Politics & Policy

Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib, and Omar Are Driving Democrats’ Agenda

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez delivers remarks at a campaign event in Queens, November 3, 2018. (Andrew Kelly/Reuters)
Democratic radicals are more important than Chuck and Nancy imagined.

For one evening at least, the national focus on Democrats was on the people whom party leaders want out front orchestrating the opposition to President Donald Trump. All eyes were on the titular heads of the Democratic party: House speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer, who provided the response to Trump’s speech insisting on funding for border-security measures, including the wall.

Pelosi and Schumer’s stiff rejoinders, broadcast on national television, had the air of a hostage video, which set off an orgy of Internet mockery that more than matched the anger of the Left against Trump’s speech. It was an apt reminder of the opposition’s problems in spite of Trump’s unpopularity.

But it’s farcical to think that these two aging congressional warhorses were the face of the Democrats, let alone the “resistance” to Trump. Pelosi and Schumer are the ones in charge in terms of determining what Democrats will do about the shutdown and other congressional priorities. But a trio of newcomers is monopolizing the public’s attention in ways that undermine their leaders’ ability to determine the party’s agenda. Most notably, they are driving the Democrats to the left on a number of key issues.

Since their victories last year, Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D., N.Y.), Rashida Tlaib (D., Mich.), and Ilhan Omar (D., Minn.) have been acclaimed as the future of the Democratic party. Each brings her own assets and liabilities, but collectively they have become symbols of the incoming House Democratic class that is, as the party boasts, younger, more female, and more diverse. They are also much further to the left than the liberal leadership of the Democratic caucus. But is their prominence a true indicator that their party is moving further away from the political center? Or is the attention they’ve gained merely a function of their talent in getting publicity and of the media’s hunger for new faces.

Democratic-establishment leaders say that conservatives are focusing on Ocasio-Cortez and her allies only to misrepresent their party as being in thrall to a self-proclaimed socialist. That’s been the same response to Tlaib, who after being sworn in last week made a splash when she told supporters that she’d made her son a promise about Trump: “We’re going to impeach the mother****er.”

But liberals are deluded if they believe that conservatives are merely making straw men (or women) out of Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib, and their fellow radical Omar. The three women have already surpassed expectations about their ability to help set their party’s agenda. We don’t yet know how well they will manage the burdens of notoriety, but they’re already having more impact on the national conversation than any other political newcomers in recent memory.

Ocasio-Cortez’s upset primary victory over Joe Crowley — a 20-year veteran of the House and a member of the Democratic leadership — was, in and of itself, enough to launch her as a figure of interest. But as an articulate, attractive, and outspoken socialist, she quickly attained celebrity status, making the rounds of the cable news networks and the late-night entertainment shows. Indeed, it was not so much liberal pundits or conservative critics who anointed Ocasio-Cortez the next big thing as it was Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel. In a political culture in which the daily in-kind political contributions from these shows provide the drumbeat for the liberal base, Ocasio-Cortez is the perfect 21st-century left-wing politician. As proof, look no further than the obsequious 60 Minutes profile of her broadcast the first Sunday after her swearing-in.

Neither Tlaib nor Omar can match Ocasio-Cortez’s appeal as the party’s newest rock-star celebrity. Both represent critical minority constituencies: Arab Americans in Tlaib’s suburban Detroit district, and Somali Americans in Omar’s Minneapolis district. These resemble Ocasio-Cortez’s gerrymandered, heavily Hispanic district, which stretches across two of New York City’s boroughs. Opposition to the Democrats in all three districts is minimal, which facilitates the efforts of hard-left candidates.

But all three women are having an outsized impact on the national discussion.

Ocasio-Cortez hasn’t come across as a policy genius in the barrage of TV interviews she has done. She’s shown that she has no idea of how to pay for her radical program of vastly expanded entitlements or for her “Green New Deal” with its combination of statist control and radical environmentalism. And she has repeatedly stumbled when asked anything but flattering softball questions on economics and foreign policy. But that hasn’t made her any less attractive to the flatterers in the mainstream media. Moreover, the willingness of the media and the Left to rise to her defense, even when no one on the right is actually attacking her — as the fake controversy over a viral video of her dancing while she was in college proved — shows that she resonates with those looking for new left-wing icons.

Tlaib is similarly appealing to many grassroots Democrats. She attracted attention (and praise from some quarters) not only when she used foul language about impeaching the president but also when she set off another controversy by deploying anti-Semitic stereotypes. In this last, she implied that Republicans and other supporters of Israel were guilty of dual loyalty — an age-old anti-Semitic smear. Her comment came during a debate about a bill that would prevent those who engage in discriminatory commercial conduct against Israel from doing business with the American government.

Both Tlaib and Omar have endorsed the boycott, divestment, sanctions (BDS) movement that targets Israel and its supporters and that is tainted by its association with anti-Semitism. Both have also stated their opposition to the existence of a Jewish state; Ocasio-Cortez has flirted with this position, though she has not offered a definitive statement. Yet newspapers including the New York Times responded to the controversy by publishing flattering profiles of both Tlaib and Omar (as they previously did for Ocasio-Cortez), emphasizing that the women represent the cutting edge of liberal thought rather than hardline stances incompatible with peace advocacy and rejected by mainstream Democrats.

Clearly, the three newcomers can put issues on the national agenda despite their status as congressional backbenchers. Ocasio-Cortez’s talk about a 70 percent tax rate is a leftist fantasy, but it immediately became a subject of national debate after she spoke about it. The same is true of Tlaib’s push for impeachment and her willingness to buck House majority whip Steny Hoyer’s recommendation that new members take an AIPAC-sponsored trip to Israel; she urged colleagues to instead take a tour of “Palestine” that she would lead.

Observers have been noting for years that the Democratic grassroots are far more left-wing on economic and foreign-policy issues than their party’s congressional leadership. But the emergence of this trio — and the puffery that passes for coverage of their gaffes in the mainstream media — shows that their views are far more popular with party activists and their press cheering section than their naysayers initially understood.

Schumer and Pelosi and their establishment cronies may have the power, but it’s obvious that Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib, and Omar are winning the hearts of Democratic voters and liberal journalists in ways that are bound to affect the national debate and the 2020 presidential race. Republicans and more-moderate Democrats dismiss them at their peril. They are not outliers who are merely fodder for stories on slow news days. As the last few weeks show, the trio will be among the loudest figures in a party whose rank-and-file members are hungry for angry, radical voices that are more in sync with the #Resistance than with the uninspiring Chuck-and-Nancy show.

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