In case you haven’t heard, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez delivered her debut speech on the floor of the House of Representatives last week. Then again, what are the odds that you haven’t heard? Clocking in at just under four minutes, her briskly calibrated denunciation of Trump’s government shutdown racked up over a million views on Twitter in just 12 hours, apparently a C-Span record.
By Washington standards, those are Beyonce-size numbers, and they probably wouldn’t be much different if AOC had opted to discuss Canadian dairy tariffs instead. She’s such a superstar that even watching her behave like a conventional, relatively sedate member of Congress for the very first time—no mugging for the camera, no trash-talking zingers—was an event, sort of like seeing David Bowie in church.
She’d plainly done her due diligence, too. She shifted nimbly from home-district micro (a constituent of hers who’s an air traffic controller now working without pay) to Trump-bashing macro: “The truth is this shutdown is about the erosion of American democracy and the subversion of our most basic governmental norms.”
That last stern formulation had an endearing side. Since when has concern about governmental norms been a prominent part of AOC’s brand? She upends them merely by being Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose DIY version of political showbiz unnerves her staid Democratic colleagues and drives Fox News to crazed new heights of foaming at the mouth. Any misapprehension that she was going to follow the standard road map for House newbies, who generally keep their profile low until they’ve learned the ropes, went out the window fast. She blew Capitol Hill decorum to smithereens by joining a climate-change sit-in outside Nancy Pelosi’s office shortly after Election Day.
If all these ideas needed to move to the country’s front burner was a charismatic, media-savvy advocate, they’ve got one.
Once she was sworn in, she posted a video of herself dancing into her new office to the tune of Edwin Starr’s “War.” (We’ll confess it: Seeing that dazzler grin next to a door plaque reading “Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, New York” practically brought tears to our leaky old eyes.) The same day as her shutdown speech, she led a posse of her fellow Democratic freshwomen—Jahana Hayes (D-CT), Lauren Underwood (D-IL), and Katie Hill (D-CA)—on a slapstick “Where’s Waldo?” hunt for MIA Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
So she’s good at stunts, her elders grumble)—but what’s that got to do with genuine effectiveness? These days, the right answer could be “Quite a lot.” In the Trump era, stunting is such a basic communications tool that even Nancy Pelosi has discovered her unexpected talent for it. You can easily imagine Pelosi’s glee when she thought up the idea of denying Trump his State of the Union TV time by reminding him that, like Dracula, he’s got to be invited in. But even so, this stuff doesn’t come as naturally to the 78-year-old Speaker of the House as it does to Ocasio-Cortez, who’s a born performer for the simple reason that she grew up in the age of social media.
Besides, right now, her only real leverage is her own fame, which has to be constantly nursed to go on impressing her new colleagues. (They may be annoyed, they may even be enraged, but you can bet they’re impressed.) Pelosi may wield the Speaker’s gavel, but she’s got under two million Twitter followers to Ocasio-Cortez’s 2.5 million, and not only does AOC’s nationwide fan base think she can do no wrong; they get indignant if they think she’s being denied her due. How else do you think she nabbed a seat on the House’s powerful Financial Services Committee right off the bat? Her celebrity also played a part in getting Pelosi to accede to the creation of a new committee on climate change, although it lacks the teeth Ocasio-Cortez and other progressives wanted.
She’s also hardly the outlier that Fox News hopes you’ll believe she is and a sizeable number of Democrats probably wish she was. For one thing, she’s got a goodly amount of similarly activist company inside the party’s freshman class, and she’s not stupid to remind us of the fact by often appearing with an entourage of her newly elected kindred spirits. They don’t seem to mind that she’s the famous one. That’s the reason the association is mutually beneficial, since being part of a sisterhood gives AOC cover and AOC’s presence is what gets them coverage.
They don’t call these blunders rookie mistakes for nothing, but the problem is that the adoring social-media bubble she basks in doesn’t give her much incentive to correct them.
Beyond that, no matter how this stupefies Sean Hannity, the policy positions he keeps trying to demonize as evidence of her far-left kookiness are actually pretty damned popular. A sizeable majority of Americans are in favor of Ocasio-Cortez’s call for a 70 percent tax bracket for the uber-rich, and an even bigger majority thinks that Medicare for all sounds just great. Most alarmingly of all, at least if you’re Sean Hannity, a whopping (and bipartisan) fourth-fifths of voters support the “Green New Deal” that the House’s new climate-change committee is supposed to help get rolling. If all these ideas needed to move to the country’s front burner was a charismatic, media-savvy advocate, they’ve got one.
Because negotiating isn’t really her thing, AOC is unlikely to ever become the kind of legislator who’s good at winning other lawmakers over to her point of view behind closed doors. But that hardly matters so long as she can sway their constituents instead. She definitely didn’t make herself popular in her caucus by backing a search for left-leaning primary challengers to “demographically and ideologically out of touch” Democratic incumbents in safely blue districts come 2020, because collegiality is supposed to overrule all other considerations once you’re a member of the club. But her irked colleagues also know that she’s got enough clout with progressives to make those primary challenges happen if they don’t bend her way somewhat.
All the same, that clout could turn out to be awfully temporary if she doesn’t play her cards right. Along with what definitely seems to be a burgeoning case of narcissism, her penchant for promoting big change without doing her homework is worrisome no matter how hard you’re rooting for her to prevail. Maybe they don’t call these blunders rookie mistakes for nothing, but the problem is that the adoring social-media bubble she basks in doesn’t give her much incentive to correct them.
Most notoriously, Ocasio-Cortez didn’t do herself any favors by spouting nonsense back in December about a nonexistent $21 trillion in unaccounted-for Pentagon funds that would pay for two-thirds of Medicare for all. On top of that, her initial response when she got called out for it on 60 Minutes seemingly came straight from the White House’s alternative-facts playbook: “I think that there’s a lot of people more concerned about being precisely, factually, and semantically correct than about being morally right,” she told Anderson Cooper. Revealingly, when Washington Post columnist Max Boot compared her ignorance to Sarah Palin’s and her slippery way with the truth to Donald Trump’s, she slapped back that he was “resentful”: a diva’s reaction, not a clever or even an especially intelligible retort.
If that turns out to be her signature style, there’s a good chance we could get fed up with her “Don’t hate me ‘cause you ain’t me” routine virtually overnight. But even though she seems to be almost as perplexed as Trump is by negative criticism, she’s temperamentally better equipped to adjust to and even learn from it. That’s partly because she’s got two things he’s never had much use for: brains and a seemingly genuine dedication to a cause that isn’t, or at worst isn’t always, all about her.
Anyone either hoping or fearing that she’ll burn out fast ought to keep two other things in mind as well: 1) As of this week, Ocasio-Cortez will have been a member of Congress for exactly three weeks. And 2), she won’t even turn 30 until October 13.