Hostile takeover: Democrats’ younger generation is brushing party leaders aside


Increasingly, Democrats’ policy priorities  appear to be set by a 29 year old former bartender without a leadership title (

Washington frequently feels like middle school, with its gossip, cliques, and unwritten rules. And woe to any woman who breaks those rules.

Republicans have often chosen the “next in line” to lead them; think George H.W. Bush and Sen. Bob Dole. But the same is now apparent among Democrats. The party clung to the Clintons longer than most people wanted. Democratic leaders scoff at the idea of term limits, bide their time and inch up the ladder toward powerful chairmanships and even the speakership. Speaker Nancy Pelosi is 78, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer is 79, House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn is 78.

But what if the words that most matter are not those spoken by those septuagenarians but, rather, by a 29-year-old socialist freshman? Thanks to New York City bartender-turned-congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, we’re about to find out.

The old rulebook has been shredded. Gen X and millennials are being elected in larger numbers, and they’re not waiting their turn. A handful of relatively young liberal women have set tradition and customs aside and are forcing the Democrats’ leaders to reconsider not only how they operate, but also what they and their party stand for.

Who is really in charge?

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, higher taxes, and the ‘Green New Deal’

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is the toast of Twitter; 2.5 million people hang on her every word, and party elders ask her to teach them the mysterious ways of the interwebz. The New Yorker enjoys trolling Republicans who oppose her socialist policies. But the more interesting rivalries are those between the Democratic Party’s old guard and its younger generation.

Officially, congressional Democrats are thrilled to have AOC join their ranks. She’s young, dynamic, and lends diversity to their caucus. To the leaders, that phrase, “in their ranks,” is the key because Ocasio-Cortez has instead jumped to the front of the line with her charisma, digital profile, and legion of loyal followers. When she talks policy, the Beltway Left follows. It’s no accident. In January 2018, AOC tweeted, “The reason some Dems are so focused on Trump gossip is b/c want to avoid talking about Medicare for All, criminal justice reform, DREAM Act, and income inequality as much as possible. We deserve better Democrats in 2018. Vote in your primaries. NY’s election is in JUNE, not Nov.” In that New York primary, Ocasio-Cortez ousted 20-year congressman Rep. Joe Crowley, who at the time was the Dems’ No. 4 in the House, and who was widely seen as a successor to Pelosi.

She views her victory as a blueprint for others to follow, not as an isolated fluke.

In mid-December, before AOC had even been sworn into office, Politico ran a piece about her plan to primary fellow New York City Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, now the fifth-ranking House Democrat and another prospective Pelosi successor, along with other Dems whom she and her fellow socialists deem insufficiently combative or progressive and out of touch with their constituents. Democratic old-timers naturally hate that their new colleague wants to torpedo their re-election. It flouts party customs, where Rule No. 1 is: We protect our own.

As a result, even though it’s still January, AOC is already making enemies among fellow Democrats, whose leaders have reportedly started trying to rein her in.

And how’s that going? Earlier this month, when President Trump delivered remarks about the wall he wants built on the southern border, the star of the night was Ocasio-Cortez. In an article titled, “Ocasio-Cortez Gives the Only Appropriate Response to Trump’s Oval Office Speech,” GQ praised her “call[ing] out the president’s anti-immigrant mania behind his demands for a border wall.” That must have gone over like gangbusters with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Pelosi, who, looking like a pair of wind-up wooden dolls (Can wooden dolls wind up? They were definitely wooden-looking), had delivered the party’s official joint response and been mercilessly memed across Twitter.

And in January, late-night host Stephen Colbert asked Ocasio-Cortez about those in her party demanding she wait her turn: “I want to ask this question in a respectful manner, knowing also that you’re from Queens, so you will understand this question. On a scale from zero to some, how many fucks do you give?”

Ocasio-Cortez’s response: “I think it’s zero.”

Ocasio-Cortez inspires intense devotion among many members of the press, who write glowing portraits of her. In a recent column in women’s magazine Elle, the writer chided Anderson Cooper, Whoopi Goldberg, and anyone else who might not understand that the just-arrived congresswoman “is a serious politician with serious ideas that ought to be taken seriously.”

But is the New York freshman really a serious politician? She beat a senior Democrat in a primary, which is no small feat, especially for a young unknown. But at this point, Ocasio-Cortez isn’t known for her legislative prowess or policy expertise. She’s primarily known for being a social media influencer.

