AOC's power in Washington is derived from the relentless conservative obsession with her

Freshman members usually struggle to get any attention. But being the focus of Fox and other conservative outlets has elevated her agenda.
Image: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., prepares to speak at the National Action Network's annual convention in New York on April 5, 2019.Spencer Platt / Getty Images
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By Matt Laslo

Want in on a little secret? Newly minted Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez isn’t that powerful: The New York Democrat’s just one out of a freshmen class of 101 members in a chamber of 435. She doesn't chair a committee, she can’t single-handedly pass legislation, let alone drive her party’s entire agenda, and her word is far from law.

But that might be breaking news to anyone who regularly consumes information from the conservative politicians and talking heads who parade misinformation about in the world of conservative media — where she is all anyone can talk about.

And their relentless focus on a minor member, combined with the constant raising of the specter of “socialism,” has completely backfired and turned Ocasio-Cortez into one of the most recognizable members of Congress and a super hero of the progressive left with powers that far outpace her actual rank on Capitol Hill. (She also continues to poll extremely positive among voters in her home of New York City, despite headlines about her supposed unpopularity in nationwide polls.)

Backbench lawmakers — on both the right and the left — regularly use social media and the press (when they can get any) to drive either their policy or personal agendas outside of the confines of the nation’s entrenched two-party structure. But Capitol Hill itself still moves at a glacial pace and largely remains entrenched in tradition, and freshmen lawmakers are the lowest in seniority so they’re naturally mostly powerless by design.

Still, in many ways, the juggernauts of conservative media have turned the 29-year old Ocasio-Cortez into a power broker well ahead of her years and despite her lack of seniority.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who prided himself on refusing to hold votes on President Obama's agenda and nominations, recently held a vote on the congressional newbie’s climate agenda. Not because the leader, who hails from coal country, supports the Green New Deal, but because he wanted to try to embarrass the many Senate Democrats vying for the White House — a group of powerful and accomplished lawmakers whom the progressive wing of the party is pressuring to embrace Ocasio-Cortez’s sweeping measure.

And her impact has gone beyond the Senate. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — who’s still just starting her second historic act as House Speaker — has been forced to respond to numerous questions about Ocasio-Cortez’s actions (like when she encouraged protestors holding a sit-in in Pelosi’s office) and her green agenda.

And Ocasio-Cortez has been praised by many for producing what was largely seen as the most newsworthy moment in the bitterly partisan marathon testimony of former Trump lawyer and "fixer" Michael Cohen. She calmly and methodically pressed Cohen for specifics as to how Congress could prove his allegations that Trump lied about the values of his properties in order to skimp on his annual tax obligation — which got Cohen to say that lawmakers could prove or disprove his claims by looking at Trump’s yet-to-be-released tax returns.

In less than five minutes with the witness, Ocasio-Cortez helped bolster her entire party’s case to review Trump’s tax returns; that work is ongoing. Still,because of her lack of seniority she had to wait until nearly the end of the first round of questions to press the witness for answers to the questions millions had been longing to hear.

Still, conservatives persist in portraying her as powerful beyond belief, capable of wreaking havoc on everything they hold dear. Take February's Conservative Political Action Conference, which used to be focused on reigning in the debt and deficit. This year conservative thought leaders focused much of their attention on and aimed their ire at Ocasio-Cortez — or at least at the papier-mâché likeness of her they’ve erected — instead of the hammering the much more powerful Pelosi or any of a variety of presidential contenders.

For instance, the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., and Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. taunted AOC’s Green New Deal by repeating apopular, yet incorrect, impression of the Green New Deal: That she's trying to take away people's hamburgers. “I’ve got 100 cows — you just let Alexandria Cortez [sic] show up at my cows and try to take my cows away,” Falwell Jr. told the crowd.

“I love cows, Jerry,” Trump Jr. replied. “They’re delicious.”

Here’s what the proposal actually states about meat: “Working collaboratively with farmers and ranchers in the United States to eliminate pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector as much as is technologically feasible." That's a far cry from banning cattle, yet lawmakers are doing photo-ops stuffing their faces with burgers.

Other caricatures the right (and alt-right) keep painting of Ocasio-Cortez don’t seem to mesh with reality either, while their visceral dismissal of Ocasio-Cortez has brought accusations of sexism.

Ocasio-Cortez may be young (she’s not even old enough to run for president in 2020), she may make mistakes (who doesn’t) and she may still be learning the ropes of Capitol Hill (I’ve worked here for 12 years and I still get lost in the sprawling complex), but she’s now the talk of the town. One could even call her a titan, because lawmakers twice her age and at least one who has now served 44 years longer than her (Republican Don Young of Alaska) are now forced to react to her ideas rather than ignore them as generations of lawmakers have ignored freshmen before her.

In this slow-moving, even stale capital city, that’s a revolution in and of its own.