Young progressives, beware of hitching your wagon to rising political stars

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U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) speaks at a news conference in front of the U.S. Capitol to unveil the Green New Deal. Ocasio-Cortez is one of the rising progressive stars that Democrats sometimes latch onto too quickly. | Alex Wong/Getty Images

A friend in a very blue part of the country recently sent me an email describing his experience with much younger progressives singing the praises of rising political stars Beto O’Rourke and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

His very basic question — “What have they done?” — is met with stony silence and barely restrained frustration. The message in their silence is implicit: You’re too old to understand that matching words with deeds doesn’t matter, accomplishments don’t matter. What matters is who they are — young, hip, fresh, unencumbered – and how they talk.

Reminds me of a dinner party my wife and I attended in 2008 after Barack Obama announced his presidential candidacy. The dinner guests were thrilled. I listened to them and then asked if anyone had actually met Obama or dealt with him. None had.

I had known Obama, though, for many years and had helped conduct a training course that he attended before he began a short, uninspired few years in organizing. I said that he was smart, reflective, and skilled at speaking, just as he appeared to be. But I had concerns because he was a product of the Cook County Democratic machine. He had served in the Illinois Senate as a loyal member of that machine, won his U.S. Senate seat with the same support, and had never led any institution of any scale or importance.


I described to my dinner companions how several of my colleagues from Chicago met with then-Sen. Obama in Washington about local issues and asked if he would consider returning and running for mayor. He said he’d made a solemn pledge to serve out his term, so he couldn’t. A few months later, he announced his presidential run.

It took me about five minutes to say this. The longer I spoke, the colder it got in that house. How dare anyone talk this way about an admittedly young, inspiring and fresh public figure? We ate quickly and left early.

One year into Obama’s first term, I wrote a piece for the Boston Review stating that he should jettison the worst of the Chicago political culture and assemble a new and more imaginative team to govern. Instead, he continued to operate within that culture — tight, narrow, cautious, insular — and to surround himself with its products and agents, like Rahm Emanuel, Valerie Jarrett, Bill Daley, and David Axelrod. They took one risk — passing the Affordable Care Act — and then punted on issues that could have conveyed to Midwestern voters that Democrats stand with them.

They did nothing about falling wages, caved in to the banks on the foreclosure issue, shied away from immigration reform, and danced around the devastating opioid crisis. They largely squandered two years of congressional dominance and watched as their party was crushed in the 2010 midterms.

The left’s tendency to latch on to the next charismatic persona, even if he or she has little or no track record of accomplishment, is again in full bloom. My wife describes this as the “Some day my prince (or princess) will come” syndrome.

This tendency helped set the stage for Donald Trump and could prepare the ground for another Trump-like character.

When I’m asked who I prefer for president, I always say “Lincoln” and then explain that I want someone like Lincoln, who has proven that he or she can succeed in something other than politics and has demonstrated effective action in politics. I want someone who can think and write sentiments like this about government’s objective: “To elevate the condition of man; To lift artificial weights from all shoulders; To clear the paths of laudable pursuits for all; To afford all, an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life.”

When pressed, I offer a second answer, “Merkel.” The former East German physicist has emerged as the premier leader of our time. Like Lincoln, Angela Merkel fashioned a career in another field before entering politics. Like him, she lacked charisma and could never be described as young, hip, fresh, or unencumbered. Like Lincoln, she had the courage to face an existential challenge in her presidency: the flood of migrants at Germany’s borders. She responded by affording them “an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life.”

We don’t need another charismatic Democrat or plutocratic Republican or politically naïve corporate titan to run for president. We need depth and seriousness, accomplishment and maturity. These are qualities that will appeal to the largest segment of American voters — the 39 percent who called themselves independents, in the latest Gallup poll, and will decide the next election.

Michael Gecan is co-director of the Industrial Areas Foundation.

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