'New party, who dis?': Freshman Dems seek influence in new Congress

    Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a freshman Democrat representing New York's 14th Congressional District, takes a selfie with Rep. Ann McLane Kuster, D-NH, and Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., on the first day of the 116th Congress with Democrats holding the majority, at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

    Former Sen. Joe Lieberman is very concerned about the future of the Democratic Party and first-term Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s place in it.

    “With all respect,” Lieberman, the Democratic vice-presidential candidate in 2000, said in an interview with Fox Business Thursday, “I certainly hope she’s not the future and I don’t believe she is.”

    “New party, who dis?” the New York congresswoman, a self-declared Democratic socialist who unexpectedly defeated 10-term incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley in a primary last year, clapped back on Twitter.

    A 76-year-old who endorsed Republican John McCain for president in 2008 may not be the most authoritative voice on the future of the Democratic Party, but Lieberman raises fears shared by some in the Democratic establishment that voices of the new class of first-term lawmakers are getting too loud too fast.

    According to Democratic strategist Hamza Khan, founder of the Pluralism Project, that train already left the station, and Ocasio-Cortez, Rep. Rashida Tlaib, Mich., Rep. Ilhan Omar, Minn., and Rep. Ayanna Pressley, Mass. are just a few of the first-term lawmakers on board.

    “They are the new face of the party,” Khan said. “I think it’s really important for us to realize millennials and generation Xers are really working together in this freshman class to reshape the party.”

    With a partial shutdown and a massive fight over border wall funding gumming up most legislative work, more attention than usual in the last week has focused on what newly sworn-in Democrats are saying and doing. A casual mention of raising marginal tax rates for millionaires by Ocasio-Cortez has spurred extensive debate and analysis and a profane comment by Rep. Tlaib at a party sent Washington into a dayslong tizzy over civility in politics.

    In a “60 Minutes” interview that aired Sunday, Ocasio-Cortez suggested hiking taxes on earnings above $10 million to 60 or 70 percent to pay for the Green New Deal agenda she advocates. In the days that followed, other lawmakers and several Democrats circling a 2020 presidential run were pressed to respond to the idea of setting rates that high. Many at least signaled openness to a policy nobody in the party was talking about a week ago.

    “I’m eager to have a discussion about it,” Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., told The Washington Times.

    Prominent Democrats in the House and Senate rebuked Tlaib last week after she said of President Trump at a MoveOn.org party, “We’re going to impeach the mother f***er.”

    Trump later claimed Tlaib “dishonored herself and dishonored her family” with the remark. At an MSNBC town hall, Pelosi said calls for impeachment without the facts to back them up are divisive, but she would not police her members language.

    "Generationally, that would not be language I would use, but nonetheless, I don’t think we should make a big deal of it," Pelosi said.

    Tlaib eventually apologized for causing a distraction, though not for her desire to impeach Trump. The first Palestinian-American member of Congress drew more criticism this week for a tweet suggesting Republicans pushing pro-Israel legislation in the Senate in the midst of the shutdown “forgot what country they represent.”

    Although a handful of newcomers have proven adept at attracting headlines, House Democratic leadership has so far been less receptive to their views. This week, they rebuffed a push from grassroots activists to seat Ocasio-Cortez on the Ways and Means Committee and Tlaib on Appropriations, powerful positions rarely handed to first-term members.

    When Ocasio-Cortez first arrived in Washington after the election, she joined a sit-in livestreamed from now-Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office demanding the creation of a Green New Deal committee. Pelosi agreed to establish a select committee on climate change, but it will not have subpoena power and it will be looking at other policy solutions as well.

    Ocasio-Cortez also angered some in the Democratic caucus by speaking out against a rules package because of a provision that required new spending be offset by revenue increases or budget cuts. She claimed it was "a dark political maneuver designed to hamstring progress on healthcare." The Congressional Progressive Caucus disagreed and backed the resolution.

    Republicans, on the other hand, have eagerly embraced Ocasio-Cortez and Tlaib’s controversial comments, hoping to paint the entire Democratic Party as extremists hellbent on raising taxes and throwing Trump out of office.

    “That’s a new deal I can live with – a Democrat who unapologetically tells you how liberal they are and fully acknowledges the fringe nature of their platform. If Democrats want to run a campaign for massive tax increases ahead of 2020’s elections, preach on,” GOP strategist Scott Jennings wrote in an op-ed in the Courier-Journal this week.

    Ocasio-Cortez has faced attacks from the right recently for everything from legitimate factual errors to being known as Sandy in high school. This week, she came under fire for defending some of her inaccurate statements as “morally right” while she also fended off right wing blogs and social media users sharing a fake nude photo of her.

