Believe it or not, today marks exactly a month—one month!—since Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s upset primary victory over veteran Democratic Rep. Joe Crowley in New York’s 14th district turned her literally overnight into the biggest makeover of socialism’s image since Karl Marx decided to quit shaving. So if just seeing her name already makes you want to crawl under a rock until the 2018 midterms are over, you’d better toughen up. At age 28, she’s got a pretty fair shot at staying newsworthy for decades.
No politician stays a skyrocket for that long, and she won’t either. As improbable as it may sound, we’re hoping she’ll end up reviving a great, now moribund tradition instead. In another era, it was virtually routine for the House of Representatives to include at least one more or less radical firebrand from New York City. (Just for starters, google Bella Abzug, Adam Clayton Powell or Vito Marcantonio.) You could usually count on them to excite passionate love or hate well outside their own districts, because they were bold splashes of volatile vividness in Capitol Hill’s sea of gray.
Old-guard Dems are lamenting that the likes of Ocasio-Cortez being perceived as the face of the party could lose them the next election.
Just the same, it’s also true that nobody knows what the rules of the political game are in the Trump era, assuming you’re sentimental enough to still think there are any. In more than one sense, Ocasio-Cortez was entering uncharted territory when she road-tested her charm’s exportability by heading to Kansas, of all places, to boost progressive Democratic candidate James Thompson in his own primary race. According to the Washington Post, when she checked with him to make sure she wouldn’t end up hurting his chances, Thompson fairly endearingly told her, “They’re going to call me a socialist anyway. You might as well come out so we can all have a good time.” And they did, too, in front of an enthusiastic, 5,000-strong crowd at Wichita’s convention center.
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One reason the leadership is nettled is quite simply that Crowley was one of their own and his successor plainly isn’t, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Their worry that she’ll be a divisive force in the party is, in some ways, a fig leaf masking their worry that she’ll be a galvanizing one. At the moment, she’s attracting the kind of fans who normally don’t get involved in politics, and that’s a variable that most establishment pols can’t get a handle on beyond a well-founded suspicion that it’s not good news for their job security. A sedate, reliable, low-motivation electorate is, by and large, an incumbent-friendly electorate, and incumbency is the average legislator’s be-all and end-all the minute they obtain it.
On her end, predictably, she’s made some rookie mistakes, beginning with her Twitter freak-out at the discovery that Crowley will still be on the ballot in November as the candidate of the obscure Working Families Party. (He had to explain that he can’t withdraw his name except under certain conditions that don’t apply in his case, but has no intention of campaigning against her.) Even less reassuring was her fumbling answer in one TV interview to a question about Israel and Palestine, which included the disclaimer, “I am not the expert on geopolitics on this issue. . . Middle Eastern politics is not exactly at my kitchen table every night.” Coming from a Democrat running for office in New York City, that’s the equivalent of a Congressional candidate in Des Moines or Omaha blithely confessing that he or she doesn’t know beans about ethanol.
In short, her charisma is still miles ahead of her expertise. (By way of an instructive comparison, Elizabeth Warren has the reverse problem.) Yet that’s just why Republicans seemingly don’t know whether to lick their lips or clutch their balls at her advent on the political scene. Fox News keeps trying to turn her socialist agenda into a horror movie and then bumping up against the fact that she makes Medicare for all and even a Federal jobs guarantee sound awfully good to people, quite possibly not excluding the channel’s own viewers. Sean Hannity seems to be as clueless about how to ridicule her successfully as liberal pundits were about how best to push back against Trump.
Does that mean we’re smitten too? Of course, it means we’re smitten too. That’s why it’s worth remembering that Alcee L. Hastings was right: meteors do fizz out. But in Ocasio-Cortez’s case, we’d like to think she’ll end up demonstrating that there’s life after being a meteor.