Before I became a pastor, I received some sage advice from my mentor, “Get you some authority before you try to use it.”
This was, and continues to be, wise counsel for anyone assuming a leadership position. It might be prudent for the Democratic Party’s newest star, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to also heed my mentor’s words.
Since June, when Ocasio-Cortez won what then appeared to be an improbable victory over seven-term incumbent Joe Crowley, she has radiated the public discourse with photogenic charm and exuberance. Ocasio-Cortez articulates an unapologetic liberal agenda, a committed advocacy for human dignity.
I don’t recall anyone arriving to the House of Representatives with more fanfare; she is without question a media darling. But is Ocasio-Cortez the rising star and face of the Democratic Party? Will she take the party too far to the left, as some fear?
The chances of Ocasio-Cortez appearing to take the party too far to the left is greater than her becoming the face of the party. Not because she doesn’t present the requisite skills and personality, but because there are larger obstacles that stand in her way. She does not stand alone in her party advocating for a “Green New Deal,” single payer health care, or support of LGBT equality. But her exposure, or as some might conclude, overexposure, could risk becoming stale to a fickle public titillated by something new until it isn’t.
Overexposure brings about closer scrutiny. The more she appears on television, the more she will unwittingly provide fodder for those obsessed with bringing her down.
Early observations indicate vulnerability around the certainty she holds for many of her policy positions. This is particularly harmful when those positions fail to correspondence with the accurate facts.
On a recent 60 Minutes segment, Anderson Cooper offered, “One of the criticisms of you is that your math is fuzzy. The Washington Post recently awarded you four Pinocchios for misstating some statistics about Pentagon spending.”
Though she acknowledged making an inaccurate statement, an increasing rarity in Washington, Ocasio-Cortez responded by saying: “There’s a lot of people more concerned about being precisely, factually, and semantically correct than about being morally right.” But two nights later, on The Rachel Maddow Show, she criticized President Trump for the inconsistency of his statements about the border control, “In the actual address there was falsehood after falsehood and we have to make sure we get our facts straight.”
This is the least of Ocasio-Cortez’s long-term challenges, if, in fact, being the face of the Democratic Party is the goal.
Power and seniority are correlatives in the Democratic-led House of Representatives. Committee chairs are rewarded to the last person standing. This is an advantage to those in “safe districts,” which could bode well for Ocasio-Cortez should she remain in the House. Otherwise, it is unlikely she will wield the type of power inside the chamber commensurate with her star power outside.
Does she possess the ability or the desire to successfully raise funds for someone in a tough district? Would she be considered too much of a lightning rod?
This is crucial if she is to build coalitions. Here is where the “Sam Rayburn Rule” could come into play. The former House speaker was famous for telling newly elected legislators “to get along, go along.” The House of Representatives may be beyond the strict letter of Rayburn’s warning, but I suspect a number of members hold to the ethos, especially as it relates to Ocasio-Cortez.
Not every member of her party welcomes Ocasio-Cortez with open arms. By her first day in Congress, she had leapfrogged many of her colleagues in notoriety that have paid their dues and, in many cases, know more about the issues substantively that she champions.
This perspective was shared by Whoopi Goldberg, who offered paternalistic advice to Ocasio-Cortez on The View: “You just got there, and I know you have lots of good ideas, but I would encourage you to sit still for a minute and learn the job.”
Whether she sits still or hits the ground running, Ocasio-Cortez must be able to count to 218, the number of votes required for a majority. The speeches, press appearances and social media impact cannot mitigate the ability to count to 218.
But individuals come to the House of Representatives for myriad reasons, and Ocasio-Cortez should be afforded the time to figure out what her role will be. As the masterminds of Brexit illustrate, there is a thin line between appearing to have the answers to becoming yesterday’s news. To avoid the latter scenario, Ocasio-Cortez had better get some authority before she tries to use it!
The Rev. Byron Williams (firstname.lastname@example.org), a writer and the host of “The Public Morality” on WSNC 90.5, lives in Winston-Salem.
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