I think Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is one of the best things to happen in American politics in quite some time. Which is why I worry that she may be flying a tad too close to the sun.
Since upsetting congressman Joe Crowley in a Democratic primary this past summer, she’s become a full-fledged political phenomenon: a fresh, eloquent, authentic voice for progressive policies that need more attention in Washington. Even as major media depict the American working class as white men in baseball caps whiling away the day in Midwestern diners, Ocasio-Cortez — a young Latina urban-dweller — speaks to different, often forgotten constituencies.
Since arriving in Washington, she’s pushed the House Democratic leadership to focus more aggressively on climate change, and her call for a Green New Deal could become the progressive clarion call in 2019. She has whip-smart political instincts and a cult-like following, particularly among young voters. She is particularly agile on social media. As the increasing target of Republican attacks, her profile is only going to increase.
And with a Democratic leadership dominated by politicians well into their 60s and 70s, she brings youthful energy to a party that desperately needs it.
It would be a terrible shame if she messed all that up.
While we’re nowhere close to that happening yet, there are reasons for caution.
It’s not just her omnipresence on Twitter and her constant (and often effective) trolling of conservative critics, but this week Politico reported that she is recruiting a primary challenger to take on her fellow New York representative, Hakeem Jeffries, the fifth-ranking Democrat in the party’s House caucus.
The progressive beef with Jeffries is a narrow one: He takes money from corporate interests. But there is reportedly a more personal reason for the challenge. Ocasio-Cortez had received a donation from Barbara Lee, who was Jeffries’s rival in the recent race for chairman of the House Democratic caucus. According to a bit of scuttlebutt in the Politico article, Jeffries supposedly made an issue of the donation in a whisper campaign against Lee.
Jeffries, who narrowly prevailed in that leadership fight, makes for a particularly ill-advised target. He is far from being a moderate. In fact, he was a key co-sponsor and architect of the major criminal justice reform bill that passed this week. A rising star in the Democratic caucus, Jeffries has the potential to someday be the first African-American speaker of the House.
Ocasio-Cortez has flatly denied the story on social media, describing it as “birdcage lining.” Truth be told, the sourcing on the article is weak. But even if the story is wrong, what does it say that Ocasio-Cortez’s intra-party critics are spreading gossip about her before she’s even been sworn in?
The fact is, she has brought some of this on herself. From the moment she defeated Crowley, Ocasio-Cortez began actively supporting progressive insurgents in Democratic primaries, including Ayanna Pressley, who toppled incumbent Representative Michael Capuano, and Kerri Harris , who failed in her bid to unseat Delaware senator Tom Carper.
There are plenty of Democrats who already resent Ocasio-Cortez’s political rise and view her as an upstart who has yet to pay her dues. Does she really want to make more political enemies on Capitol Hill?
Ironically, she could take a lesson from Jeffries, a former political insurgent himself, who pushed 15-term incumbent Democrat Edolphus Towns into retirement in 2012. Yet as a congressman, he’s worked with Republicans, passed legislation, and risen up the ranks of the Democratic leadership. Ocasio-Cortez’s star power is of a far greater wattage than Jeffries’s, and shaking up the system and taking on the ossified old guard is consistent with her personal brand. But there are times to fight and times to turn the other cheek. Congress is a viper’s nest of fragile egos and compromised characters, but those are the people she needs to win over to get her ambitious policy agenda passed.
In two weeks Ocasio-Cortez will no longer be an outsider, but instead a member of the Democratic caucus in Congress, a group she clearly wants to see succeed. The last thing her party needs now — after a resounding midterm victory and with Republicans on the ropes — is a series of “Democrats in disarray” stories.
Ocasio-Cortez has an incredibly bright political future. For someone with a safe seat and a national profile, the sky is the limit. But at just 29, she has many years in the political arena ahead of her. As the kids would say, she might want to slow her roll.Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.