    “The right-wing echo chamber media has seized on her prominence and is attempting to demonize her,” said Richard Arenberg, who worked in senior staff positions on Capitol Hill for three decades and now teaches at Brown University.

    As her needling of Lieberman on Twitter suggests, Ocasio-Cortez has also fashioned an unusually effective online persona. In addition to taking on colleagues and critics directly on social media, she has made extensive use of Instagram videos and the Instagram Stories feature to connect with her following.

    “She sort of is to Instagram what Donald Trump was to Twitter in terms of leveraging it for political speech,” said Stephanie Martin, a professor at Southern Methodist University and editor of “Columns to Characters: The Presidency and the Press Enter the Digital Age.”

    According to Khan, this is exactly why Republicans see her as a threat, and why they seemingly cannot stop talking about her.

    “I wonder what the attraction to a young Latina from New York who is unfazed by typical threats could be,” he said sarcastically. “She’s a lightning rod and she’s proud of it. She’s doing the people’s work.”

    It is not unusual for incoming members to find their priorities stymied by the hierarchical power structure of Congress. After a wave election, though, they can have a stronger voice.

    In the wake of Watergate, 76 new Democrats came to Washington eager to change the way business was done. Arenberg, who served on the staff of freshman Rep. Paul Tsongas at the time, said they succeeded in challenging several powerful committee chairmen.

    “The strength of class like the Democrats in 1975 and 2019 and the Republicans in 1995 were the sheer numbers of incoming members,” Arenberg said. “If they banded together, they could force the leadership to take notice.”

    While Ocasio-Cortez’s views have not yet gained much traction in the House, they are driving debate in the media and on the presidential campaign trail. According to Fox News, at least eight potential 2020 candidates support aspects of the Green New Deal proposal, which aims to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions and transition the U.S. to renewable energy sources within 12 years.

    “The fact you have this notion of a Green New Deal and, all of a sudden, you have this public discussion suggests the information environment is changing,” Martin said.

    As new members find their footing on Capitol Hill, that trend is likely to continue.

    “You have a lot of young women of color and a lot of young progressives who have the political will to say, ‘Why not?’ and to question the status quo that I think many of the senior Democrats may have tacitly accepted,” said Vanessa Tyson, author of “Twists of Fate: Multiracial Coalitions and Minority Representation in the U.S. House of Representatives” and a professor at Scripps College.

    Politico reported Friday Democratic leaders are wrestling with whether to rein Ocasio-Cortez in or to try to harness her growing social media following. Some are also apparently afraid they will wind up in Twitter fights with her if they criticize her publicly.

    “She will come to the understanding that it’s a better use of her time fighting the Republican Party than her Democratic colleagues who agree with her on green energy,” Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., told Politico.

    Ocasio-Cortez replied to the Politico story Friday with a line from the vigilante Rorschach in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s comic book “Watchmen.”

    “To quote Alan Moore: ‘None of you understand. I'm not locked up in here with YOU. You're locked up in here with ME,’” she wrote.

    As prospective 2020 candidates adopt some of her policy views, some warn any attempt to sideline Ocasio-Cortez and her fellow newcomers could carry longterm dangers for an aging House leadership.

    “There’s definitely a risk of alienating a young Democratic base that is multiethnic, that is supportive of women’s rights, that really brings a lot of life and vibrancy into a Democratic Party that has at times come across as stale,” Tyson said.

    Whether the Democratic establishment wants to admit it now or not, the future of the party is going to look a lot more like the new class than the old guard.

    “We have a lot of Democrats who are over the age of 70,” Khan said. “Recognizing those Democrats are not going to be in the House forever is probably important. AOC will be groomed at some point or another in leadership.”

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    That said, empowering the extremes can be perilous too. The last wave election of a comparable scale in the 1990s brought in many of the GOP members who later pushed to impeach President Bill Clinton, which ultimately did more harm to Republicans than to him.

    “Democrats would be wise to take a lesson from history,” Martin said.

    She also noted some of the newcomers are much more moderate, having secured upset victories in historically Republican districts. They will have hard enough re-election battles in 2020 without the entire party being branded by the right as socialists and environmental extremists.

    “A wave election necessarily means you have some new members who come from swing districts or even light pink districts,” Martin said. “Those members are already candidates for defeat.”

    For better or worse, scoldings from the Joe Liebermans and Claire McCaskills of the world are unlikely to brush the more progressive members back. Even if they do not yet have the ear of congressional leadership, they do have the attention of many Democratic voters.

    “You don’t get into these positions by asking for permission,” Tyson said. “You get elected by inspiring people to turn out and vote for you, and part of what they’re saying is we can do better and we should do better.”

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