The midterms are over and the race for 2020 is in full swing.
There’s one name missing from the long lists of runners and riders on the Democratic side: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
There are a number of reasons for this, perhaps the most obvious being that Ocasio-Cortez is 29 years old. That means the new member of the House from New York’s 14th Congressional District is constitutionally barred from running for the office of president until 2024. Article II, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution says:
No person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States.
But the U.S. Constitution, an impressive and inspiring document in many ways, is far from perfect. Think slavery. Or guns. Or the electoral college.
The age requirement for the presidency is another such oddity. There is no rhyme or reason to it. In order to be president, says the Constitution, you have to be 35; but to be a senator you only have to be 30, and to be a member of the House you can be as young as 25. The Supreme Court, meanwhile, has no age minimums or maximums.
“At the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, there was little public debate about the age requirements and no discussion about the age requirement for the presidency,” noted the National Constitution Center’s Scott Bomboy in 2016.
Bomboy, though, cites Founding Father George Mason defending the requirement of an age minimum of 25 for the House because, he said, “his political opinions at the age of 21 were too crude and erroneous to merit an influence on public measures.” And Bomboy quotes Constitutional Congress member Tench Coxe later defending the 35-year-old age minimum on the grounds that the president “cannot be an idiot.” In a similar vein, early Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story argued that the “character and talent” of a middle-aged person are “fully developed,” and such persons are more likely to have experienced “public service” and to have served “in the public councils.”
Fast forward to 2018: Do any of these arguments still hold water in an age of Donald Trump? Is the current president, elected in November 2016, at age 70, not an “idiot”? Did his seven decades on the planet give him any experience whatsoever with “public office” or “public councils”? Are we expected to believe his opinions now are any less “crude or erroneous” than Mason’s were at 21?
The presidential age requirement of 35 is ridiculous and arbitrary. “Ironically, 12 of the delegates at the Constitution Convention were under the age of 35, including Alexander Hamilton,” observed Bomboy, while Thomas Jefferson was “33 years of age when he drafted the Declaration of Independence in 1776.”
But back to Ocasio-Cortez. Am I wrong to suggest that, pesky constitutional obstacles aside, she might make a strong contender for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination? Is it a completely crazy idea?
Perhaps it is. She has yet to prove herself as a legislator, let alone as a leader. She has shown astonishing potential, yes, but does not yet have a demonstrable track record of delivery or success. She may even make some glaring errors of judgement in Congress during the coming months and years.
But is it that crazy? The undeniable fact is that Ocasio-Cortez has been the rock star of the political left since she pulled off her shock defeat of 10-term incumbent Joseph Crowley in the Democratic primary in June. Her name recognition has since gone through the roof. This past week, she took the nation’s capital by storm, joining a protest on climate change inside the office of (soon-to-be-speaker?) Nancy Pelosi, rallying support for a “Green New Deal” select committee, and pledging support for primary challenges against incumbent Democrats. The New York Times referred to her “noisy Washington debut” and her “uncanny knack for grabbing the spotlight.”
She has also put the fear of God into conservative media. They have obsessed over her clothes, her housing, her policy positions, and the occasional gaffe. And the result? “Conservative obsession with attacking Ocasio-Cortez is keeping her in the news 24/7 and only making her stronger,” my colleague Murtaza Hussain observed on Twitter, only half in jest. “They’re going to make the [same] mistake as the libs did with Trump and end up making her president.”
Remember: Politicians, and the pundits who cover politicians, want to pretend there is some sort of scientific method or formula for dispassionately determining which candidates are best-placed to run for the White House every four years. But there is no science and no formula. Sometimes it’s just sheer luck: being in the right place at the right time. For example, Barack Obama might not have made it to the White House in 2008 had he not been plucked from semi-obscurity by John Kerry four years earlier to give the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention — where he then delivered a barnstormer of a speech.
On November 3, 2004, the morning after his election to the U.S. Senate, as his biographer David Remnick recalls in “The Bridge,” Obama “woke to answer questions about his prospects for running for President of the United States.” But ask yourself this: At that particular moment in time, what were the 43-year-old’s qualifications for the highest office in the land? Seven years as a member of the Illinois state Senate? A single speech?
