elections, including her statement that those who heeded her counsel did well, was "algebraically correct [but] sometimes the math is wrong."

In the New York races, he explained, "All these politics are local. AOC is high-profile, and if you gotta talk to the press, you live by the sword and die by the sword. People who accepted her help did well. But one of the problems with congressional races is there isn't a universal message that's gonna work, unless it's Barack Obama at the top of the ticket, or Ronald Reagan. They're won on narrow-cast messages, not broad-cast messages; if AOC's message was something that would broadly work, the DNCC would've used itGod knows they're short on ideas."

'Defund a Bad Slogan'

But, Mr. Ott said, echoing Congressman Clyburn's sentiments, "Defund the police is a bad tactical slogan. When you talk to people about what they mean, they have some very good ideas. If you want to say we should get the police out of the mental-health business, I agree with that. But if we're taking the police budget away, I wouldn't support that."

He concluded, "We saw Eric Garner die on the streets of our very own city: sure we still need some reforms. But 'defund the police' doesn't get at it."

On Election Night, Congressman Max Rose, trailing Nicole Malliotakis by 37,000 votes after she got the endorsement of a law-enforcement coalition led by the Police Benevolent Association, lamented that he had been falsely tagged as anti-police for taking part in a single Black Lives Matter rally within his Staten Island district. He was also labeled a supporter of Mayor de Blasio despite running a 15-second ad devoted to declaring his fellow Democrat was "the worst Mayor" in the city's history.

But guilt by association often leads to candidates being caricatured by their opponents, and very often voters don't examine the details of dubious accusations before voting from the gut.

And politicians can be equally guilty of visceral reactions that don't take into account possible long-term consequences.

PBA President Pat Lynch caught flak from some within the city labor movement as well as Democrats both here and in Albany for giving his union's endorsement to Mr. Trumpthe first time in at least 36 years that it got involved in a national election. Even one of his defenders, former Deputy Wardens union President Sidney Schwartzbaum, questioned the wisdom of the decision, given the President's repeated flouting of the rule of law, likening the move to a battered spouse seeking comfort in the arms of a known cad. 

No Real Alternatives

But from a political standpoint, Mr. Lynch clearly felt he had no viable alternatives once the Mayor collaborated with the City Council in cutting the NYPD's budget enough to restrict police overtime and force cancellation of a July police class, then signed into law a Council bill subjecting cops to criminal charges if they compressed the diaphragm of someone they were trying to arrest during a struggle.

Both moves were spurred by the anti-cop sentiment that took hold from city streets to City Hall in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis cop who kept his knee on his neck for nearly eight minutes six months ago.

The primary result of the diaphragm-compression bill has been a hesitance by cops to confront potential criminal suspects unless they have enough back-up that any resistance can be countered without having to get anywhere near the suspect's torso in making an arrest. The Councilman who was the driving force behind the billRory Lancmansaid he had broadened its scope from merely making chokeholds illegal because he knew Mr. de Blasio didn't have the political courage to take a stand against a measure the Mayor confessed he had misgivings about.

Mr. Lancman, who ran for Queens District Attorney last year but dropped out just in time to tip his support to the eventual narrow winner of the contest, Melinda Katz, resigned from the Councilwhere his term was to expire at the end of 2021--on Election Day to become Special Counsel for Ratepayer Protection under Governor Cuomo, a job aimed at increasing utility companies' accountability to their customers.

But while Mr. Lancman's legislative opportunism will continue to make cops' jobs harder, the Mayor is left to wonder whether his own bad political choice in signing that bill set in motion the uprising by police unions that goosed support for Mr. Trump's law-and-order appeal and may have cost State Senate Democrats a veto-proof majority. Among other things, he'll have to ponder whether, as Congressman Clyburn maintained, it cost Democrats at least one Senate seat. That could make a big difference when Mr. Biden pursues a stimulus bill to aid the city and state, among other localities, that will face a far-rougher time with Mitch McConnell still the Senate Majority Leader than it would have if control had swung to Mr. de Blasio's party.. 

Some at the political extremes, including the President and Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, become larger-than-life figures through force of personality rather than good judgment. Lesser political mortals, and their constituents, become victims of the bad choices they trigger.  

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