Thursday, July 30, 2020

GOP Gives AOC Her Star Turn

In times of polarization like now, offering anything other than an all-or-nothing opinion on an event or person becomes fraught with difficulty. Nuance be damned, as well as any chance of accepting an inconvenient truth, seeing a contrary viewpoint as a difference of opinion rather than a friendship-breaker, finding a compromise, or collaborating on other issues that might benefit the country.

So it is with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Popular opinion on the Congresswoman from New York’s 14th District has divided neatly into two camps: she’s either a wonderful bit of fresh air hitting the stale halls of Capitol Hill or an ill wind that will blow down the free-enterprise system in the United States.

Don’t count me in either faction. I see her as an outlier among Congressional Democrats, with far less impact than one might think even on mainstream liberal leaders like Nancy Pelosi. She owes her celebrity less to her own talents than to hailing from New York, the de facto media capital of the nation; to upsetting Joe Crowley, the fourth-ranking Democrat in the House, whom she “primaried” because he paid insufficient attention to his district (covering parts of The Bronx and Queens) and its changing demographics; and to her Instagram-ready appearance.

Moreover, I worry about her eagerness to speak before she masters the workings of Congress or of Washington in general; her advocacy of positions with potential for increasing deficits to a dangerous degree; or her unwillingness to compromise, which will do few favors for Joe Biden as he appeals to independents or even to Trump voters who want a credible alternative to the President’s bullying, incompetent and chaotic governing style.

But give “AOC” this: she has star quality. You cannot help wondering what she will say or do next in the daily political melodrama that consumes Americans’ attention.

But—God help them—Congressional Republicans have just served notice that she has not only consumed their attention but also their brains. Because that’s the only way you can understand how they could serve up to this performer the only thing she lacked to date: in Congressman Ted Yoho, the most hissable villain since Basil Rathbone crossed swords with Errol Flynn in Captain Blood and The Adventures of Robin Hood.

AOC and Yoho had a fractious encounter a week ago, but the fallout lasted beyond the nine-minute verbal thrashing she subsequently administered to him in a speech before the House of Representatives. The repercussions extended into this past weekend, when Yoho was forced to resign from the board of directors of Bread for the World, a nonpartisan Christian organization that seeks to end hunger.

Could that move signal that even a natural constituency like this for Yoho—and Donald Trump—will no longer accept at least some behavior from someone with voting positions they favor?

In the meantime, let’s count all the ways—if that’s even possible—that Yoho and his enablers put themselves in the wrong in dealing with AOC:

*Yoho lengthened the controversy because he couldn’t admit he was at fault. Yoho’s statement to the House was filled with so many self-justifications (e.g., “I cannot apologize for my passion, or for loving my God, my family and my country”) that in no way, shape or form could it be termed an “apology.” Even calling this statement a “non-apology apology” does not remotely convey its lameness. For an explanation of errant conduct comparably fatuous, you have to go back 30 years, when Calif. Congressman Robert Dornan justified a bounced check in the House banking scandal by saying he meant to cover the cost of his backyard shrine to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Hilariously, Yoho referred to his wife in his address to the House. Countless husbands around the country have learned the two words that are the minimal first step toward smoothing over unacceptable words and behavior to their wives: “I’m sorry.” Why did Yoho find it so hard to muster them now, without negating qualifiers, to a colleague?

*Yoho showed not the slightest interest in discussing issues. Was Yoho interested in (his words) a “policy discussion”? That implies that he wanted to hear why AOC saw a connection between poverty and crime, and might offer counter-arguments why her claim didn’t hold water. The fact that their talk was (again, his language) “brief” suggests that nothing of the sort took place. What he really intended was something entirely different. AOC characterized his words as “rude.” Judging from the shortness of the “conversation,” Yoho’s refusal to man up when they discussed the incident in his office later, and his ridiculous House statement, I believe AOC is being imprecise, perhaps even charitable. “Unhinged harangue” comes closer to the tenor of Yoho’s remarks.

*Yoho interfered with AOC on her way to legislative business. As he was coming down the steps of the Capitol, she was ascending them on the way to a vote. This accentuated his height advantage over her. Only a couple of minutes before, he was photographed inside, without a mask, in close conversation with a colleague, and does not appear to have donned a mask as he stepped outside. All of this would have increased AOC’s physical discomfort with him.

*Yoho used a wingman in his exchange with AOC. That man was the colleague he had just spoken to inside, Rep. Roger Williams (R-Tex). Like any bully, Yoho wanted an audience to cheer him on, not to mention a collaborator in his misbehavior and folly.

*Williams, despite strenuous efforts, not only could not protect Yoho from the consequences of misconduct, but even ended up complicit in it. Perhaps taking a page from GOP colleagues who for the last three years have unconvincingly claimed they had not read one of the President’s more outrageous tweets, Williams said last week, “As I was walking down the stairs, I was thinking about some issues I've got in my district that need to get done. I don't know what their [Yoho and AOC’’s] topic was." So, let’s get this straight: Williams was walking down the steps with a colleague he’d been talking to inside only a minute or two before, and then he suddenly went deaf and/or absent-minded? Does this sound remotely true? Or does AOC sound closer to the truth when she says that Williams chimed in by yelling about “throwing urine”?

