The Remaking of A.O.C.

On the Hill, which is filled with gossips and more gossips, observers are trying to decipher A.O.C.’s strategy.
On the Hill, which is filled with gossips and more gossips, observers are trying to decipher A.O.C.’s strategy. Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images
Tara Palmeri
March 13, 2023

At this point, the legend of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is part of the political-pop culture fabric of our times—she was the bartending, student-loan obligated underdog who shocked Joe Crowley and the Democratic establishment, stared down the D.C.C.C., led the next-gen ambitions of The Squad, flexed her juice to Nancy Pelosi, and became a Met Gala sensation, cover star, and arguably one of the most recognizable people in the country, mostly before her 30th birthday.

In her earliest years on Capitol Hill, A.O.C. has contained multitudes. She was a #resistance hero, an inspiration, a right-wing target and trigger, and a veritable power center all her own. And yet, amid the chaos of the Trump years, she also posed a material challenge to leadership, a frustration to Democrats who wanted to stay united above all, and a font of vexation to policy wonks, who viewed her Green New Deal as the most well-known non-binding resolution of all time. 

Five years into her career on the Hill, A.O.C. remains no less enigmatic or intriguing. Sure, now she’s a backbencher in the minority, supporting the agenda of a president whom she has challenged and a party leadership with whom she has occasionally jostled. None of this is abnormal, but it’s amplified given her celebrity and apparent optionality. A year ago, my Puck partner Dylan Byers observed that some cable news executives half-seriously believed that A.O.C. was one of the few people who could replace Rachel Maddow at MSNBC and preserve the network’s ratings. The water cooler chatter merely confirmed that, at the age of 33, she may be one of the most famous members of Congress in modern times.

But the role A.O.C. plays on Capitol Hill is quite different. Other members may have written, introduced and passed a bill or two by their third term on their own, or landed a spot on a powerful A-committee, like Appropriations, Ways and Means, Energy or Commerce. A.O.C. has barely done either. During her second term, she tried for a perch on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, perhaps the most powerful perch in Congress and the best place to actualize her Green New Deal. But Pelosi gave the seat dedicated to the New York delegation to Kathleen Rice, a member she may have had even less use for than Ocasio-Cortez. (Ocasio-Cortez voted for Pelosi for Speaker twice; Rice refused.) The Center for Effective Lawmaking named Ocasio-Cortez one of the least effective members of Congress in 2021, for introducing bills that never became law or moved in committee. In fairness, she’s passed amendments and in 2022, her bill to support debt relief for developing countries was included in the COMPETES act. She also worked with Chuck Schumer to insert a provision into the larger pandemic relief to make sure that FEMA paid for Covid funerals and another provision in 2022 that would invest $120 million in the environment of Queens. 

These days, Ocasio-Cortez sits on the Natural Resources Committee as a Ranking member on the subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources and is a vice ranking chair on Oversight—a committee that has become a safe harbor for The Squad and young freshmen progressives whom other chairs can’t stomach. And while her posting as vice ranking chair may seem like a prominent role—and it is in the sense that she can fill in for ranking member Jamie Raskin—it was created in 2017 to elevate some of these restless younger members. It’s a great place for a talented cross-examiner like Ocasio-Cortez to continue to elevate her profile by earning some soundbites on cable news, but it’s hardly a place to pass legislation.

On the Hill, which is filled with gossips and more gossips and schadenfreude addicts and unofficial H.R. executives, observers are trying to decipher her strategy. Is she starting to choose legislative juice over celebrity? Is she playing the long game? Is this all part of some three-dimensional chess? Or is she suffering some payback from people she rubbed the wrong way when she first landed in D.C.?

Unsurprisingly, given the subject, there are a multitude of views. ​​“She has a huge impact but it’s just not in Congress,” said a former Democratic member. “She faces a choice: does she want to be productive or continue to become a celebrity and have influence the way celebrities have influence on Congress, which is not through legislation?” Another member put it differently: “She’s come to realize that you cannot be an agitator as a congressperson.”

But a person familiar with her thinking explained the plan more expansively. “She recognizes in this moment that she’s not in a powerful position within the caucus because of the way she came in,” this person said. “She sees that she’s set up for something bigger down the line.” One senior Senate source put it much more bluntly: “Only insiders care about policies and committees. The public doesn’t care. Donald Trump was president. What did he pass to get elected?”

