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Youth, anger, impeachment and the 1970s

Strengths of freshman Democrats lie more in dramatizing ignored issues than fleshing out policy details

If Bernie Sanders could get through the entire 2016 primary season without coherently explaining how he would pay for “Medicare for all,” why is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez expected to be an ace number cruncher, Shapiro writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
If Bernie Sanders could get through the entire 2016 primary season without coherently explaining how he would pay for “Medicare for all,” why is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez expected to be an ace number cruncher, Shapiro writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

OPINION — In the 1970s, as a 25-year-old history graduate student at the University of Michigan, I ran for Congress without family money or even owning a car. In my passion (the Vietnam War was raging) and in my belief that college students deserved representation in Washington, I had much in common with the history-making Democratic Class of 2018.

Unlike, say, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, I lost the Democratic primary to the floor leader of the Michigan state House, although I did carry anti-war Ann Arbor by a 5-to-1 margin. (Many more details on request). But I came close enough to nurture a few fantasies about my arrival in Washington as the nation’s youngest congressman.

Some of my notions were cockamamie like my campaign pledge to filibuster war appropriations in Congress. I was sophisticated enough to know that a “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” filibuster was only possible in the Senate, but I naively believed there were secret parliamentary delaying maneuvers that existing anti-war legislators were too timid to deploy.

In that sense, I guess I expected my anti-war fervor to be taken seriously but not literally.

While my quixotic bid for Congress got a smattering of national attention, I boasted neither the charisma nor the dance moves to become a symbolic face of the Democratic Party.

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More than four decades later, I cannot help marveling over the poise with which Ocasio-Cortez, despite a few obvious missteps, has handled her sudden political celebrity. But I also join my colleague Patricia Murphy in being more than a tad perplexed by the gravity with which her every political pronouncement is treated by both the media and the Republicans.

Most members of Congress, during their first month in office, are not regarded as experts on what the proper marginal tax rate should be for the superwealthy or the extent of waste in the Pentagon. If Bernie Sanders could get through the entire 2016 primary season without coherently explaining how he would pay for “Medicare for all,” why is Ocasio-Cortez, his former campaign staffer, expected to be an ace number cruncher with an accountant’s green eyeshade?

If the media wants a freshman legislator to speak about the details of aspirational health care plans, there would be no better choice than Florida’s 77-year-old Donna Shalala, who served in Bill Clinton’s Cabinet as the secretary of Health and Human Services.

The point is not to employ a patronizing tut-tut-tut at the foibles of some of the more exuberant new younger Democrats, who bring to Capitol Hill a refreshing array of racial, ethnic and personal identities. But let’s be realistic: The current strengths of these Democratic freshmen lie far more in dramatizing neglected issues rather than in fleshing out the policy details.

A prime example is a Green New Deal, a vague and voguish concept challenging the safe orthodox Democratic view that incremental steps will be enough to handle global warming. In truth, while any serious environmental legislation will require both a Democratic president and a robust national consensus, it is appropriate to begin an ambitious policy conversation now.

A little different is Michigan’s Rashida Talib’s recent use of a compound-word expletive to describe a president who should be impeached. While some in Washington got the vapors over her incestuous imagery, others thought that she had crossed some dangerous red line by publicly discussing impeachment at all.

Watch: Rashida Tlaib can’t stand bullies and is keenly aware her district is third-poorest in nation

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Having watched the TV footage of Chicago Mayor Richard Daley screaming easy-to-lip-read epithets on the floor of the 1968 Democratic Convention, I somehow do not regard coarse language as the invention of current Democratic insurgents. Especially with a paragon of good taste and rhetorical restraint currently residing in the White House.

I understand the strategic reasons why senior House Democrats like Nancy Pelosi and Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler pretend that the only words in the English language that begin with the letters “imp” are “impeccable” and “impressive.”

That restraint is prudent — at least, in advance of the conclusion of Robert Mueller’s investigation. But it is ludicrous to expect all 235 members of the House Democratic majority to individually adhere to this code of silence.

While an open-and-shut case of collusion between Trump and Russia still remains to be proved, the current public evidence is far more suggestive than I would have guessed six months ago.

After a bizarre failure by Paul Manafort’s lawyer to properly mask information in a court filing, we recently learned that Trump’s former campaign manager shared 2016 polling data with a Russian with close ties to Vladimir Putin’s intelligence agencies.

Maybe it’s not a smoking gun, but it is safe to say that the pistol has gotten a lot warmer in recent days.

If Trump follows through on his blustery threat to use federal emergency powers to fund his wending wall of American-made steel, he will have destroyed another norm of our democratic society.

Never before in American history have emergency powers been used for trumped up political reasons. There have been terrible excesses (FDR’s internment of Americans of Japanese ancestry) and presidential missteps (Harry Truman’s seizure of the steel mills), but they occurred during wartime.

Not only are we not at war (knock wood), but also the only crisis at the border is a humanitarian one brought on by the Trump administration’s own hard-edged policies.

The 1970s, as I reflected as a long-ago congressional candidate, were an angry decade defined by war, impeachment, inflation and oil boycotts. The theatrical version of the 1976 movie, “Network,” now playing to sold-out houses on Broadway serves as a reminder of another era when Americans were “mad as hell … and not going to take it any more.”

America, of course, recovered in the last two decades of the twentieth century. Here’s hoping that we’re as fortunate in the years ahead.

Walter Shapiro, a Roll Call columnist since 2015, has covered the last 10 presidential campaigns. He is also a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.

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