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What the Twitter fight between AOC and Joe Manchin says about the Democratic party's inner battle

In the uncertain days after polls closed in the 2020 election, a narrative started to coalesce around the idea that the Democratic Party's progressive wing — epitomized by politicians like Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar — was somehow pulling the party too far from the center. This, some claimed, was to blame for the surprisingly strong showing by Republican challengers who toppled multiple Democratic incumbents, and the fact that the Democrats' shot at regaining control of the Senate was now wholly in the hands of Georgia voters who, the thinking went, would be turned off by more leftist proclamations like "people should have health care" and "something needs to happen so cops stop killing unarmed Black people."

It was into this dynamic that West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, perhaps the most Republican-esque figure in the whole of the Democratic Party, tweeted the following:

Whether or not his butt actually possesses its own budget line is beside the point here. What's clear is that Manchin, who could charitably be called "the sort of Democrat who can get elected in West Virginia" (a meaningless description if it means he ends up voting with Republicans), was issuing an unambiguous threat to the left wing of his party by using the same sort of hysterical rhetoric his GOP colleagues used to smear Democrats during the election.

In response to Manchin's butt tweet, Ocasio-Cortez shared an image, taken during the State of the Union, in which she appeared to be giving the senator a death stare from behind his back.

Petty Twitter drama? Sure. But it highlights an emerging fight within the party — one that had erupted in fits and starts during the race itself, but which had been largely smoothed over as the threat of a second term for President Trump largely dwarfed all other intra-party squabbles.

At its core, the fight is to determine what role the left will play within the Democratic Party moving forward. Or more simply, will the Democrats become the centrist party in this country — a move that those who spent the days after the election criticizing AOC and her fellow Squad members believe is what delivered Joe Biden, the living embodiment of centrism, to victory? Or will the party be able to — or does it even want to — harness both the passion and policies of the left, many of which have proven to be incredibly popular across the board?

In part, the fight takes the form of an apparent schism between the official party apparatus and the expertise of groups doing actual electioneering and voter turnout work on the ground. Consider the backlash to Ocasio-Cortez's recent New York Times interview, in which she criticized the party's "core competencies" to win local elections, and then turn your attention to the seriousness with which many pundits considered the exact same point when it came from noted centrists like outgoing Alabama Democratic Sen. Doug Jones, or onetime presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke — a point Ocasio-Cortez herself noted on Twitter this week.

This is the major dynamic at play in the Democratic Party today. And it's one that is only likely to grow over the course of Biden's coming term in office — a term which he has signaled will be committed to restoring norms and normalcy, rather than embracing the progressive enthusiasm that turned Bernie Sanders and The Squad into formidable national forces.

It's a debate that will likely shape the future of the country for years, if not generations, to come.