It has been a stunning rise for a 28-year-old self-described Democratic Socialist who emerged from relatively anonymity to become, barring something extraordinary, the next member of Congress from New York’s 14th Congressional District. But it hasn’t been without a share of hiccups.
As fast as she’s become politically ubiquitous, Ocasio-Cortez has discovered the perils of that fame. She has been turned into a boogeyman for conservatives and found herself the object of mockery after getting tripped up on several policy questions during some of her recent interviews. Those missteps have raised questions about what, exactly, her endgame is and whether she’s spending her political capital wisely.
“What goes up must come down,” one Democratic operative told The Daily Beast. “And I guess there are two schools of thought. You’re a household name and a dragon slayer, you could put your head down and do the work or ride the wave of the moment. She’s clearly decided to ride the wave of the moment. I do think that’s a tricky game to get right.”
But those close to Ocasio-Cortez say that she is perfectly comfortable with the lumps and views them as a small price to pay for trying to parlay her newfound celebrity into something more concrete. And even some conservative lawmakers admit that they’re in awe of her capacity to communicate and organize in the modern political age.
“Look, the organizing principle in American politics today is to stay interesting,” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), a freshman member who is the polar opposite on the ideological spectrum, told The Daily Beast. “In a very short period of time, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez has achieved that objective.”
“Baby boomers looked at political content through a telescope, millennials look at political content through a kaleidoscope,” Gaetz surmised. And as another young member of Congress who is not one to shy away from the media, he added: “She’s obviously got game. Game respects game.”
Ocasio-Cortez, for her part, has shown no signs of backing off her aggressive approach, despite the recent missteps. In a statement to The Daily Beast, provided by her campaign, she framed her post-primary agenda as a fulfillment of the wishes of the voters of her district.
“I think as Democrats, it’s important for us to speak out with moral clarity about what we believe in, and what Congress should be doing to lead our nation to a better place,” the statement read. “People around my district and around the country are looking for Democrats to present a vision for a more just society, so I’ll always use my platform to stand up for working class, progressive values.”
For many high-profile candidates, there is a tried and true formula for what one does after winning an election: you stay quiet, do your work, tackle a major piece of legislation, find your niche issues, and only then begin to emerge publicly. It’s the well-worn path taken by such high-profile politicos as Hillary Clinton (after winning her Senate seat), Elizabeth Warren, and Al Franken (the early Senate years, before he succumbed to scandal).
Ocasio-Cortez has done the exact opposite. She has yet to step foot in Congress, but in the past few weeks, she has campaigned in Kansas for Democratic congressional candidates Brent Welder and James Thompson, swung over to Michigan for rallies on behalf of felled gubernatorial candidate Abdul El-Sayed and just recently took a jaunt to Hawaii for Kaniela Ing, a Democratic-Socialist member of the state house who lost a congressional primary bid. She also lent her support to Ilhan Omar, the nation’s first Somali-American legislator, who won her primary on Tuesday night for Keith Ellison’s vacated seat. Ocasio-Cortez has also appeared on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah,” and “Face the Nation,” a Sunday show that is often reserved for Congressional veterans.
Her choices, those close to her say, have been influenced by her past as an organizer and a sense of loyalty to a slate of candidates she rose to prominence with, many of whom had not had their primaries by the time she won.
“We made the gamble to turn her victory speech into our campaign,” Corbin Trent, a spokesperson for the campaign told The Daily Beast. “The campaign essentially tried to embody what she said on election night. It was a gamble, it was a risk, it was a roll of the dice. I think that gamble will ultimately pay off in the long run.”
Progressives, by and large, have been ecstatic. Ocasio-Cortez’s win put a spotlight on their electoral power. Her unapologetic advocacy for Medicare for All, the abolition of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency and a federal jobs guarantee since then has added additional focus on their policy ideas.
In their view, it would be political malpractice if Ocasio-Cortez didn’t take advantage of the platform she’s earned, which includes (as of this writing) 824,000 Twitter followers and over 220,000 Facebook followers. After all, once she enters Congress, she will become just another member of a 435-person body.
“I mean I think my feeling is that the way the media is set up, you’re only in the limelight for a certain time period,” one operative, requesting to speak candidly on background, told The Daily Beast. “I don’t know but maybe she thinks her power isn’t going to come from being assigned to the right committee in Congress. Her power is going to come from the bully pulpit.”
But the spotlight hasn’t always been forgiving. In an interview on PBS’ “Firing Line,” Ocasio-Cortez admitted that she was “not the expert,” after getting caught unprepared for a follow-up question on Israel’s “occupation of Palestine.” During that same interview, she said that “unemployment is low because everyone has two jobs.” Ocasio-Cortez later tweeted a clarification that people were being driven to second jobs because of low wages. During a more recent interview on CNN, she seemed to link Medicare for All with the costs of funeral expenses. Trent explained that Ocasio-Cortez was making the point that health care costs are outlandishly high and that doesn't include "the costs associated with lost productivity, early deaths from lack of treatment, or the loss of what in some regions is two decades of income generating years for the working-class.” All of this culminated in a troll-like offer from conservative writer Ben Shapiro to get her to debate for $10,000.
The Ocasio-Cortez campaign rejected the idea, deeming Shapiro a “little charlatan” and calling his offer the political equivalent of cat-calling. But the episode, for her defenders, symbolized a much bigger problem in the current political landscape. To them, there is a certain amount of sexism to the criticism Ocasio-Cortez has faced. Numerous male politicians—including those elected to the presidency—have demonstrated far less policy acumen and have never been dismissed as neophytes or ditzes. And as for the electoral defeats of the candidates she’s supported, the idea that an endorsement should guarantee victory is seen as symptomatic of insidery reporting that bears no tangible meaning for voters.
“Only people in D.C. read that and only people in D.C. give a shit about that,” Karthik Ganapathy, spokesperson for the progressive advocacy group MoveOn told The Daily Beast. “The idea that she hasn’t completely transformed the face of the Democratic party yet before being seated, it’s just such a moving of the goalposts.”
At some point, however, this period of Ocasio-Cortez’s political life will come to an end and she will be seated in Congress. And at that juncture, she will face an entirely new set of pressures. The House can be a profoundly humbling institution for young political stars, especially those running as outsiders. Top committee assignments must be earned; dues (literal and figurative) must be paid; and rarely is the media spotlight reserved for freshmen members.
Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), a freshman himself who met with Ocasio-Cortez during her visit to the Hill last month, told The Daily Beast he hoped his soon-to-be-colleague (along with the rest of the freshmen class) would remain aggressive and visible. The climate, he argued, was ripe for it.
“It used to be that you had to be senior member of Congress or on some important committee or a governor to become a national voice or an important voice,” he said. “Those rules just don’t apply.”
But Khanna, who created a minor fracas with a dual endorsement in Ocasio-Cortez’s contest, also said he’d advise any new member to have some perspective. The halls, he said, were filled with more compelling stories.
“John Lewis was beaten on the Edmund Pettus bridge. What have you done?” he said. “Nancy Pelosi, even though there are places I disagree, passed the Affordable Care Act, passed Dodd-Frank, passed the stimulus bill. What I go in every day saying is ‘You know what I’ve got a lot of good ideas but I’ve still got a lot to prove!”’
Update 10:35 A.M.: This story has been updated to include more comment from Ocasio-Cortez's campaign.