Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer like to bag on their party’s high-profile freshman congresswomen—a group that includes, among others, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota. “By the way, there are 62 freshman Democrats. You hear me? Sixty-two. Not three,” said Hoyer at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference in D.C. during one of the flare-ups regarding Omar’s use of allegedly anti-Semitic rhetoric. And here’s Pelosi on 60 Minutes in April:
LESLEY STAHL: You have these wings—AOC, and her group on one side—
PELOSI: That’s like five people.
Pelosi and Hoyer are tired, basically, of the media covering a few ostentatiously progressive freshmen from heavily Democratic areas in a way that, they say, marginalizes members of the caucus who won in (and represent) swing districts.
Now, we can—and will—argue all day about whether Pelosi and Hoyer’s idea of what “mainstream” swing voters want is accurate. But one thing that was made evident by Ocasio-Cortez, Pressley, and Tlaib’s Monday visit to a now-infamous Border Patrol facility in Clint, Texas, is that part of the reason the media covers the congressional freshwomen so much is that they are good at addressing subjects of national interest in dramatic and compelling ways, like politicians are supposed to.
The first reports of the terrible conditions at the facility became national news in late June; since then, Democratic leaders have handled the issue like they usually do, by talking about it in Capitol Hill press conferences and negotiating a related legislative compromise with Republicans. The newbies—traveling, I should note, with a sizable delegation that also included more experienced members like Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas (presidential candidate Julián’s brother) and Rep. Judy Chu of California—took a different approach. The group toured facilities in Clint and nearby El Paso, talked to the individuals inside, and relayed their claims on camera for reporters and on social media. Here’s Pressley speaking afterward as pro-Trump counterprotestors try to shout her down :
Ocasio-Cortez and others, meanwhile, conveyed the account of a woman in custody who said she’d been told to drink out of her cell’s toilet because its faucet didn’t work—an allegation that has been made before by other individuals who’d been held by Border Patrol and one that seems likely to be remembered as a disturbing, defining image of the current crisis.
The ultimate goal of the Democrats’ trip is to highlight inhumane conditions in a way that increases pressure on the Republicans who hold power in the Senate and White House to address them. Similar efforts by legislators like Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley were effective at drawing attention to the Trump administration’s initial implementation of the “zero tolerance” family separation policy, which was then partially rolled back. Early returns this time are good: Videos from the tours that Ocasio-Cortez shared on her Twitter feed have been viewed more than 2 million times and put the issue of the border facilities back on the top of news sites.
It’s true that well-known new members of Congress like Ocasio-Cortez hold some positions that are to the left of the average Democratic voter. But her belief that undocumented immigrants shouldn’t be mistreated and abused isn’t one of them, and the party’s leadership should take this week’s events as a reminder that youthful social media celebrity can be a useful part of achieving the only goal they really care about: winning.