*What is an “abrupt manner” of a conversation, and who has ever apologized for it? What an interesting choice of words from Yoho! I haven’t heard anything so intentionally confusing since a theater owner yelled to me and a long line of moviegoers not that it was hot inside because of a broken air conditioner but that it was “close.” Yoho’s initial explanation of the encounter’s origins to a friendly Fox reporter begs for annotation: "I asked her, I said, 'Hey, do you have a minute?' She goes, 'Yes.' And we've never had a conversation before, and I wanted to ask her about this policy that she was telling people it was OK to shoplift if you're hungry. And it went backwards from there." If he can mischaracterize her view as it being “OK to shoplift if you’re hungry,” is it really that hard to wonder why “it went backwards from there”?

*Yoho and Williams turned this encounter into a Monty Python skit. Surely you remember the one: “The Argument Sketch,” in which a customer looking for an “argument” is misdirected to an office featuring “abuse.” Yoho and Williams subjected AOC to abuse, plain and simple.

*The incident occurred in front of a witness—a guy with a pen, ready to reveal it to the public. In short, a reporter. Once Yoho and Williams lost their heads, they could not rely on a “he said, she said” account of the affair. The reporter from the newspaper The Hill (not, let us stipulate, a publication that veers left) heard Yoho refer to AOC as a “f-----g b---h.” Instantly, the Florida Congressman’s credibility—not to mention his emotional equilibrium—was called into question. It didn't help when, on the floor of the House, he said the "offensive name-calling words attributed to me by the press were never spoken to my colleague." No, the two words were spoken when he was walking away. In other words, he denied nothing. 

*Yoho seems never to have learned that most people do not associate cursing with a “conversation.” Before he stood before the House to explain his misbehavior, Yoho’s office disputed the report that he walked away from the encounter referring to her as a “b---h.” No, it claimed, what he really said was what, in the 1960s, was referred to in newspapers as “a barnyard epithet.” Most people would not regard this as a significant improvement. But then again, perhaps a barnyard is where Yoho belongs in the first place. After all, one can only hope that he treated animals entrusted to his care in his pre-political days as a veterinarian better than he did a human colleague in Congress.

*Yoho's language has been, in other contexts, construed as sexual harassment. In a legal post that (mercifully) takes no account of the larger political background, Darrell Van Deusen, writing on the Web site for Kollman Law, cites a recent decision by National Labor Relations Board Chair John Ring that assails "obscene, racist, and sexually harassing speech not tolerated in almost any workplace today.” For years, Republicans have claimed that government should be "run like a business." But in any modern office environment, Yoho's hostile language would be enough to trigger a sweaty sitdown with a human resources head about the danger this posed to the corporation's liability and the employee's future employment.
*Yoho brought to the surface the problem so many conservative Republicans have with women. So, let’s see: he initiates what he calls “a brief policy discussion” with someone he’s never spoken to in her year and a half on Capitol Hill, on a subject (the relationship between poverty and crime) that other male Democrats have addressed in a similar manner. Why did he not ask them about this? Could it be that, as a woman, she raised his hackles more? Or could it be that, like the President they slavishly imitate, he watches Fox News so avidly that he's lucky he even knows any Democratic lawmaker besides the leadership and the network’s junior female bete noire, AOC?

*AOC exposed Yoho and Williams as juveniles rather than mature adults responsible for helping to decide America’s future. Since AOC first ran for office, the GOP has been fond of ridiculing her past as a bartender, but last week she showed she could use it as a cudgel against them. The language used by Yoho and Williams was “not new,” AOC remarked; indeed, she had encountered this previously as a waitress, as well as on the subways and streets of New York. The two men, she observed, were part of an entire “culture of lack of impunity” that accepts violence and violent language towards women. Many watching her speech may have felt that, in fact, Yoho and Williams were worse than the drunken louts that mouthed off to her previously. At least nobody ever expected such barroom boobs to be taken seriously.

*The House GOP did what it has been doing best since Jan. 20, 2017—defend the indefensible. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy could wangle no more than a mealy-mouthed justification of the incident from Yoho. In the process, he put his entire party behind a politician whose moral capital was already minimal at best. (Yoho has voted against making lynching a federal hate crime.) The only problem is that Yoho can’t inspire the same level of fear as Donald Trump, so McCarthy gained little by his weary plea that Yoho “should be forgiven” and that the House cease dealing with this. Moreover, by countenancing rank incivility in his own ranks now, McCarthy will have no grounds for complaint later if House Democrats engage in similar disrespectful behavior.

The GOP had no sense of its stage or even its audience, so it lost control of the narrative. Unlike years past, it cannot blame this PR disaster on the news media—it’s the social media that made AOC a star with viral viewings of the collective Republican ignominy and her self-possessed, dignified response.

The party, unable to control a fringe candidate who used social media to win its nomination as President, now finds itself ill-equipped to deal with a younger, more appealing politician who has mercilessly revealed them as sexist, demeaning dinosaurs. If they regard a “b---h” as a difficult, demanding, unreasonable female, then what is the proper word for an equivalent male?

Guess what? I’ve got it: TRUMP. But in a pinch, YOHO will do.

Seizing Yoho’s hypocritical invocation of his wife and daughter, AOC summed up how badly he and GOP colleagues who refused to repudiate him had missed the moral meaning of this short but all-too-telling incident:

“Having a daughter does not make a man decent. Having a wife does not make a decent man. Treating people with dignity and respect makes a decent man. And when a decent man messes up, as we all are bound to do, he tries his best and does apologize. I am someone’s daughter, too.”

There hasn’t been such a thorough decapitation since the pilot episode of Game of Thrones. But how could Yoho, Williams and the rest of Washington’s GOP expect anything different when they abandoned even the slightest attempt at a coherent, issues-based conservative philosophy for Trump’s blustering, misogynistic cult of personality?

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