OPINION — The knives are out for Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the freshman phenom who unseated Rep. Joe Crowley in the summer primary and went on to make history as the youngest woman ever elected to Congress.
Why did I even mention that part? We all know who the congresswoman is, and that is both her biggest asset and her greatest danger as she begins what could be a lifelong career of impact or a two-year experiment in modern, celebrity legislating.
Since Ocasio-Cortez stunned the Democratic establishment this summer by knocking off Crowley, she has had the sort of wildly high profile you’d expect of a presidential contender rather than a 29-year-old newcomer. Since she was sworn into Congress on Thursday, the New York Times’ top two columnists, Maureen Dowd and Paul Krugman, have each dedicated columns to her, and (this is the holy grail for Democrats) she was profiled by Anderson Cooper on Sunday’s “60 Minutes.”
So it’s no surprise that “AOC,” as the congresswoman is now known in Washington, is a topic of conversation on Capitol Hill. But I wasn’t expecting her to be the only topic of conversation last week as I made my way around the House side, talking informally with senior staff and members on the morning of the swearing-in for the 116th Congress about what lies ahead.
Even as the government shutdown stretched into its second week and as Nancy Pelosi was about to become the first person in 60 years and first woman ever to win back the speaker’s gavel, the topic of the day was AOC. And the consensus wasn’t pretty.
“Ugh.” Eye rolls. “How long until she crashes and burns?” “It’s not whether she’ll blow up, it’s how and when.” And this was from the Democrats. Were they jealous? Probably. But they’ve also seen more than a few famous members collapse under the weight of their followings.
Ocasio-Cortez is hardly the first bona fide celebrity to show up for freshman orientation. (She’s got 2.17 million Twitter followers and 1.6 million followers on Instagram.)
Nor is she the only media fascination ever to roam the halls of the Capitol. Hillary Clinton was the first First Lady to be elected to Congress when she won her Senate seat from New York. And former Sen. Al Franken was already a household name across the country from his days on “Saturday Night Live” when he took office as a senator from Minnesota. The late Rep. Sonny Bono had his own variety show with his then-wife, Cher, years before he ever ran for his House seat from California, and Rep. Sean Duffy already had MTV’s “Real World” on his résumé when he declared his candidacy for the House from his home state of Wisconsin.
But almost without exception, those already-famous freshmen spent their earliest days turning down press requests and lots of time behind the scenes getting to know their new colleagues and new surroundings before speaking out for the first time.
Compare that to the Capitol’s most famous press hounds, who took every press call and overshadowed more senior members — who often paid a price later. Former Rep. Aaron Schock was profiled by GQ and made the cover of Men’s Health, thanks to his P90X-sculpted abs and Instagram following, but he had few members jumping to his defense when federal charges of corruption came his way.
Famous blowhard and former Rep. Anthony Weiner had already alienated most of his Democratic colleagues by yelling on the floor and showing up on MSNBC most nights well before he ended up in jail for inappropriate texts with a 15-year-old girl. It’s hard to say which came first — the gigantic egos that made these men make horrible decisions or the press attention that fueled the egos. Either way, their heat-seeking personalities won them few allies to help them avoid their falls.
The AOC challenge for Democrats is unique. On the one hand, the congresswoman is a boon — she’s an Insta-savvy bundle of energy and enthusiasm who can bring millions of voters into the Democratic fold. Hers is also an essential voice for the Democratic leadership to hear from as a young, Latina progressive like the voters they most need in the future.
But for every interview that the congresswoman does from now on, they are also finding themselves called on to respond to, explain, defend or rebut her statements as a democratic socialist. Hours after she suggested to Anderson Cooper that some amount of income over $10 million could be subject to a 70 percent tax rate in the future, presidential hopeful Julian Castro was asked by ABC’s George Stephanopoulos if 70 percent was a realistic tax rate. Castro threw out 90 percent.
Debating a 70 percent versus 90 percent tax rate is not the conversation Democratic leaders wanted to have when they woke up Monday morning.
At one point in the “60 Minutes” interview, Cooper asked her if she was afraid of making enemies. And she said no. “Let’s say I’m only in Congress for two years,” she said. “If we can radically change the conversation, then we can potentially accomplish more in two years than many people are able to change the conversation in 10.”
But if she wants to make real change, she’ll do more than try to change the conversation. She’ll do the hard work of trying to change Congress — something that can only be done from the inside out and often outside of the view of cameras.
The advice I’d have for new members generally, and AOC in particular, is to keep your head down working in Washington during the week and stay close to your district the rest of the time. File your financial disclosures clean and on time. Do less press and let your colleagues have some oxygen. You can have a high profile and have allies too. Just ask Nancy Pelosi.
Find a way to add to the Congress, not just the conversation, and you might really change the world one day.
Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.
Watch: Pelosi, Lewis and House Democrats unveil legislative agenda for 116th