BESS: When being liberal isn’t liberal enough

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As the 116th Congress convenes in Washington this week, one of the more interesting spectacles to take place will be the seating of Democratic Socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Much has been made of Ocasio-Cortez’s rhetoric and political philosophy since her defeat last year of former Rep. Joseph Crowley of New York’s 14th Congressional District, one of the most powerful Democrats in the House and a close ally of Nancy Pelosi.

In the wake of her primary victory over Crowley, Ocasio-Cortez told CNN, “We won because, I think, we had a very clear winning message, and we took that message to doors that had never been knocked on before.”

Ocasio-Cortez faced an incumbent who had grown complacent and disenfranchised from those he was elected to serve. She campaigned on a platform that promised to address issues that affected voters in her district including affordable housing, increased income inequality and poverty. Ocasio-Cortez called for Medicare for all, a federal jobs program, and has been quite vocal about abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Before taking her oath of office, Ocasio-Cortez targeted Pelosi intimate Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., leader of the House Democratic Caucus – a high-profile position a few notches below Pelosi’s own in the party hierarchy. Jeffries represents a district adjacent to that of Ocasio-Cortez. It appears she’d like a new neighbor. Preferably one she has hand-picked (or anointed) and who shares her own brand of progressivism, which Jeffries does not.

Therein lies a problem for the Democratic Party and their Blue Wave. How far to the left must a believer in more traditional liberal policies veer in order to satisfy those who believe party “elites” like Pelosi, Crowley, and Jeffries have failed average Americans?

Conservatives rarely (okay, mostly never) agree with Nancy Pelosi, but now a new breed of Democrat – or Democratic Socialist in the case of Ocasio-Cortez – poses an even greater challenge.In their eyes, Pelosi’s brand of liberal isn’t liberal enough. While that may be a fair assessment from their perspective, it would be somewhat self-destructive to arrive in Washington intent, as Ocasio-Cortez seems to be, on waging internecine warfare, status quo be damned.

During her campaign, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez promised she would be responsive first and foremost to her constituents. She was critical of her predecessor, who focused more on building a political power base in D.C. than on the folks in the neighborhoods back home. It cost him his seat in the House. Yet, by her earliest rumblings, Ocasio-Cortez could suffer a similar fate two years hence should she not keep her word with those in the Bronx and Queens who put her in office.

In a recent New Yorker profile on Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., former New York Congressman Steve Israel recalled that when he and Schiff first came to Washington in 2000, they were told during their orientation that there were three kinds of members of Congress – “the ‘pothole member,’ who concentrates on district issues, the ‘political member,’ who works on moving up the ladder, and the ‘policy member,’ who digs down in specific policy areas and becomes the expert on the floor of the House.”

Most newly-elected members being seated this week are there for one reason. And it wasn’t Donald Trump. It was because voters at home believed they would be more responsive to “pothole issues” like healthcare than were their opponents.Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was elected on that basis, yet she increasingly presents as though she is more intent on becoming a “political member” than she’d initially led her constituents to believe. As she well knows, it doesn’t take much to remind voters when a politician isn’t listening and doesn’t keep their word.

In these precarious times, it shouldn’t matter whether our leaders are conservative enough or liberal enough. What should matter is that they do the job they were elected to do, which is representing those of us back home. Squandering the opportunity to do so in exchange for building one’s own personal political brand is a betrayal of a constituent’s trust. Hopefully, the newest members of the 116th Congress will keep that in mind as they settle in to begin the business of governing.

Blair Bess is an award-winning journalist and columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]