Consider the glowing coverage of the millennial socialist’s response to former Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Lieberman. Speaking to Neil Cavuto on Fox Business Network, the mild-mannered Lieberman commented, “With all respect, I certainly hope she’s not the future and I don’t believe she is.” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted a snarky response: “New party, who dis?” for which Teen Vogue dubbed her the “congressional clapback queen.”

So, sure, Ocasio-Cortez has mastered snappy comebacks. But since she’s a member of Congress and not the host of a show on Comedy Central, the question remains: Will she be an effective legislator, and will she deliver for her constituents? She’s a woman of the people, who worries about the high cost of housing in Washington and makes macaroni and cheese live on Instagram, but she has no real policy expertise yet. In an earlier era, Ocasio-Cortez would likely have been dismissed as a show horse, mugging for the cameras instead of buckling down to learn about policy, as well as the inner workings of Congress.

In 2019, though, the calculus may be changing. Ocasio-Cortez can tweet about raising the top marginal tax rate to 70 percent to fund her proposed “Green New Deal” and suddenly everyone’s discussing it. Conservatives attack it. Liberals support it, and it becomes part of the Democrats’ primary discussion for 2020. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, have already expressed support for it, and former Housing and Urban Development secretary Julian Castro, another 2020 contender, is open to higher tax rates on America’s wealthy.

Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Israel, and impeachment

Perhaps more concerning to the aging Democratic establishment is the fact that AOC isn’t an isolated case and there are other young guns breaking even greater taboos . One of the most feted and controversial freshmen is Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar, who built her base of support, as well as notoriety, on social media. Even before arriving in Washington, Omar had made a name for herself by tweeting, “Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel,” in November 2012, while Israel was undertaking an eight-day counteroffensive against Hamas.

Notably, the offending tweet remains up, more than six years later, in spite of garnering significant criticism on Twitter during 2018’s campaign season. These young Turks didn’t get where they are by apologizing and they clearly have no intention of starting now.

Offered an opportunity to explain the conspiratorial tweet on CNN this month, Omar told interviewers Jim Sciutto and Poppy Harlow, “I don’t know how my comments would be offensive to Jewish Americans. My comments precisely are addressing what was happening during the Gaza War and I am clearly speaking about the way that the Israeli regime was conducting itself in that war.” To which Tablet magazine contributing editor Carly Pildis tweeted, “She does know, because Jewish Americans have explained it to her many, many times.” Omar finally acknowledged why the tweet was offensive in late January, after it became the subject of a New York Times op-ed.

Ocasio-Cortez is green but earnest. Omar comes across as calculating. Consider that before becoming one of Congress’ first two open supporters of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement, along with Michigan freshman Rep. Rashida Tlaib, Omar ran as an anti-BDS Democrat. She only reversed herself on the matter after she had got herself safely elected.

The Democrats have rewarded Omar with a plum seat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, so her view of foreign policy in the Middle East will now be amplified in a setting with real world implications. By their presence and their outspokenness, Omar and Tlaib may force Pelosi to grapple with the growing gap between elected Democrats’ support for Israel and their base’s growing hostility toward America’s most reliable regional ally.

Meanwhile, Tlaib, who didn’t publicly support a one-state solution and ending aid to Israel until after winning the Democratic primary, has garnered significant media attention for her own recent provocations. On Jan. 12, she found herself at the center of a controversy after being photographed with a Hezbollah supporter, who attended a private dinner celebrating her swearing-in. Even the Anti-Defamation League, which has drawn fire for increasing progressive partisanship in recent years, wanted an explanation. Tlaib also raised hackles when she suggested that members of Congress who supported an anti-BDS bill were choosing loyalty to the Jewish state over loyalty to America.

Most problematic for the House Democratic leadership may be Tlaib’s expletive-speckled assurance to a crowd of progressive activists that “we’re going to go in there, and we’re going to impeach the motherf—-r.”

Unlike most of Tlaib’s newsworthy comments, this one actually attracted significant attention. When Pelosi was asked about it, she played down the vulgar swearing and attempted to shift the conversation by claiming that such criticism was sexist. But it wasn’t so much Tlaib’s blue language as her talk of impeaching Trump that was problematic for Democrats. According to the New York Times, her “outburst ran counter to all Democratic talking points.” New York Rep. Jerrold Nadler, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, told CNN, “It is too early to talk about that intelligently. We have to follow the facts.”

Clearly, as much as the Democrats’ progressive base is ready to impeach Trump for just about any reason, selling impeachment to the general public will require patience and effort if it is ever to have a chance of success. Americans don’t like things that look rigged from the outset. Nor would the public take kindly to a sense that election results are being overturned for partisan political reasons. In other words, most Americans aren’t rooting for Trump to be tossed out before Robert Mueller has had a chance to finish his investigation.