Experience is important — but it does seem to be selectively deployed as a critique of certain candidates over others. Plenty of governors and mayors planning on throwing their hats in the 2020 ring have far more legislative or executive experience than Ocasio-Cortez, but have little or no experience with foreign policy or national security. Experience also matters much less than it once did. Whisper it quietly, but the current occupant of the White House ran for, and won, the presidency despite having zero experience with elected office, public service, or international affairs. The 45th president of the United States is a former reality TV star and property developer who struggled to tell the difference between the the Kurds and the Quds force. Even today, White House staff continue to treat Trump like the petulant man-child that he is.
So why not an Ocasio-Cortez presidential bid? In 2024 maybe, given that 2020 is (constitutionally) off the table? We know she wants the job. “Her aspiration is to be the president,” her mother, Blanca, told the New York Post.
But she’d still be so young! Conservative Sebastian Kurz was elected chancellor of Austria in 2017, at age 31. Liberal Jacinda Ardern was elected prime minister of New Zealand in 2017, at age 37. Both countries were included in a recent list of the “17 best-governed countries in the world.” The United States didn’t make the list.
But she’s a socialist! Bernie Sanders is a socialist, and he won 23 contests and 13 million votes during the 2016 Democratic presidential primaries. On the eve of the presidential election, a private poll suggested that Sanders would have beaten Trump by a margin of 12 percentage points.
But she’ll get attacked! Have you seen how she handles her conservative critics online? She has dunked on Ben Shapiro, fact-checked John Cardillo, shamed Ron DeSantis, and mocked Sean Hannity in a series of viral tweets. She has “the best comebacks on Twitter,” as one headline put it. The advantage that Ocasio-Cortez has over her fellow under-fire Democrats is that she looks and sounds like a very normal person and comes across as both relatable and genuine. She is as comfortable discussing mac-and-cheese as she is discussing “Medicare for All.”
I have been a journalist for nearly 20 years and a political commentator for nearly 10. I have covered national politics on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. I can safely say that, with the exception perhaps of Barack Obama, I have never before seen a politician come out of nowhere to energize, enthuse, and inspire millions of people in such a phenomenally short space of time in the way that Ocasio-Cortez has over the past few months. And unlike Obama, Ocasio-Cortez has done so while challenging conventional wisdoms and going on the offensive against a lazy neoliberal consensus. She hasn’t pulled any punches.
Imagine if she could run against Trump in 2020. Just imagine the contrast: the young, working-class woman of color, eloquent and dynamic, self-made and self-confident; versus the elderly white property mogul, born with a silver shovel in his mouth, consumed by petty grievances, and unable to string together coherent sentences, let alone policies.
Above all else, imagine the media coverage. “I’m going to suck all the oxygen out of the room,” Trump told a group of political consultants back in 2013. “I know how to work the media in a way that they will never take the lights off of me.”
That’s exactly what he did against the wonkish and lackluster Hillary Clinton in 2016. And he might do it again in 2020, against a Joe Biden or an Amy Klobuchar. Ocasio-Cortez, however, has proved that she could be a match for Trump in the oxygen-sucking department.
In a recent and fascinating thread on Twitter, Clinton’s former press secretary Brian Fallon summed up the myriad challenges for Trump’s 2020 Democratic opponent while offering some unexpected advice for his party:
This is why I tend to think that the theory that "all Democrats need to do is nominate a bland, inoffensive guy and let Trump beat himself" is wrong. An uninteresting character is most susceptible to being sucked into the vortex because they cannot command attention on their own
— Brian Fallon (@brianefallon) November 14, 2018
A nominee best situated to be able to ignore Trump is one who commands a media ecosystem apart from Trump. Whose life story is inherently fascinating enough to draw endless human-interest stories. Whose social media videos in the car or carving flank steak are deemed interesting
— Brian Fallon (@brianefallon) November 14, 2018
This type of person can talk about economic inequality or universal health care and have it actually break through because the messenger is authentic and intriguing enough from a storytelling standpoint to exert their own gravitational pull on the media cycle – away from Trump.
— Brian Fallon (@brianefallon) November 14, 2018
Guess which Democrat matches that description better than any other?
Alexandria. Ocasio. Cortez.
Damn you, Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution.