BY MICHAEL STEELE, OPINION CONTRIBUTOR, THE HILL — 04/05/19 09:00 AM EDT
No one saw her coming. The 29-year-old New York City bartender and political outsider who decided to call for a “political revolution” got herself elected to Congress as a Democrat last fall and since that time she has become an unnerving political juggernaut for Democrats and an unhealthy obsession for Republicans.
She is a pretty “cool” socialist; but her politics are as hot as it gets and has made her more than a political lightening rod. She has become just as effective as President Donald Trump at developing and using social media to create energy around ideas and issues that otherwise wouldn’t be given credence by either political party.
An early and clear example of her impact was evident when several Democratic presidential candidates fell all over themselves to support her dubious Green New Deal. The proposed non-binding resolution — which is essentially a set of ambitious goals—aims to remake America’s economy and society through a radical overhaul of energy and infrastructure programs regulated by central government control.
Rep. Ocasio-Cortez says the deal would be paid for by increasing taxes on the wealthiest Americans. But that math, whatever it is, doesn’t work because the cost will depend on which of her ambitious goals makes it into actual legislation.
There are some Democrats, however, who consider this a bridge way too far to cross. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says she “appreciates” Ocasio-Cortez’s enthusiasm — but that’s about it. Last November’s electoral successes and her own sense of how this proposal may play in areas of the country Democrats need to win, tempers the Speaker’s rush to endorse a plan that could make holding Trump-leaning or swing congressional districts that much more difficult.
The truth is that Ocasio-Cortez is a freshman member of Congress with all that goes with being a freshman member of congress. It doesn’t mean, however, that she isn’t (or won’t be) popular; or that she can’t play a role in developing and passing important legislation. But she does need to build relationships on both sides of the aisle. Using her social media prowess has its benefits for adding followers and getting “likes” for her tweets, but legislating is hard work. It requires developing the expertise of compromise, negotiation and relationships. Rep. Ocasio-Cortez won’t get there if she doesn’t first appreciate how to make the system work for her agenda.
In a recent Townhall appearance hosted by MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, Mr. Hayes pointed out that while democrats may have a majority in the Senate, “there’s not the votes for this [Green New Deal].” Rep. Ocasio-Cortez noted in response that “I’m not here to convince my colleagues. I’m here to go straight to the electorate.” But her colleagues are the ones with the votes. She continued: “There are Democrats who will get in our way from saving ourselves; but you don’t necessarily have to replace everyone if the electorate prioritizes it and overwhelmingly supports it then we create the political room to pass it.”
If the Congress would not move to act on expanding background checkswhich had the support of nearly 90 percent of Americans after the Sandy Hook tragedy, the Green New Deal will present a particular challenge for Ocasio-Cortez and the Democrats.
Republicans, on the other hand, seem to believe they have found in Ocasio-Cortez the perfect kind of progressive neophyte they can feast on at their leisure. They poke fun at her intelligence and her lack of preparation (on that front even Whoopi Goldberg advises her to “sit still for a minute and learn the job’).
Columnist Kim Strassel of the Wall Street Journal notes the Green New Deal is “a GOP dream, especially because the media presented her plan with a straight face. Republicans are thrilled to treat it that way in the march to 2020, as their set-piece example of what the Democrats would do to the economy and average Americans if given control.”
Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.), spoke for many Republicans when dismissing the Green New Deal (and Ms. Ocasio-Cortez) as a proposal crafted by young, inexperienced politicians: “I guess I can understand if someone has not had a lot of life experience and they’re proposing something that’s extremely unrealistic ― well, impossible. Impossible.”
Indeed, Rep. Ocasio-Cortez presents a target rich environment on her ill-thought-out comments ranging from declaring “capitalism will not always exist in the world” to comparing climate change “to World War II.” But there is a time and place for everything, and the political firepower already expended on her can be costly — not to her, but to Republicans.
There is a risk that the continuous pounding by Republicans could make her more a political martyr to be embraced as the second socialist coming of Franklin Roosevelt than a member of Congress whose proposals are out step with mainstream of America.
Republicans have a tendency to fixate their ire (remember Hillary and Obama) in a way that’s more personal than policy focused. Consequently, if any or all of the Green New Deal is packaged as a serious piece of legislation voters could be less interested in arguments that its passage would harm a prosperous economy, stall a rising middle class and weaken a stronger defense/homeland security posture because we will have sold them more on the personality of Ocasio-Cortez.
Yes, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a cash cow for GOP fundraising and attention-grabbing posts on social media (“socialism sucks”). So she likes to dance; I know a few Republicans who also dance, but I digress. And that’s the point: Do not digress. Instead, Republicans should lay out the case that her legislative solution (if she proposes the Green New Deal as actual legislation) is no solution, and pivot to an argument less focused on her personally and more about the flaws of her policy proposals. That will be the quickest and less costly way to remind voters of a basic fact: She’s just a freshman member of Congress. Right?
Michael Steele is the former Republican National Committee chairman and former lieutenant governor of Maryland. He is also an MSNBC political analyst.