It’s going to be a challenge for Pelosi to unite her caucus, which now includes Democrats representing red or purple districts, if progressives are calling the tune. For the same reason, it’ll be hard to convince voters in those pick-up districts that Democrats are sober, responsible leaders if they appear too eager to impeach. In a healthy, functioning democracy, impeachment should never be undertaken lightly, regardless of how much the opposition party loathes the sitting president.

Tulsi Gabbard and religious liberty

Hawaiian Rep. Tulsi Gabbard has also stirred things up. The 37-year-old has launched a presidential bid and been aiming her fire at Senate Democrats, including Hawaii Sen. Mazie Hirono, rather than the House leadership.

Though she represents her party’s progressive wing, Gabbard cares a great deal about religious liberty. And like religious conservatives, Gabbard has noticed Democrats’ growing hostility to traditional religious believers. At issue, in particular, is a strong sense that some Democratic senators want to introduce de facto religious tests, disqualifying traditional Catholics from serving as judges because of their beliefs and affiliations.

Taking to the opinion pages of the Hill in early January, Gabbard warned that “politicians have weaponized religion for their own selfish gain, fomenting bigotry, fears and suspicions based on the faith, religion or spiritual practices of their political opponents.” She reminded readers of California Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s outrageously telling Judge Amy Coney Barrett during a confirmation hearing that “the dogma lives loudly within you,” which suggested that the senator thought the nominee’s Catholicism disqualifies her from sitting on the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Brian Buescher, who was nominated for a federal judgeship in Nebraska, has faced hostile questioning, too, because of his affiliation with a Catholic civic organization, the Knights of Columbus. In written questions to the nominee, Sen. Hirono asserted that the Knights of Columbus have “taken a number of extreme positions,” such as contributing to California’s Proposition 8, which sought to ban same-sex marriage in the state. Of course, back in 2008, even Barack Obama didn’t publicly support same-sex marriage.

Hirono also asked Buescher about a 2016 article in the organization’s magazine claiming there are side effects to contraceptive use; Buescher hadn’t written it, but it offended Hirono’s sensibilities nonetheless. Hirono would clearly prefer that Buescher renounce his membership in the Knights of Columbus.

Gabbard is right to note that if participation in the Knights of Columbus were problematic for public service, both President John Kennedy and Sen. Ted Kennedy would have been disqualified, as well as the unconstitutional nature of religious litmus tests. Meanwhile, Hirono continues on her anti-Catholic course, charging Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse with “embrac[ing] the alt-right position” because he introduced a Senate resolution opposing religious tests, like the one she’s been imposing on Beuscher. Sasse, of course, has loudly critiqued and challenged the alt-right. Yet to Hirono, Christian belief is apparently synonymous with skinhead race politics.

This is clear bigotry, but the only Democrat willing to call it out has been Tulsi Gabbard. In doing so, Gabbard won praise from conservatives for defending religious liberty, but by breaking ranks, she also makes it harder for Democrats to pretend they don’t have a problem with religion and the millions of Americans who have religious faith. It’s simply much harder to dismiss criticism from someone within your own party. In an era where politics is largely about pointing out the opposition’s faults, it remains an open question whether Democrats will take this observation to heart.

Youth and all things new

The times are always a-changing, but the Democrats appear to be experiencing a tectonic generational shift. And aided by technology, this revolution is not only being led by women outside the leadership structure but may also be Instagrammed.

To counter the president, a septuagenarian who’s mastered Twitter and trolling his opponents, Democrats are increasingly looking beyond Pelosi and 68-year-old Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer to younger, fresher faces. Taking a page from the cola wars, one might describe this as the choice of a new generation.

Rather like the Pepsi of my childhood, Democrats love the idea of being the party of youth. But Washington isn’t Hollywood. Turning over the reins to newbies comes with risks, and Pelosi & Co. know that. The most salient and important feature of this generational transfer of power is that party elders would enthusiastically pump the breaks — if this runaway train had any.

While voters never tire of sending anti-Washington candidates to drain the swamp, the view inside the Beltway has been sharply different. Here, age and experience have typically been considered assets, because it takes time to learn how to work within the system and to build coalitions to make the changes that inspire people to run for office in the first place.

In that sense, Democrats are conducting their own experiment, rather like Republicans did in nominating Trump, an outsider, for the presidency. We’ll know soon enough which they consider the better leadership model to be — tried and tested, or new and different. Either way, what it means to be a Democrat is already changing. Even if the official, listed leadership isn’t.

This article appeared in the Washington Examiner‘s magazine.

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