I recently watched two voices I respect disagree vehemently about whether Alexandria Ocasio Cortez is politically powerful or not.
The first observer pointed out that she’s one of 435 House members and 235 House Democrats. She can introduce big pieces of legislation like the Green New Deal, but they’re not going anywhere without the support of Speaker Pelosi and they’re never becoming law until control of the U.S. Senate and president changes. She appears to have lost her clash with Pelosi and has been spurred to act a bit more contrite, declaring that her chief of staff’s attacks on other House Democrats were “divisive.” Plenty of earlier members of Congress were well-known outside of their districts for their rhetoric but not particularly effective at getting their ideas turned into law; Jim Traficant and Alan Grayson come to mind.
The second observer pointed out that Ocasio Cortez commands about as much media attention as anyone on Capitol Hill. She has 5.2 million Twitter followers, more than a million Facebook followers, and 3.9 million Instagram followers. Every statement she makes gets dissected by the media, gets praised to the heavens by left-of-center news outlets and gets criticized by right-of-center news outlets. If she wants to call attention to an issue, she can bring enormous attention to an issue. No, she’s not powerful enough to get a piece of legislation passed by herself, but at this point, no one in Washington is. Now she and the rest of “The Squad” have popped up in The Simpsons. The creators wouldn’t have made that video if they didn’t think their viewers would recognize who she is.
The irony is both perspectives are right. The ability to command media attention is a rare one in politics, and without it, it’s difficult to get things done or have much of an impact. (Look at about fifteen to twenty of the Democratic presidential candidates.) But the ability to command media attention is not sufficient to turn your agenda into law. President Trump dominates the news cycle every day, but that doesn’t mean he’s getting much of what he wants passed through the House of Representatives. We’ve seen Trump threaten, cajole, thunder, sweet-talk, haggle, and tweet to get Democrats to pass what he wants. Democrats are comfortable with rolling the dice on 2020.
Divided government means no big, sweeping pieces of legislation are getting passed. Big, sweeping pieces of legislation are hard to pass under the best of circumstances. If Democrats win control of the Senate and nuke the filibuster for legislation, the calculus will change somewhat. But otherwise, the power to command media attention might be the only consequential form of political power in Washington.