One of the first things you learn covering American politicians is that they’re not terribly bright.
The notion that Hill denizens are brilliant 4-D chess players is pure myth, the product of too many press hagiographies of the Game Change variety and too many Hollywood fantasies like House of Cards and West Wing.
The average American politician would lose at checkers to a zoo gorilla. They’re usually in office for one reason: someone with money sent them there, often to vote yes on a key appropriation bill or two. On the other 364 days of the year, their job is to shut their yaps and approximate gravitas anytime they’re in range of C-SPAN cameras.
Too many hacks float to the capital on beds of national committee money and other donor largesse, but then — once they get behind that desk and sit between those big flags — start thinking they’re actually beloved tribunes of the people, whose opinions on all things are eagerly desired.
So they talk. What do they talk about? To the consternation of donors, all kinds of stuff. Remember Ted Stevens explaining that the Internet “is not a big truck”? How about Hank Johnson worrying that Guam would become so overpopulated it would “tip over and capsize”? How about Oklahoma Republican Jim Bridenstine noting that just because the Supreme Court rules on something, that “doesn’t necessarily mean that that’s constitutional”?
There’s a reason aides try to keep their bosses away from microphones, particularly when there’s a potential for a question of SAT-or-higher level difficulty in the interview. But the subject elected officials have the most trouble staying away from is each other.
We’ve seen this a lot in recent weeks with the ongoing freakout over newcomer Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Lest anyone think any of the above applies to “AOC,” who’s also had a lot to say since arriving in Washington, remember: she won in spite of the party and big donors, not because of them.
That doesn’t make anything she says inherently more or less correct. But it changes the dynamic a bit. All of AOC’s supporters sent her to Washington precisely to make noise. There isn’t a cabal of key donors standing behind her, cringing every time she talks about the Pentagon budget. She is there to be a pain in the ass, and it’s working. Virtually the entire spectrum of Washington officialdom has responded to her with horror and anguish.
The mortification on the Republican side has come more from media figures than actual elected officials. Still, there are plenty of people like Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) doing things like denouncing “this girl, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whatever she is” for preaching “socialism wrapped in ignorance.” A group of GOP House members booed her on the floor, to which she replied, “Don’t hate me cause you ain’t me, fellas.”
The Beltway press mostly can’t stand her. A common theme is that, as a self-proclaimed socialist, she should be roaming the halls of Rayburn and Cannon in rags or a barrel. Washington Examiner reporter Eddie Scarry tweeted a photo of her in a suit, saying she didn’t look like “a girl who struggles.”
High priest of conventional wisdom Chris Cillizza, with breathtaking predictability, penned a column comparing her to Donald Trump. He noted the social media profiles of both allow them to “end-run the so-called ‘media filter’ and deliver their preferred message… directly to supporters.”
The latter issue, of course, is the real problem most of Washington has with “AOC”: her self-generated popularity and large social media presence means she doesn’t need to ask anyone’s permission to say anything.
She doesn’t have to run things by donors and she doesn’t need the assent of thinkfluencers like Cillizza or Max Boot (who similarly compared her to both Trump and Sarah Palin), because she almost certainly gains popularity every time one of those nitwits takes a swipe at her.
Which brings us to elected Democrats, who if anything have been most demonstrative in their AOC freakout. We had Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-MO) saying, “We don’t need your sniping in our Democratic caucus.” Recently ousted Sen. Claire McCaskill expressed alarm that she’s “the thing” and a “bright shiny new object.”
This is in addition to the litany of anonymous complaints from fellow caucus members, some of whom felt she jumped the line in an attempt to get a Ways and Means committee assignment. There were whispers she did this through some online-pressure sorcery she alone could avail herself of thanks to her massive Twitter following (nearly every news story about Ocasio-Cortez mentions her 2.47 million Twitter followers).
“It totally pissed off everyone,” one senior House Democrat said about the Ways and Means campaign. “You don’t get picked for committees by who your grass-roots [supporters] are.”
“She needs to decide: Does she want to be an effective legislator or just continue being a Twitter star?” said another Democrat, whom Politico described as being “in lockstep” with AOC’s ideology.
All of which brings us back to the issue of Washington’s would-be 4-D chess players. Time and again, they reveal how little they understand about the extent of their own influence, or anti-influence, as it were.
They all think the pronouncements of their own party leaders, and donors, and high-profile commentators at the Times and the Post or CNN, have extraordinary importance. They think this for the obvious reason that most of them owe their political careers to such people.
Ocasio-Cortez does not. In this one narrow sense, her story does indeed have something in common with the story of Trump. As did Trump, Ocasio-Cortez probably picks up a dozen future votes every time a party hack or hurrumphing pundit or ossifying ex-officeholder like McCaskill or Scott Walker or Joe Lieberman throws a tantrum over her.
Somehow, three years after the 2016 election, which was as graphic a demonstration of the public’s well-documented disgust with Washington as we’ve ever seen, these waxen functionaries of the political class still don’t understand that their disapproval more often than not counts as an endorsement to most voters.
The Lieberman example is the most amazing. Here’s a person who was explicitly rejected by his own party in 2006 and had to run as an Independent against the Democratic nominee to keep his seat. Yet he somehow still has the stones to opine that if Ocasio-Cortez is the “new face” of the Democrats, the party does not have a “bright future.”
How many Democrats, do you think, heard that and immediately thought the opposite – that if Joe Lieberman disapproves, Ocasio-Cortez must be on the right track? Sixty percent? Seventy?
I have no idea if Ocasio-Cortez will or will not end up being a great politician. But it’s abundantly clear that her mere presence is unmasking many, if not most, of the worst and most tired Shibboleths of the capital.
Moreover, she’s laying bare the long-concealed fact that many of their core policies are wildly unpopular, and would be overturned in a heartbeat if we could somehow put them all to direct national referendum.
Take the tax proposal offered by Ocasio-Cortez, which would ding the top bracket for 70 percent taxes on all income above $10 million.
The idea inspired howls of outrage, with wrongest-human-in-history Alan Greenspan peeking out of his crypt to call it a “terrible idea,” Wisconsin’s ex-somebody Walker saying a 5th grader would know it was “unfair,” and human anti-weathervane Harry Reid saying “you have to be careful” because voters don’t want “radical change quickly.”
Except polls show the exact opposite. Almost everyone wants to soak the rich. A joint survey by The Hill and Harris X showed 71 percent of Democrats, 60 percent of Independents, and even 45 percent of Republicans endorse the Ocasio-Cortez plan.
Is it feasible? It turns out it might very well be, as even Paul Krugman, who admits AOC’s rise makes him “uneasy,” said in a recent column. He noted the head of Barack Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers estimated the top rate should be even higher, perhaps even 80 percent.
We’ve been living for decades in a universe where the basic tenets of supply-side economics — that there’s a massive and obvious benefit for all in dumping piles of money in the hands of very rich people — have gone more or less unquestioned.
Now we see: once a popular, media-savvy politician who doesn’t owe rich donors starts asking such questions, the Potemkin justifications for these policies can tumble quickly.
There is a whole range of popular policy ideas the Washington political consensus has been beating back for decades with smoke and mirrors, from universal health care to legalized weed to free tuition to expanded Social Security to those higher taxes on the rich.
As we’ve seen over and over with these swipes on Ocasio-Cortez, the people defending those ideas don’t realize how powerful a stimulant for change is their own negative attention. If they were smart, they’d ignore her.
Then again, if politicians were smart, they’d also already be representing people, not donors. And they wouldn’t have this problem.