The Inside Game

In subtle ways, A.O.C.’s posture seems to have shifted of late, signaling that she is perhaps a bit more curious about pursuing the inside game. Sure, she tried to shoot for the king (and missed) when she endorsed challenger Alessandra Biaggi against establishment favorite and D.C.C.C. chair Sean Patrick Maloney, but she also only endorsed three House challengers in the last election. (They all lost.) And sure, she voted against the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, but she kept her head down during the Build Back Better negotiations, letting Pramila Jayapal take the lead, and ultimately voted for the Inflation Reduction Act. During her 15 opportunities amid the Speaker vote chaos to suggest a leader for the party other than Hakeem Jeffries, with whom she’s clashed in the past, she kept her powder dry and voted for him every time. 

Even her vice ranking role on Oversight suggests that, after years of inhabiting the Pelosi penalty box, Jeffries may be dispensing with bygones.  “She’s become a better soldier,” another member of Congress said. “I don’t think she’s being marginalized, but I don’t think anyone is going out of their way to empower her either. So much bad blood was built early on.”

Optically, A.O.C. and Jeffries, who hail from neighboring districts, look like a powerhouse representation of the next generation of the Democratic party. But their paths to power have been very different. Jeffries has played the inside game, focusing on building relationships and passing legislation—by the time he was in his third term, he had passed three pieces of legislation that he wrote and introduced. He’s shown deference and respect to Pelosi, which likely helped to clear the field for him. 

Jeffries, for his part, has certainly never stood in Ocasio-Cortez’s way. He cleared the way for her to get onto the financial services committee in her second term despite her relative lack of qualifications. Cognizant of her power, and not eager to stoke the flames, Hakeem has not been vindictive, either, but some wonder if he’s done enough to leverage her value. “I think the entire leadership of the Democratic party is stupid for not using her power,” an A.O.C. ally told me. “The Republicans elevate their young and use their energy. There was a weird hostility and I think some of it is jealousy.” 

Even if she hasn’t been able to successfully pass her own bills, there’s no question that A.O.C. has been able to influence legislation by shifting the party further to the left with her microphone. At the same time, however, the Squad isn’t quite what it was. As I reported in October, young progressive stars like Maxwell Frost and Greg Casar were not interested in joining the group, preferring to demur the branding and be their own people on the Hill.  

But others caution that playing nice with colleagues is only the first step for A.O.C., whose office still suffers from high turnover and hasn’t yet mastered the artful logrolling that leads to power—creating bipartisan goodwill, raising money for others in the party and the D.C.C.C., and managing up to leadership, which she has generally refused. “There’s an outside perception that she’s an amazing transformative figure,” said an insider on Capitol Hill, where that’s far from reality. 

Post-Squad Goals

If A.O.C.’s career remains a source of unbridled speculation, her future inspires even more hypotheses. It’s hard to imagine Ocasio-Cortez spending the next 10 years of her life in Congress. Not yet 35, she’s still too young to run for president, but she will be ready for the next cycle, though a run at the constitution’s threshold age would be unprecedented. If she wants to run for Senate, she could primary Kirsten Gillibrand. I’m told by a source familiar with her thinking that she has made a decision about whether to run for the seat, but won’t announce it till next year. 

The truth is that, unlike so many of the soulless suits who populate this town, A.O.C. has never been a strategic planner when it comes to her career. She’s just started to adjust to her fame, and the threats and stress that come with it. She speaks openly about the impact on her mental health and the need to take time off, as she did in August, ahead of the 2022 midterms. The source said that she also realizes that if she’s going to have a long career, she can’t keep sprinting at this pace. “She knows she’s got time. She can spend 10 years building a career and be the youngest member running for Senate,” said the person familiar with her thinking. “She’s pretty happy right now at being in a position in which she can influence legislation.”

Then again there’s always the risk that the longer A.O.C. stays in Congress, the more likely she will get sucked into the establishment. “What’s going to happen when a newer member of Congress calls her a sellout for striking a deal?” asked the former member. “It might not be worth it.” Fortunately for her, only all of Washington is watching.