Since her massive upset victory over New York Democratic Rep. Joe Crowley last month, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been touted as the fastest-rising star in the Democratic firmament. Potential 2020 presidential contenders seized on her victory as a sign that unapologetic liberalism is where the party is headed. Suddenly would-be national candidates were falling all over themselves to call to abolish ICE. Think pieces over What It All Means – including in this space – were launched.
The problem is that, prior to June 27, almost no one outside of New York’s 14th District knew who she was. And that, in the following month, very few people who fully embraced her have really done any sort of deep dive into what all she believes.
Which leads to moments like this one, which occurred during an interview with Margaret Hoover for PBS’ “Firing Line” in which Ocasio-Cortez gets herself into trouble when she starts talking about the Middle East and referring to Israelis who have settled in the West Bank as occupiers of Palestine. Hoover follows up, smartly, and Ocasio-Cortez begins to talk about an increase in settlements that makes it more difficult for Palestinians to access “their housing.” Sensing that she is making things worse not better, Ocasio-Cortez admits: “I am not the expert on geopolitics on this issue.”
You can watch it all here. (The relevant moment is around 18:30.)
This is not to pick on Ocasio-Cortez. She’s far from the only politician to get herself in too deep when it comes to the massive complexities surrounding a way forward in the Middle East. And, to her credit, at least she admitted she didn’t know exactly what she was talking about; some politicians would just keep talking and talking in hopes of drowning their lack of knowledge in a sea of words.
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The reason this awkward incident with Ocasio-Cortez is worth highlighting is because it speaks to the danger for Democrats of latching onto every Next Big Thing that comes along. Ocasio-Cortez could well be a future leader of the party and, at present, represents the beating heart of its liberal, activist wing. But she is not the perfect politician. She is not the person who has the magic formula to reverse the Trump presidency or to win the ongoing fight over the future direction of the party in 2020 and beyond.
This tendency to conflate the newest thing with the best thing is always stronger in the party out of power at any given time in Washington. Democrats are out of the White House and in the minority in the House and Senate. They are desperately seeking a savior – and Ocasio-Cortez, for some, fits that bill.
The whole process reminds me of the NBA draft. Every team convinces itself that they’ve identified someone who is going to turn the franchise around. They fall in love with a prospect. They turn the kid into everything they want – even if they lack the information to draw those conclusions or possess data that suggests the prospect isn’t all they are cracking him up to be. But they are so thrilled to find a fresh face, they ignore anything that disrupts their Next Big Thing narrative. Sometimes the prospect works out. More often not.
What both of these processes have in common is that they avoid this basic fact of human nature: We are all flawed. And this basic fact of politics: It’s a lot harder than it looks.
Ocasio-Cortez had never run for anything ever before. She effectively won a seat in Congress by securing less than 16,000 votes – which is not to discount her get-out-the-vote effort in a low-turnout election. Taking down a 10-term incumbent, rightfully, got the attention of the national party. But Ocasio-Cortez is just getting started. She is in the process of becoming who she will be as a politician; even she acknowledges that she isn’t an expert on every issue.
Even before her “Firing Line” comments, Ocasio-Cortez ruffled feathers when she suggested – via Twitter – that Crowley was planning to run as a third-party candidate in the fall in an attempt to beat her. Crowley quickly fired back: “Alexandria, the race is over and Democrats need to come together. I’ve made my support for you clear and the fact that I’m not running.”
That back-and-forth clearly bothered some of Ocasio-Cortez’s soon-to-be colleagues. “Meteors fizz out,” Florida Rep. Alcee Hastings told The Hill newspaper of Ocasio-Cortez. “What she will learn in this institution is that it’s glacial to begin with, and therefore no matter how far you rise, that’s just how far you will ultimately get your comeuppance.”
For Ocasio-Cortez and her supporters, Hastings’ comments will affirm their belief that the old guard is shaken by her victory – and that that is a very good thing. Maybe! But the blowback – from her fight with Crowley and her struggles to formulate any sort of coherent Middle East policy – are a reminder that putting too much on her too soon is not only bad for Ocasio-Cortez but also for the party.
One example: Her victory took what was a fringe issue among liberals – abolishing ICE – and thrust it into the mainstream. Suddenly New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren were calling for the end of ICE. California Sen. Kamala Harris was insisting the entire organization needed to be overhauled. Ditto Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Lost in that sprint to the ideological left was the fact that Democrats were taking a political winner (the Trump administration’s family separation policy) and turning it into a political loser (getting rid of an agency primarily charged with law enforcement, not policy making).
There are elements of Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign – and her as a candidate – that Democrats absolutely need to learn from: grassroots populism being the main one. But the party’s bear-hug embrace of everything Ocasio-Cortez-related is too much, too soon for all involved – as her interview this past week revealed.