For anyone who has spent the past few weeks fixating on Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s clothes, dance moves, childhood nickname or living situation, I hope they watched her response to President Donald Trump’s Oval Office address on Tuesday night.
Of all the voices we heard from, the freshman congresswoman's was by far the most compelling and effective. It was also the only one that had both passion and humanity — backed up by facts.
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Trump gave a very deliberately subdued presentation on what he called a “crisis at the border” littered with his unique, albeit familiar mix of lies, racism and anecdotal fear-mongering. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer then followed with a very stiff, scripted and sobering rebuttal that was more a call to end the ongoing government shutdown than a direct response to Trump’s border claims.
Neither Trump’s speech nor the Democratic response felt compelling enough to warrant a major network takeover. Ocasio-Cortez’s appearance on MSNBC’s "Rachel Maddow Show," on the other hand, communicated a sense of urgency that Trump’s “crisis” talk lacked. Of course, it can be hard to seem passionate about a mostly made-up situation. Ocasio-Cortez’s emotion felt raw because what is actually happening to migrant families and children is raw, it’s ugly and it’s frankly un-American.
“The one thing that the president has not talked about is the fact that he has systemically engaged in the violation of human rights on our border,” the representative told Maddow. “He has separated children from their families. He talks about what happened the day after Christmas, on the day of Christmas, a child died in ICE custody.”
Former Sen. Claire McCaskill was recently quoted as saying Ocasio-Cortez was nothing more than “a bright shiny new object,” which “came out of nowhere and surprised people when she beat a very good congressman.”
McCaskill doesn’t get it. In fact, I’m sure a great many of her remaining colleagues in Congress feel the same way she does. These are probably many of the same folks who, to this day, don’t understand how or why Trump won in 2016.
But Democrats and Republicans alike would be wise to stop belittling people like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and start paying attention to them. Because if they don’t start to “get it,” Trump will likely get re-elected in 2020.
But Democrats and Republicans alike would be wise to stop belittling people like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and start paying attention to them.
For better or worse, Trump successfully hit an emotional chord in 2016. He recognized that there was a large segment of Americans who were frustrated with the Washington establishment and wanted to shake things up. Those feelings and that sentiment didn’t just evaporate after Trump won. Especially since it has become painfully clear that Trump is not the deal-making, problem-solving, “drain the swamp” crusader he cast himself as on the campaign trail.
The American people don’t want a string of facts that have been repeatedly proven to be false. They don’t want to be lectured. What they want is for their political figures to respond to the challenges of our time with empathy, authenticity and candor. They want to hear their elected representatives talk about these issues with the same vocabulary that they talk about them around their kitchen table or in their living rooms.
That’s what Ocasio-Cortez did so well.
“Right now, what we are seeing is death. Right now, what we are seeing is the violation of human rights. These children and these families are being held in … basically freezing boxes,” she told Maddow. “Those women and children trying to come here with nothing but the shirts on their back to create an opportunity and provide for this nation are acting more in American tradition than this president is acting right now.”
In a marked contrast to the president, Ocasio-Cortez wasn’t visibly using a teleprompter. She wasn’t reading from notes. She spoke like she was talking about a conflict involving humans, many of them vulnerable, who have become pawns in a political standoff and are suffering for it.
Yes, facts are important. The truth is important. Our institutions and traditions are important. Experience is important. But many of our elected officials become so consumed with upholding those traditions and customs that they exist mainly in a Washington, D.C. bubble. Sometimes, disruption is good. Getting outside of your comfort zone is necessary.
Is Ocasio-Cortez a perfect politician? Of course not. She is going to get some facts wrong, break some rules, speak out of turn, make mistakes — and hopefully learn from them. And yet, she is already having more of an impact in her first 30 days than many House members have in their entire careers. The Democratic leadership’s decision to revive the House Select Committee on Climate Change, for example, is a direct response to Ocasio-Cortez’s push for the “Green New Deal.” The congresswoman’s relentless and necessary crusade for environmentally focused policy has put climate issues at the forefront of the new Congress.
Climate change, social security, gun reform, income inequality, food insecurity, education, immigration — the list of real crises continues to grow, while both Republicans and Democrats in Congress have been mainly concerned with fighting each other. This lack of results is what the American people see and what they ultimately care about. Given that most members of Congress spend the bulk of their days in meetings with lobbyists, dialing for re-election dollars, it’s no wonder so many didn’t see Ocasio-Cortez and her peers coming.
But after Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s signature performance this week, it may be time for the members of Congress who still don’t “get it” to do America a favor and just retire already.